The Jack Eichel-Buffalo Sabres marriage has been on the rocks for a while. But the once blissful union (maybe draft day 2015?) is now irreparable, and divorce court is surely on the horizon.
On Thursday morning, the Sabres announced that their once prized possession has been stripped of his captaincy. The move comes alongside a failed physical, which was expected by the center who has not suited up since March with a herniated disk in his neck.
“Unfortunately, yesterday, Jack did not pass his physical,” Sabres GM Kevyn Adams said Thursday. “To this point, Jack is not willing to move forward with the fusion surgery that our doctors are suggesting. So we’re going to continue to work towards solutions.”
The latest news comes after Eichel, once again, expressed frustrations with the organization. Previously it had been about the direction of the club as it patrolled the NHL’s basement for a number of seasons; recently it was about the injury.
“I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” he said via Zoom after the season when speaking to reporters. “I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times. Right now, for me, the most important thing is just trying to get healthy, figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”
Sporting News breaks down everything we know and what the future now holds for the Sabres and Eichel.
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What is Jack Eichel’s medical issue?
Eichel was diagnosed with a herniated disk after hitting his head on the boards against the Islanders on March 7. According to the Mayo Clinic, a herniation occurs when one of the rubbery cushions or (disk) in the spine ruptures or tears and the nucleus pushes out. The herniated disk can then impact the nerves nearby resulting in pain, numbness or weakness in an arm. Not great for a hockey player that is required to carry a stick around and shoot pucks.
What is the issue regarding his herniated disk?
Initially, rest and rehab was the desired course of treatment, and Eichel was shut down for the season on April 14. Over time it became clear that the herniation was not reacting as they wanted, and surgical options were discussed.
According to a statement by his then agents at the end of July (Eichel switched from Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli to Pat Brisson at the end of August), Eichel was comfortable with having artificial disk replacement surgery, which was recommended by an independent neurosurgeon and other spine specialists consulted. It also noted that they thought the Sabres were in agreement, “until that was no longer the case.”
The Sabres preferred treatment was anterior cervical discectomy which usually involves removing the impacted disk and fusion (ACDF) by placing a bone graft where the disc was. This was the surgical procedure done on former NFL QB Peyton Manning in 2011 — before he won a Super Bowl with the Broncos — and on former Mets captain David Wright. The surgery Eichel wanted, artificial disk replacement does not involve fusion and instead an artificial disk is placed between the to cervical vertebrae. While ACDF is more common and, according to spine-health.com, the “gold standard,” it notes that studies do show artificial disk replacement surgery provides more mobility. However, it hasn’t been done on an NHL player before.
“What I can tell you is we have absolute trust in our doctors. They are the medical experts,” said Adams on Thursday morning. “They’ve been consistent since Day 1 … they’ve never wavered from what they’ve suggested would be the next step. And if there was something else done, they would be uncomfortable with it.
Per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, teams have the final say on the treatment of injuries.
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What is the next step for Eichel and the Sabres?
For now, Eichel is heading to injured reserve and has told Adams he does not want to be a distraction “from what we are trying to build here, so he will continue his rehab, not necessarily in this facility, on a daily basis,” said Adams. Surgery is now the recommended course of action for the 24-year-old American which would keep him off the ice for a few months.
When he is ready to return, whether or not he is in the Sabres’ blue and gold is up for debate. Eichel, who was anointed captain back in 2018, has not loved his time in Western New York. He has been vocal regarding how the club is, and has been, functioning on the ice.
“Listen, I’m fed up with losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated,” he said back in 2020. “It’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months, it’s been a tough five years with where things have went.”
As a result, he has reportedly on the trade block for a while, but the injury and the uncertainty surrounding his ability to play in the future has surely hampered the move.
“Teams want clarity and over the course of the summer, there wasn’t great clarity. We have more clarity now,” noted Adams. “This is an elite franchise player in his prime, under contract, and we need to as an organization move forward, but we can’t compromise on certain things that we believe. We’re going to work at it. Every day we do. We have in the past and we will continue to.”
A number of teams have been highlighted as possible destinations for the 2015 No. 2 overall pick. The centerman has potted 355 points (139 goals, 216 assists) in 375 games for a team that has not competed for a playoff spot during his tenure in Western New York. Part of the Hart Trophy conversation (he finished eighth in 2019-20), the New York Rangers have long been considered a destination for Eichel, with the Canadiens, Ducks and Flames all rumored to have interest in the game-changer.
While it’s not clear if Eichel has indeed played his last game for the Sabres, the club is moving forward with rebuilding the franchise.
“In this job, you have a plan, and we need to draft well. We need to develop our players. We need to retain our own players. We need to build around people that want to be here,” said Adams. “It is so important when I look into guys’ eyes in the locker room, I know they want to be a Buffalo Sabre, they want to put that jersey on. When you have that as a plan, you stick to it.”