Let’s be clear: if the Buffalo Sabres had kicked off the 2021-22 NHL regular season the way they’ve spent much of the past few years – struggling, and on a considerable losing streak – we likely would have heard the name of disgruntled former Sabres captain Jack Eichel much more often than we’ve heard it so far.
There would be accusations the Eichel Saga was a distraction and a pox on the organization. Buffalo’s long-suffering fan base would be up in arms, demanding an end to the standoff with their former franchise cornerstone. Sabres GM Kevyn Adams would have been pressured into accepting an Eichel trade that would bring them pennies on the dollar in exchange for an all-star-capable talent.
But that’s in a parallel universe.
In this universe, the Sabres’ 5-2-1 start to the season has helped on a number of fronts, including the Atlantic Division standings (where they currently sit second) and in terms of their prospects for future success. Perhaps most importantly, it has given Adams some much-needed leverage in any Eichel deal. So long as Buffalo looks competitive, there is no justification for Adams buckling and accepting an Eichel trade that would include the Sabres retaining a portion of Eichel’s $10-million-per-season salary. If a team wants Eichel badly enough, they’ll step up and agree to Adams’ terms for a deal.
With this start to the year, the Sabres can sit back and wait out any potential Eichel trade partner until they’re satisfied with the return on his services. They can wait right up to the NHL’s trade deadline if need be. The bar has been set so low for Buffalo this year, they can ride out any small storm and still have their fans agree the best move for the franchise is to ship Eichel out as soon as possible – just not at the expense of the quality of the trade.
Too many times in trades over their more recent history, the Sabres have taken it on the chin, acquiring draft picks and prospects in exchange for quality NHL talent (e.g. Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen). And up until this season, there simply hasn’t been enough development of draft picks and prospects in Buffalo. They haven’t made the playoffs in any of the past 10 seasons, so you’d think there would be more young, skilled players on the roster, but there’s little question Sabres ownership is massively relieved to see some growth at the NHL level this year.
Sabres head coach Don Granato has delivered positive results in the win/loss columns this season, but Buffalo still has a long way to go before they’re regarded as a team of great impact. That said, if Adams can do well with an Eichel trade, Buffalo can jumpstart their current rebuild and expect to be on the rise in the next one or two years. That’s why any Eichel trade is so crucial for the Sabres; if Adams whiffs on it, the delay time between Buffalo going from Cup pretender to Cup contender grows longer.
And time really isn’t on their side anymore. They need to start looking good for lengthy stretches of the schedule and still be in (relative) contention for a playoff spot this year.
To be sure, a full-on turnaround is not going to come easy for them, but the Sabres can’t relapse into familiar struggles. Buffalo fans have had it with lip service, the illusion of progress, and the sting of reality. They want the Sabres to undeniably be on track for immediate improvement. And they’re absolutely entitled to that expectancy. Even in down cycles, NHL teams should not be this awful for this long. So, although few people believe Buffalo will be a playoff team next spring, their competitiveness out of the gate is about as welcome as news for them gets. Eichel soon will move on, but not too soon. Not before Adams has received a fair amount of talent in return.
Winning helps in so many areas, and certainly, winning more games than they were assumed capable of this season has helped the Sabres. Once Eichel is part of their history and not their present-day issues, other pieces of the puzzle should fall into place for Buffalo.
It’s just about toughing it out now, and the value of patience in the modern-day NHL. The longer they wait, the more the Sabres will have to show for Eichel.