Jack Eichel lost nearly an entire season of his NHL career due to a stalemate over how to treat a neck injury. The deposed and now former Buffalo Sabres captain has finally gained some clarity — and control — over his future.
It took eight months, but Eichel can finally start thinking about playing again.
The bitter, public feud between the Sabres’ franchise player and team over how to treat the injury finally reached a resolution Thursday when Buffalo traded the 25-year-old Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Eichel received his long-standing wish to leave Buffalo, where he’s only known losing, and join a Golden Knights franchise that’s known mostly success during its four seasons of existence.
More importantly, Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon made clear he will allow Eichel to have his preferred choice of surgery by having his herniated disk artificially replaced, which is something the Sabres denied because the procedure had never been performed on an NHL player.
“The decision of the surgery is one that we respectfully defer to Jack and his representatives,” McCrimmon said. “Why wouldn’t his people want what’s best for him?”
Where the Sabres balked by insisting Eichel have fusion surgery, McCrimmon accepted the reality in making what could be called a Vegas gamble in acquiring a player who will be sidelined for another three to five months. In doing so, he addressed the franchise’s most pressing long-term need, a top-line center, by trading forward Alex Tuch, rookie center Peyton Krebs and two draft picks to Buffalo.
“The price was high for him obviously in terms of what we have sent to Buffalo, but at the same time for a player of this ilk, it should be high,” McCrimmon said. “For me, when you look at what an NHL contending team should look like, he’s really an important piece of that.”
In Buffalo, GM Kevyn Adams can finally proceed with additional pieces to his youth movement, and an emphasis on players proud to wear the Sabres jersey. Tuch, for one, was a Sabres fan growing up in Syracuse, New York.
Though the dispute between the Sabres and Eichel reached a breaking point over surgery, the two sides appeared headed for divorce long before he was hurt in March.
“He shared with me that he was ready to …” Adams said, without finishing the sentence. He then added: “It was a frustration for him, and it all built over time, and that’s where he got to.”
Adams declined to say whether Eichel requested a trade.
Eichel’s frustrations playing for a team which had not made the playoffs, is on its fourth coach and third GM since his arrival in 2015, had become increasingly apparent. In May 2020, a year before questioning his future in Buffalo, he said he was fed up with losing.
The key to Adams became holding out for the right package in return.
“What I felt strongly about was we were not going to be backed into a corner or feel that we were going to make a deal that we did not feel right for us regardless of any external pressure, or anything being said,” Adams said.
Eichel was the Sabres’ highest-paid player and is in the fourth season of an eight-year, $80 million contract. He topped 20 goals in each of his first five seasons and enjoyed a breakout year in 2019-20, when he had a career-best 36 goals in 68 games before the season was abruptly halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, he had 139 goals and 216 assists in 375 career games with Buffalo.
Buffalo acquired a top-10 protected first-round pick in the 2022 draft and a 2023 second-round selection and also sent Vegas a 2023 third-round pick.
Eichel joins a Golden Knights team off to a 4-5 start and already depleted by injuries, with five players on injured reserve, not including William Karlsson, who is out indefinitely with a broken foot.
The Golden Knights currently have the room under their salary cap for Eichel because players on long-term injured reserve don’t count against their active payroll. They will, however, have to get creative once their roster gets healthier, unless Eichel is unable to return until the playoffs, when the salary cap no longer counts.
Vegas’ weakness at center to drive the offense was apparent last season when the Golden Knights scored just 13 goals in losing a six-game series to Montreal in the semifinals.
The opportunity to add a player of Eichel’s caliber was too good to pass up for McCrimmon.
“We felt that we could not be doing our organization justice to fail to pursue it,” he said.
The Sabres, at 5-3-1, are off to a better start than expected under first-year coach Don Granato and despite a piecemeal roster of youngsters and journeymen.
Tuch is sidelined until January after having shoulder surgery this offseason. The dependable, hard-hitting winger from Syracuse has 61 goals and 78 assists for 139 points in 249 career games. Krebs is a 2019 first-round pick who has one assist in 13 career NHL games, was assigned to the minors to allow him time to develop.
“Mixed emotions for me,” Sabres assistant captain Kyle Okposo said, noting the bond he had built with Eichel. “But, I think that it was time and there wasn’t going to be an amicable ending to this thing, it was always going to end towards the trade. So, happy for him from a personal level and happy that the organization is moving forward.”
The Sabres completed another trade by acquiring defenseman Johnny Boychuk from the New York Islanders for future considerations. Boychuk ended his career a year ago because of an eye injury but is still owed the final year of his salary and represents a $6 million salary cap hit.
Buffalo essentially acquired the salary to boost their payroll above the NHL’s minimum.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.