Jack Eichel was supposed to be the savior of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. When Buffalo drafted him in 2015 after years of making their fans “look like idiots”, Sabres fans (yes, we actually exist) celebrated with tremendous optimism. The future looked brighter than it ever had. Buffalo sports fans were finally justified in their dreams of witnessing the city’s first major hockey championship, as they had a truly generational talent as the face of their franchise in Eichel, who could foreseeably lead their team to the promised land of the Stanley Cup.
However, no part of Eichel’s marriage with the Sabres was successful, and it ended in an ugly divorce complete with a major injury dispute between player and team. After six years of playoff-less hockey and not a single winning season to show for it, the Sabres traded Eichel on Nov. 4 to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, ushering in yet another rebuild for a team and fanbase desperate for success. Fans are now once again left in what feels like a never-ending state of mediocrity, perpetually waiting for the day when the young, highly touted prospects finally bloom into legitimate pieces to create a contending team.
That fateful day seems more like a fantasy than a possible reality for a Sabres organization that has been so consistently dreadful in the past decade. This past spring marks the 10-year anniversary of the last time the Sabres made the playoffs, giving the Sabres the highly coveted award for longest playoff drought in the NHL. Buffalo fans are no stranger to such droughts, as the Bills held the record for the longest playoff drought in all of American professional sports before they finally snuck into the playoffs in 2017. They were the last team in the four main professional leagues to qualify for the postseason in the 21st century.
Since that magical 2010-11 Sabres season, in which they fell in seven games to the Flyers during the first round of the playoffs, the Sabres have finished with a winning record only once, and it came in the 2011-12 season directly following their brief stint in the playoffs. In the 10-year span since their last postseason appearance, the Sabres have cycled through a carousel of seven head coaches and four general managers, evidence of a severe lack of continuity. They have selected in the top 10 of the NHL entry draft every year since 2014, including two first-overall picks in 2018 and 2020 and two second-overall picks in back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015. Out of these nine total draft picks, only five remain with the organization, all of whom were selected in the past five drafts. Two of these players have yet to actually play for the Sabres NHL roster.
Though the Sabres have been no stranger to high draft selections, the hype surrounding the 2015 draft class was different. The undisputed top two picks were Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, two generational talents who were advertised as the type of players who could single-handedly turn around a franchise. Comparisons were made to the 2004-05 draft, when Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were the first two selections. They have since gone on to have Hall of Fame-worthy careers, complete with Stanley Cup victories and Hart Trophies (the NHL’s Most Valuable Player award) for both players.
The Sabres had been intentionally losing — sorry, rebuilding — for the two seasons leading up to the 2015 draft, trading away talented players and playing with a substandard lineup in order to obtain high draft picks and set up future success. A lottery determined which team would choose first, and the rest of the draft order was based on seeding, meaning that the team that finished last would have the highest odds of selecting first overall but was guaranteed to select no later than second overall. The fans knew this, and for the most part, embraced it. During a late-season matchup between the Sabres and Arizona Coyotes, the two teams with the worst records in the NHL, home Sabres fans actually cheered when the Coyotes pulled out an overtime victory to put six points between them and the lowly Sabres. Buffalo ended up finishing with the worst record in the league.
In true Sabres fashion, Buffalo still lost the lottery to the Edmonton Oilers and missed out on the chance to select arguably the most talented player since Sidney Crosby in McDavid. They were instead forced to “settle” for Eichel, who likely would have gone first overall in virtually any other year. Optimism abounded among fans following the Eichel selection, and Eichel seemed to embrace the city and its love for hockey as well. Two months prior to the draft, a video surfaced of a drunken Eichel exclaiming, “Buffalo, I’m coming for ya!” In a pre-draft meeting, he told Buffalo executives that they had won the lottery by getting the chance to draft him. Over 17,000 people showed up to watch him for the first time in development camp during the summer. And in a sign of things to come, Eichel scored in his first game as a Sabre, and Buffalo lost the contest 3-1.
Eichel went on to play 375 games with the Sabres, amassing 139 goals and 355 points during that span. He has been selected to the All-Star game three times during his career, was a contributing member of the under-23 North America team in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting in the 2019-20 season. However, wins never followed Eichel’s individual success. The best any Eichel-led Sabres team has finished was 23rd overall in his rookie season. For 399 out of the 453 games that the Sabres played while Eichel was on the roster, Buffalo came into the contest with a losing record.
The losses wore on everyone, especially Eichel. As a Boston-area native accustomed to the success of Boston’s professional sports teams and his own individual success as a talented youth player, losing was a foreign concept for Eichel. Prior to joining the Sabres, Eichel played one season for Boston University. As a freshman, he led the nation in scoring, won the Hobey Baker award for the nation’s top college player, and led his team to the final of the Frozen Four. With the Sabres, Eichel essentially became the face of the franchise as soon as he was drafted, placing an enormous weight on his shoulders. He was named captain prior to the 2018-19 season, which was just his fourth year in the league, and at 21 years old he was the youngest captain in Sabres franchise history. However, in hindsight, it is unclear whether Eichel was deserving of the role because of his leadership ability, or if Sabres management awarded it to him simply because he was meant to be their franchise player. Fans commonly criticized Eichel’s body language on the ice and his tendency to avoid taking accountability for his mistakes following losses, and after the 2020 season he publicly expressed being sick of losing.
The relationship between Eichel and the Sabres already seemed to be deteriorating, but a recent interview with Eichel following the trade with the Knights revealed that it was already over after the 2020 season. Eichel confirmed that he requested a trade following that season, stating that he could tell the Sabres were on the cusp of another rebuild and didn’t want to be a part of it. First-year General Manager Kevyn Adams, now thrust into an incredibly tricky situation, made moves in an attempt to improve the short-term success of the team, such as signing former first-overall pick and Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. On paper, it looked to be the most talented roster in over a decade. However, the team imploded and finished with their worst points percentage since the 2013 and 2014 seasons, when the Sabres were in the prime of their tanking days.
Then came the final nail in the coffin. Following the conclusion of the 2021 season, in which the Sabres finished in last place once again, Eichel revealed a massive disconnect between himself and the organization at a press conference in May. After playing only 21 games due to a herniated disc in his neck, Eichel publicly exposed the Sabres organization for not allowing him to undergo the surgical procedure that he felt was most appropriate for his situation and best for his long-term health.
Eichel has been adamant about wanting to have an artificial disc replacement, which would insert an artificial disc between the vertebrae in his neck, replacing the damaged disc. This surgery has never been performed on an NHL player but has been performed worldwide for nearly two decades, and beneficiaries of the surgery include athletes like Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter and UFC fighter Chris Weidman. The Sabres, on the other hand, wary of the lack of evidence that such a surgery could be successful for hockey players, refused to allow Eichel to get his preferred procedure and instead wanted him to undergo the more common spinal fusion surgery. This surgery has been performed on athletes such as Peyton Manning and David Wright towards the end of their careers, but Eichel’s concern is that those who undergo fusion surgery have a much higher likelihood of needing repeat surgeries later in life. Eichel is considering his long-term health following his playing career in his decision, while the Sabres are only considering his health as it pertains to his role with the organization.
Both parties were steadfast in their assertions. The players’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA), however, sides with the Sabres. It would be one thing if Buffalo was denying Eichel treatment or doubting the existence of his injury, but the situation instead involves a player who is refusing the treatment that his team is recommending. Eichel cannot get his preferred surgery and get paid while remaining a member of the Sabres under the current CBA. This arrangement makes sense for most injuries, but Eichel’s injury is not most injuries. To fix his herniated disc, a surgeon will literally be slicing into Eichel’s neck and removing part of his spinal column. Given the potentially life-altering circumstances of his injury, it seems only right that the player should have control regarding the treatment of his body.
The massive dispute made it abundantly clear that Eichel would never play another game in a Sabres uniform. The Sabres confirmed this widely held belief when they stripped Eichel of his captaincy after he failed his physical prior to the beginning of this season. Though he is a prized commodity and arguably a top-10 player in the league when healthy, finding a proper return for Eichel proved to be a long and strenuous process for the Sabres. For one, the Sabres lacked leverage — every team in the league knew that Buffalo had no choice but to trade Eichel. Just as importantly, Eichel is coming off a severe injury that will leave him sidelined for the remainder of this season and is undergoing a surgery that has yet to be tested in the NHL. The Sabres had to find a team that would be willing to bear the risk that Eichel’s injury presents and also be able to take on the $50 million over five years that remains on Eichel’s contract, all while meeting their massive asking price of four first-round assets in return.
Trade rumors circulated for months following Eichel’s end-of-the-season press conference until the eventual trade agreement with the Golden Knights. In exchange for Eichel and a 2023 third-round pick, the Sabres receive Vegas’s 2019 first-round selection Peyton Krebs, 2014 first-round pick Alex Tuch, a top-10 protected first round pick in 2022, and a second-round pick in 2023.
Given the difficult circumstances Adams was forced to work with, it is all-in-all a decent return for the Sabres, with the trade haul being just one first-round asset away from their reported asking price. Krebs is extremely young and a fantastic playmaker who projects as a top-six center for the Sabres. Tuch has much-needed playoff experience, but is still young at only 25 years old and, as a Syracuse native, grew up a Sabres fan and has expressed excitement to be playing for his hometown team. Eichel, on the other hand, is rewarded by playing on one of the best teams in the NHL since they entered the league as an expansion team in 2017. When healthy, he will likely play alongside forwards Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, a line that projects as one of the most dominant in hockey. The Knights have allowed Eichel to undergo his preferred surgery, which has been reported to be a success.
So where does this leave the Sabres? At the doorstep of another rebuild, of course! The media has largely written off the Sabres this year, projecting them to be one of the worst teams in the league, but they have exceeded expectations so far, sitting at an even record of 6-6-2 through their first 14 games. The team is built around a solid young core, with players like Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, and Rasmus Dahlin already taking on the largest roles of their young careers. 2020 first overall pick Owen Power is in the pipeline, waiting to make an impact. While they may lack top-end talent, these Sabres grind day in and day out. Virtually every game has been competitive, and that’s about as much as you can ask of a roster that looks like this one. The future appears to be bright, but Sabres fans have said this too many times in the past. “There’s always next year” has become a depressing mantra for Sabres fans. It’s hard not to be hopeful, but fans should exercise caution in their optimism for the future given the events of the past decade. As Mae in "Ted Lasso" said all too well, “It’s the hope that kills you.”