You Don't Know Jack!
In 2015, the Buffalo Sabres selected Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the annual NHL Entry /Draft. There was a lot of hype surrounding Eichel. In just about any other year, Eichel would have been the first overall pick as his talent level and NHL projections were the best of any player selected since his current teammate Taylor Hall was taken first overall in 2010.
There happened to be another player in Jack's draft year who was labeled as the next generational talent, read: the next Howe, Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby/Ovechkin. As I'm sure you know, that player was Connor McDavid and he is living up to the hype. None of that diminishes the game changing ability that Eichel showed he could bring to a team.
Buffalo had missed the playoffs for the four consecutive prior to drafting Eichel. In his first NHL game, the Sabres newest star scored his first goal. He finished his rookie season with 24 goals and 56 points in 82 games as Buffalo's second line center. Jack looked to be every bit of the game changing player he was projected to be.
The chatter around the league about the Sabres after Eichel's debut season was that Buffalo would be making deep playoff runs by 2017/18 and on. In those next two seasons, Eichel had some injuries. He played 61 and 67 games respectively, at a pace of just under a point per game. In case you don't know, a point per game is star quality hockey
Still no playoffs and although he was on pace for it, Eichel had yet to break the 30 goal barrier. Jack's line had been a revolving door of wingers which included Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Marcus Foligno, Sam Reinhart, and Evander Kane.
His fourth year would bring more change to his line as the Sabres acquired streaky left wing speedster Jeff Skinner during the off-season from the Carolina Hurricanes. Jason Pominville rotated in and out of right wing with Reinhart.
This is the season, 2018/19, that Eichel finally broke the point per game barrier with 82 points in 77 games while assisting Jeff Skinner to a career high 40 goals. Carolina gave Skinner to Buffalo for comparatively nothing. Surely they felt a bit of a sting from his success that season but not nearly as much as the sting, or should I say physical, vomit inducing pain, which Buffalo felt that same year for giving away O'Reilly.
Still no playoffs but at least the Sabres finally found the guy who supposedly would be permanently playing on Eichel's left side. Or not. Enter coach Ralph Krueger who promptly separated the pair in favor of rookie Victor Oloffson with his super slapper and wicked wrister.
Jack played in 68 of the 69 games in that shortened season and for the first time scored over 30 goals with a total of 36. Eichel would easily have toppled the 40 goal mark had the season been a regular 82 games.
Great for Jack. He is definitely fulfilling the star quality promise that had been projected for him. Five years down though and still no playoffs. The game changer projection had not yet come to fruition. By NHL standards, Eichel will be in his prime for another five years. Typically, the drop off in play for an NHL player begins at the age of 28. Eichel is 24.
That brings us to the current Season. Once again, Eichel has a new linemate on his left. Former league MVP and left winger Taylor Hall joined the Sabres on a one year deal. For a team that had missed the playoffs for nine years running despite having a star like Eichel, the news of Hall's signing was that of wildest dreams coming true. Easily the biggest free agent signing in Buffalo Sabres history. Jack and Taylor playing on a line together was fantasy fulfillment to a Sabres fan.
Eight games into the season, Hall is removed from Eichel's line.
I'll go ahead and continue the article because there is much left unsaid that should be said but I'll tell ya what, I very strongly considered ending it right there. It stands on its own.
The left wing position is a key position when you have a right handed center which Jack is. The center can more easily pass to his left from the forehand of his stick than he can using the backhand to pass right. The Sabres had put many quality left wingers beside Jack and none of them seemed to fit and now the same is true with a one time Hart Trophy winner.
As Cliff Clavin would say, what's up with that? Why is Sam Reinhart, Jack's right winger, the only player who seems to fit in with him? At what point does one start looking at Jack? As things stand right now, the Sabres are not playing consistent enough hockey to get to the playoffs.
The promise that Jack has fulfilled so far is great but it's only been great for Jack. He makes a lot of money and his stats are excellent. The Sabres are not excellent. They suck. However, no one wants to do as much as glance Jack's way about it because of the "where would be without him" fear. Well, where are the Sabres with him?
In Buffalo, asking those questions leads to everyone assigning blame to everyone else without anyone really taking a good hard honest look at it. Sure, some will quote stats but only those which support their own fear driven viewpoint. Buffalo is a place where feelings > facts. By contrast, Kevyn Adams comes off as a facts man. I do believe that if Eichel's intangibles are at the core of the issue, Adams will figure it out and he'll also figure out what to do about it.
Adams does get offers for Jack. This season's trade deadline is five weeks away and Buffalo looks like they're yet again in a seller's position. It's more likely that Adams would flip Hall before Eichel mainly due to the fact that Hall becomes a free agent again at the end of the season. Still though, in the event of a perfect storm, that being Hall wants to stay and Jack doesn't, what sort of return would Adams get for Eichel?
The Buffalo fans have their star and they don't want to lose him. Developing and/or acquiring talent on the level of Jack Eichel is a coveted rarity and, historically, the Sabres haven't had much success in that department. Now that they have that guy, two if you count Hall, they do not want to let go. Fans would be outraged.
At the very least, Buffalo would need to get a nearly as talented player in return. So I did a little experiment to see if fans of other teams would give up their own somewhat lesser talented center for Eichel in a straight up trade. Here are the results.
DEVILS ALL DAY ALL NIGHT
#1 Washington Capitals Fans
Florida Panthers Official Fan Group
Edmonton Oilers Fans
Pittsburgh Penguins Fans Unite
Some of these players are stars who, being in their mid 30s, are way past their prime. Others are good top line centers but none currently with the skills & upside of Eichel, except for maybe Draisaitl. Fans weren't having it though. They absolutely roasted me for even making the hypothetical suggestion with the most frequent response being, "Are you high?" The Boston Bruins group banned me.
Nobody wants Eichel, at least when it comes to the fans. I was going to do this with more teams but when Rangers fans chose Zib over Jack, I decided I'd seen enough. I'd grade Zib as a mid tier top liner. He's a good talent but nowhere near Eichel. Seems that only fans with a low bottom tier #1 center would pull the trigger, maybe.
Why though? Jack, when at his best is better than almost anyone and with several years of prime playing left to go. How is it that fans aren't aware of this? The answer is they are aware of it but there is more to it than that. One comment from a Boston fan has resonated with me. Keep in mind, Boston is Jack's hometown. The fan wrote one sentence, "It's all about the intangibles."
Is he right? Or, are teams blindly loyal to their top guy? I put some of these same polls on the Sabres Mafia fan site. The results were exactly the opposite (although the roasting I received was identical) even for Draisaitl who is last year's Hart Trophy winner. Sabres fans would not trade Eichel for any of the players shown above and they thought I was out of my mind for even suggesting it.
Yet, Eichel doesn't win and can't keep a linemate. Making things worse, Jack only has two goals this season. This is where the fans unravel. Is Jack really the guy who can lead a team to the promised land? Some say yes and his woes are everyone else's fault. The rest of the fans across the league believe Eichel is poison.
Jack does not look like himself this season. Not even close. The speculation ranges from an injury is causing it despite consistent denials from the coach to Eichel is burned out and wants out of Buffalo. Either way, Eichel as we know him has disappeared.
Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, and Jeff Skinner make up a total of $27,000,000 in annual salary. That is one third of the salary cap. Among them, in 15 games this season, or 45 games if you count them individually, they have scored a total of 3 goals. In the 25 seasons between them, which doesn't include the current season, only twice did any of these three make it into the playoffs. Looks like the trend may continue this season.
Sabres have scratched Skinner for two games. That same fate needs to fall on the other two fellas if they don't pick it up. Time for a wake up call. No one is irreplaceable, especially at current production levels.