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Jack Eichel and a pain in the neck
The battle between the Buffalo Sabres and their former captain is a true shame
It’s hard to do any writing or talking about the Buffalo Sabres without discussing in some way what in the world is going on with Jack Eichel. What’s super about that question is that no one outside of Eichel or Sabres GM Kevyn Adams really has any idea.
The standoff between the player and the team over how to operate on the herniated disk in Eichel’s neck has lasted through the summer and now deep into autumn. It’s lasted so long that if they settled things right away, he’d likely already be back on the ice and playing. Instead, Eichel sits and waits while the Sabres search for a trade with a team that’s willing to allow him to have the artificial disk replacement (ADR) he wants. Eichel wants very badly to be part of Team USA for the 2022 Olympics in China, but as more time goes on the likelihood of that grows slimmer.
It’s difficult to not be sympathetic to Eichel. The Sabres preferred choice for his surgery is a fusion procedure which is much more well-known and proven to be helpful, although with well-founded concerns. If I were 25 years old and looking at a future which my head mobility could be an issue because of fusion, I’d look for other options as well. But no NHL player has had it done before and the Sabres aren’t feeling too excited about assuming the risk involved even though Eichel is.
That it’s Eichel’s neck and he must use it and live with it he should have a heavier hand in how exactly it gets worked on. But the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NHLPA gives teams the final say in the matter. I must assume (yes, I know about assuming, thanks) that serious neck procedures were not what the owners and players had in mind when agreeing to that. Knee surgery or shoulder surgery, sure, but something as serious as the neck? Those issues don’t come up quite as often.
What’s been made clear through all of this is the Sabres aren’t backing down from their position and neither is Eichel. The Sabres also aren’t willing to adjust what they want from a team looking to acquire Eichel even though it would appear they would have to because how in the world does this get solved otherwise? Stubbornness goes a long way, especially when team and player are no longer on good terms.
Everything about this situation has been awkward to discuss because you can understand where each side is coming from. We know why the Sabres are being hard-asses and we know why Jack doesn’t want to get something done he isn’t comfortable doing.
That the Sabres are being huge sticklers about their demand for three-to-four first-round type pieces in a trade makes sense, especially when you think of how the Ryan O’Reilly trade played out.
There was much, and still is plenty of, mockery for what amounted to one of the all-time worst trades of the modern era. That trade happened three years ago, which also feels like a lifetime ago, but if I were running a team and had that fresh in my mind, I’d do everything possible to not get rooked again and made the butt of jokes for another decade or two or three. And now here we are with Jack Eichel — frozen in time under circumstances everyone can understand but no one likes or wants and neither side giving an inch.
This isn’t to say the Sabres should take a sub-par offer to be free of Eichel and just move on from what’s been the most disappointing and maligned run in Sabres history since they went bankrupt. They shouldn’t settle for less, but they should negotiate more to make it work out efficiently. The Sabres have good vibes going now but with a giant shadow looming over everything until Eichel is traded. Buffalo spent the entirety of the offseason hyping up the young players and how they’re moving ahead as a team and they’re playing well. But every day has the “Well what about Jack? Is he getting traded today or what?” specter attached to it. He’s not there and the coaches and players aren’t thinking about him but he’s very much still there.
Even though Eichel has been skating and doing whatever workouts he’s allowed and also spending time at Fenway Park plenty, the last thing he wants to do is nothing. It’s in everyone’s best interests to get this over with as soon as possible but, instead of viewing this as an acrimonious staring contest perhaps, the Sabres could view this a little less like business and a bit more human considering a guy can’t get healthy because they say so. It’s hard to embrace the future when holding onto a past you no longer wish to remember. It’s even more difficult to feel good about the present when there are moral and ethical questions to be dealt with.