The Jack Eichel era in Buffalo is over, with a nasty public eight-month feud reaching a conclusion on Thursday when the Sabres traded their former captain and face of the franchise to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The trade ends a stalemate between Eichel and Buffalo over how to repair his herniated disk, which has sidelined him since March. The dispute revolved around the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement giving teams the final say over the treatment of injuries.
Though Eichel remains sidelined, the Golden Knights addressed their biggest long-term need, landing a top-line center, by trading forward Alex Tuch, rookie center Peyton Krebs and two draft picks to the Sabres.
Eichel is expected to have the disk replacement surgery he preferred, though the recovery timetable means he’ll likely miss most, if not all, of the remainder of the season. The length of the dispute also essentially eliminates Eichel’s chance to represent the United States at the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing in February.
Sabres doctors favored Eichel having fusion surgery and opposed the disk replacement procedure because it has never been conducted on an NHL player.
Eichel was the Sabres’ highest-paid player and is in the fourth year 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 canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, he finishes with 139 goals and 355 points 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. Vegas also acquired a 2023 third-round pick.
The feud became public in May, when Eichel revealed what he called “a disconnect” with the team over treating the injury, and he questioned his future with a franchise that once regarded him as a key building block after selecting him with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft.
The dispute escalated over the summer, with Eichel changing agents in August in a bid to spur a trade. In September, the Sabres stripped Eichel of his captaincy before the start of training camp.
In recent weeks, Eichel’s camp began threatening to file a grievance through the NHL Players’ Association, questioning whether Sabres doctors followed the collective bargaining agreement in giving his option of surgery serious consideration.
The standoff drew the attention of the highest levels of the league, with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman calling it “a terrible situation,” without fixing blame on either side.
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.
While the Golden Knights are one of the NHL’s most successful expansion franchises, reaching the playoffs in each of their first four seasons, their one weakness has been at center to drive scoring. That was the case last season, when the Golden Knights scored just 13 goals in losing a six-game series to Montreal in the semifinals.
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.
The Sabres added pieces to a young, rebuilding team that is off to a far better start than expected. Buffalo is 5-3-1 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, New York, has 61 goals and 78 assists for 139 points in 249 career gams. Krebs is a 2019 first-round pick who has one assist in 13 career NHL games.
Though failing to trade Eichel this summer, second-year GM Kevyn Adams began his purge of players unhappy to be in Buffalo. Adams placed an emphasis on rebuilding around a young core by trading forward Sam Reinhart to Florida and stalwart defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia.
Expectations entering the season were low for a team coming off a season in which it finished last in the standings for a fourth time in eight years and in the midst of a 10-season playoff drought, which matches an NHL record.
Though Eichel was injured while being checked into the end boards by Casey Cizikas in the third period of a 5-2 loss at the New York Islanders on March 7, his days in Buffalo already seemed numbered.
Eichel had previously expressed frustration over the Sabres’ losing record, while Adams began entertaining trade discussions for the player months after taking over in June 2020.
Eichel is a talented center, capable of leading his team for long stretches, but also someone who had difficulty developing into a team leader and carrying the weight of being the franchise’s so-called savior.
He was initially moody in public, even acknowledging he had to do better in controlling his emotions after losses. Eichel also had to overcome an outside perception that he had too much of a say in management decisions, such as when his agent publicly issued a statement denying Eichel played a role in coach Dan Bylsma being fired following the 2016-17 season.
—John Wawrow, The Associated Press