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NHL

Nothing Good Can Last, Not In Buffalo

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 22: Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres prepares to skates against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on February 22, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There was a point not all that long ago when, for better or worse, Jack Eichel was the Sabres and the Sabres were Jack Eichel. He was all over the marketing because he was just about the only marketable thing; he was the promise of a better future for a franchise that’s not been able to promise its fans anything but promise for a long time now. But over the last six months, Eichel has been fading out of the picture like the photo from Back To The Future. A prolonged, nasty, and fruitless trade saga rolls on, with Eichel no longer the Sabres’ future. And now he is no longer the present, either, leaving his Buffalo legacy just another sour and thwarted chapter in a local tome full of them.

Eichel, the 24-year-old star center and former No. 2 overall draft pick, is no longer Sabres captain, GM Kevyn Adams said at training camp this morning. “I feel the captain is the heartbeat of your team,” Adams said. “I felt that we needed to address that.” That’s largely a symbolic move, but what isn’t is the announcement that Eichel will start the season on injured reserve after failing his physical. If it was a safe bet back in the spring that we wouldn’t see Eichel suit up for the Sabres again, that bet has now been taken off the board.

Eichel has been beefing with the Sabres over medical treatment for a herniated disk in his neck suffered in a March injury. Sabres team doctors recommended disk fusion surgery, which carries the risk of long-term issues. (Does “long-term” mean “later in his career” or “later in his life, after his employer has squeezed all the value in can out of him”? That’s unclear. Spines are nasty things.) Eichel from the very beginning has sought artificial disk replacement surgery, and has found his own doctors to support it. The Sabres believe that less onerous but relatively untested procedure, which has never before been performed on an NHL player, won’t address the issue and/or carries too many question marks, and have forbidden Eichel from getting it. It’s messy.

“Unfortunately, yesterday, Jack did not pass his physical. To this point, Jack is not willing to move forward with the fusion surgery that our doctors are suggesting. So we’re going to continue to work towards solutions,” Adams said.

“Solutions” here mean a trade. Buffalo has spent the summer trying to move Eichel, but their asking price has reportedly been sky-high—the sort of return you’d expect for a happy, healthy Eichel, but not an Eichel with a serious neck issue nor an Eichel so publicly disgruntled that the Sabres have little leverage. There’s also the outstanding question of which surgery any potential suitor will support for him. One has to assume that anyone interested in acquiring Eichel has already decided it will allow the disk replacement rather than spinal fusion surgery, or, more cynically, has already been informed that Eichel would be willing to get the procedure for them that he won’t get in Buffalo.

There’s not a whole lot of clarity here, but one thing is certain: It’s an unwinnable situation for the Sabres. They’re losing their franchise player, and with the very public discussion of his health, his trade value has dropped to the point where they are unlikely to get the sort of haul that jumpstarts a successful rebuild. Things are bad, is what I’m saying, and getting worse by the press conference, and the player who once represented hope for a franchise in desperate need of some is now yet another symbol of the Sabres’ eternal hopelessness.