Hockey, the sport, is good. Hockey, the off-ice drama, is generally boring as hell. The culture simply doesn’t encourage or countenance individual displays of character or emotion, and even when players are disgruntled, they tend not to talk about it and only extremely rarely force their ways to new teams. This is a positive if you’re the sort of person who films front-camera videos of you sitting in your car wearing wraparound sunglasses and yelling about woke culture, and regrettably, the NHL has tried to lean into this staidness with a lame “no soap operas” ad campaign. But soap operas rule! They’re fun and stuff is always happening on them. You can love hockey and still hate that the immortal Juris Skrastins is the star of every offseason.
That is my way of setting up what embattled Sabres superstar Jack Eichel had to say at his exit interview with the media today, after yet another lost season in Buffalo. If you’re not a hockey fan, his comments might not appear all that spicy, but I promise you, translated from hockeyese, he may as well be saying fuck this franchise.
“Wherever that might be.” Hachi machi!
Sure, the endless losing is bad, and Eichel would be forgiven for being fed up with just that. But Eichel appears furious with the way the Sabres handled his neck injury this season, and that could be the sort of thing from which there’s no going back.
With assists from John Vogl and Elliotte Friedman in putting the pieces of this controversy together, we can pretty confidently explain Eichel’s lack of confidence in the Sabres’ medical staff and decision-makers. Eichel hasn’t played since March 7, when he suffered a herniated disk in his neck on a hit from the Islanders’ Casey Cizikas. Over the next six weeks, the Sabres publicly held out hope that Eichel could return this season given rehab and rest. Why bother, given what the season had already devolved into for Buffalo? Great question. Eichel apparently wanted to get surgery right away, but the team didn’t allow him to.
“It doesn’t work like that. I wish,” Eichel said today. “I’m under contract with this team and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do.”
A newly amended clause in the collective bargaining agreement allows players to seek second opinions, at their own cost, and that’s what Eichel did. “Shortly after hurting his neck, he traveled out of state for another assessment.” But that same CBA leaves the decision on whether to operate in the hands of the club, and despite the Sabres eventually announcing in mid-April that Eichel would not play again this year, he has yet to undergo surgery, and it’s still up in the air whether he will be allowed to or not.
This is all a huge mess, and a totally unnecessary one given that the surgery has a reported six-week recovery time—he could be fully healthy by now, had they operated right away. The only thing I can think of is that the Sabres didn’t believe Eichel was as hurt as he and his own doctor maintained, and they believed he was trying to bail on a disastrous season. I obviously can’t speak to that, but functional franchises tend to find ways to avoid ever having this sort of “disconnect.” The Buffalo Sabres are not a functional franchise.
While trade rumors surrounding Eichel have only grown in volume in the last couple of years, his sheer star power makes him not the easiest player to move. He’ll make $10M a year through 2026, and he would command in any trade a haul of players and prospects that not just any team can offer. He’ll have a full no-movement clause kick in after next season.
Eichel declined today to confirm that he’s demanded a trade, but anyone fluent in the milquetoast pap that is hockey-player quotes will no have trouble reading between the lines of his latest statements:
Yeah, that’s a trade demand. Free Eichel!