31 Thoughts: Eichel injury the latest bad news in Sabres’ cursed year

Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

• Buffalo’s year keeps getting worse
• Will Leafs add during quiet schedule?
• 2021 NHL Draft likely staying in July

What a cursed year for Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres.

All we know for certain as I write this is the captain will not play Tuesday night against Philadelphia. Since Monday morning, there’ve been rumours he could be out awhile. It appears as if both he and the Sabres are going to take a few days to gather all information and consider all options. They’re on the road. It might be better to wait until the team gets back after this game.

It’s the right and responsible thing to do; I hope the rumours are wrong.

Eichel showed up to camp injured from something that occurred during off-season training. He hurt his leg on Feb. 23 when getting tangled with Nico Hischier. He was clearly in pain on Sunday after a crosscheck from Casey Cizikas during a loss to the Islanders.

It’s a microcosm for the team’s season — nothing can stay on track.

Head coach Ralph Krueger did what he does — put the most positive spin on things — saying he’s “looking forward to seeing guys step up to the plate for the minutes that Jack is going to be missing here.” Dylan Cozens, a true bright spot, gets promoted to first-line centre between Taylor Hall and Sam Reinhart.

This comes at a huge, huge time for the Sabres. GM Kevyn Adams did not mince words during his media availability last Friday, saying he was “angry.”

“I’ve been empowered by (ownership) to fix this, and that's what I'm going to do,” he added.

Other teams describe them as “wide open” for business, willing to listen on anything and everything. There’s a difference between “listening” and “doing,” of course — just because they’re asked about someone doesn’t mean that person needs to go to Amazon for luggage deals. Adams is working to determine the market value of his players, and from there will come the decisions.

It’s hard to say how the Eichel news effects all of this, but one theory about what Buffalo is considering long-term is one plan with the captain, and one without him. Either way, the decisions involved are critical. I don’t believe for a second Adams is incapable, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea for the Sabres to add an experienced voice or two to this mix.

Adams played in Carolina under Jim Rutherford. Could Rutherford be a hire here, even if the title was special assistant to the GM or consultant for the rest of 2020-21? The moves the Sabres are about to make will have long-term ramifications. Never hurts to have another opinion.


1. In case you missed it, teammate Chris Johnston is reporting the NHL has part of an American television deal with ESPN/Disney.

2. As far as I can tell, Taylor Hall has not been asked about his no-trade clause.

3. It sounds like there’s some interest in Vancouver’s Tyler Motte, who played well in last season’s playoffs. This is the time for telephone flirtation, where teams ask about so many things that don’t go anywhere. I think the Canucks were asked about Nate Schmidt — but I don’t sense that’s got legs.

4. After Thursday, Toronto has five games in 14 days. It would not be a stunner if the Maple Leafs tried to make their move during this time to minimize quarantine on any player coming from the U.S. In the last week, Toronto’s been rumoured to be in on half the league, from Mattias Ekholm to Filip Forsberg to Mikael Granlund to Eric Staal to Marc Staal. We will see what GM Kyle Dubas decides to do.

5. On Tuesday, Predators GM David Poile told 102.5 Sports Radio in Nashville, “I really don’t think that Filip Forsberg is going to be a guy that we have any interest in trading at this time.” We’ve known for a while the Predators are also considering (almost) all options. Add Detroit to that list. Not Dylan Larkin, as you’d expect.

6. In Calgary’s search for right-handed shooters, there were conversations with Nashville, but, obviously, nothing happened.

7. I’m not convinced there would have been a coaching change in Calgary if Darryl Sutter wasn’t available. He and the Flames discussed the possibility of a reunion a few times in the last couple of years, but the timing was never right. One was during Bill Peters’ removal, and the other was after the bubble, before Geoff Ward was formally hired. A coach being hired doesn’t always have say on term, but the Flames did ask what he desired in this particular case (two more years after this one). His first game behind the bench is scheduled to be Thursday against Montreal.

Their AHL team, Stockton, is 6-2 while playing in Canada this winter. Four players — forwards Adam Ruzicka, Matthew Phillips, Martin Pospisil and defenceman Alex Petrovic — are averaging a point per game. That doesn’t mean everything, but the Flames need a jolt. Tuesday on Hockey Central, GM Brad Treliving said priority is getting the NHLers going but, “I think everything’s always on the radar. You don’t discount anything.”

8. Big weeks for a couple of teams trying to discover their true identities. First, Winnipeg — three in a row against Toronto. The Jets already made one huge deal and have to decide if they want to swing at something else. Colleague Ken Wiebe wrote about Ekholm, but the price is high and it would mean, for the second time this year, the Jets have to dance with quarantine. I’m not so sure they’re eager to do that. On-ice results will dictate, but I also wonder if they target someone like Travis Hamonic if the Canucks decide they’re out, with no 49th parallel involved. (Seems like we’ve been discussing that possibility forever.)

9. The other one is Philadelphia. The Flyers have been inconsistent, trying to find that relentless attacking structure that was burying opponents before the pandemic shutdown last season. Some nights they look great, others not so much.

The word I’m hearing is, again, on-ice play will dictate their path. The Flyers are built for a chance at consistent success, and won’t tamper with it if they feel their play isn’t good enough during this crazy season. They’re 0-3-2 versus Boston. After Buffalo, it’s seven in a row against Washington, the Rangers and the Islanders. Let’s see what their brain trust thinks after those games are done.

10. Looking at goaltending: Carolina, Colorado (but at more of a depth level — I think they were looking at Buffalo’s Jonas Johansson) and possibly Washington. Must have been great for the Capitals to see Ilya Samsonov with a 36-save win over Philadelphia on Sunday; he’s had a lengthy recovery from COVID and it created some uncertainty. Vitek Vanecek’s played well and really battled for them, earning respect from his teammates and the organization, but Samsonov’s performance will determine how the Capitals proceed at this position.

11. Obviously, there’s been talk about Alex Ovechkin’s future — and I don’t believe it’s going to be anywhere but Washington. One of the factors in this negotiation is that when he signed his 13-year, $124-million deal (Jan. 10, 2008), it was during a season players earned 100.66 per cent of their salaries. That’s decreased since, especially when the players’ share of revenues decreased from 57 per cent to 50 with the 2013 CBA. (Ovechkin’s never been afraid to make his feelings on escrow clear.) It doesn’t mean hard feelings between player and organization, but it’s something that is on his mind and must be worked through.

12. It’s crunch time for several other UFA negotiations, with both player and team deciding upon a renewal of vows or a divorce. One that’s of particular interest to me is Kyle Palmieri and New Jersey. At 30, he’s still a good player, and how the two sides feel about the future probably gives everyone a window into what this summer looks like in the free-agent market.

13. As I write this, we are awaiting an announcement that the 2021 NHL Draft will not be moved from its original date in July. This will be of great disappointment to teams, eligible players and agents, who fought hard for a delay of six months to a year. In the end, I just don’t think, after everything NHL and NHLPA leadership’s been through, there was the will for another intense battle over how rights would be adjusted. The union submitted a list of 12 to 13 items that would need to be addressed.

14. As Chris Johnston reported Monday, the NHL informed its Board of Governors that it is preparing to make changes to the draft lottery. For this season, the number of picks determined by lottery will decrease from three to two. Starting with the 2022 Draft, teams will be limited to two “advances” up to either the first or second pick every five years. The word “advances” is key, because any team that actually finishes 32nd or 31st and stays there is not affected. There’s a 10-spot-leap maximum. All previous wins do not count — it’s a fresh start for everyone.

15. Sounds like helmet ads are here to stay. But projections are strong and some of the other “make goods” — like tarps and ads on the glass — will disappear once fans return.

16. On International Women’s Day, interim NWHL Commissioner Tyler Tumminia announced that the league’s Isobel Cup playoffs would resume later this month at the Boston Bruins’ practice facility. The semi-finals will have Toronto against Boston, and Connecticut versus Minnesota. Did Tumminia ever doubt a second try was possible?

“No,” she said on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast. “I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer very well…. For the integrity of being a pro sport, you need a champion. It’s important for our athletes to have that opportunity to celebrate…. The Cup means something.”

The original attempt was stopped Feb. 3 because of a COVID outbreak, exacerbated by players breaking protocol and the league allowing replacements from outside.

“I have no doubt this league is going to come back for those two games, and make sure that we’re making history,” Tumminia added. “It’s an awful feeling to lose that chance. It’s a wonderful feeling to have that redemption story — try to get this going again. And our athletes have been quite resilient and eager to get the Cup raised as well.”

17. Equally as newsworthy was an NWHL tweet on Feb. 28 celebrating the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association’s Dream Gap tour game at Madison Square Garden:

The history between the two is not pretty; lots of hard feelings. So that was an eyebrow-raiser. But the chasm benefits no one, and someone has to take the first step. As Tumminia points out, being five months into the job made it easier.

“There is a lot of history there that is uncomfortable,” she said. “Listening over the last couple of months to everybody’s feedback — what went right, what went wrong over the last couple of years…. There’s no magic that comes with dissension or any of this contentious stuff, especially in womens’ sport. To me, it was saying, ‘I value you and I see you and I applaud what you guys are doing for the women’s game…. The magic happens when people come to a table and we talk out our differences.’ The polarizing effect of what could happen when discussions or relationships go badly does a disservice to the sport. It’s been a couple of years now. I don’t know if anybody’s winning out of that. How could you not say (playing at MSG is) wonderful? I should not be commissioner of a women’s hockey league if I did not applaud that…. I took this job because I want to advance this sport to the point that there’s a lot of respect and eyeballs and viewership, which is also going to help that business model that everybody talks about. That’s what it’s about. You’re better together than creating a divide.”

How large is that divide, two years after the Canadian league folded?

“It’s a mountain,” she answered. “I’m not dismissing the fact that there’s some raw emotions around it. What I’m saying is that some of the narrative is actually outdated now…. Let’s sit at the table and have a true sense of what is actually going on here, and how we can get to where everybody wants to get to. We all want to get to the same spot.”

18. The AHL held a conference call on Monday to discuss a playoff format and are hoping to finalize something. A Calder Cup itself is very unlikely due to cross-country quarantines and the overall economics. But a short post-season in each division is being worked on.

19. Last year, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid played more than 500 minutes together at five-on-five. Entering Saturday’s game against Calgary, the total was under 45 for this season. But after three straight losses to Toronto, Oilers coach Dave Tippett unleashed the fearsome duo for 14:19 against the Flames and 16:43 Monday versus Ottawa. That’s more than two-thirds of their rest-of-year total.

20. It might not be something that could happen until the off-season, but Elvis Merzlikins is the kind of goalie who makes sense long-term for Edmonton.

21. Unusual storyline developing in San Jose, where Kurtis Gabriel has jawed with opponents in the warm-ups for three straight games. Last Friday, it was Vegas’s Ryan Reaves (who he fought). The next night was Reaves again, with no fight. Monday it was St. Louis’s Kyle Clifford — for almost two minutes — and there was a scrap. He played one game before March 5, and this doesn’t seem like a coincidence. The Sharks have felt they’ve been pushed around and need new energy; Gabriel certainly provides it.

Before that second game against the Golden Knights, Brent Burns apparently asked Gabriel to get everyone going. So he had rookie defenceman Nikolai Knyzhov run him over during warm-up where everyone could see it. It certainly got a laugh out of Burns.

22. So, this Jared Spurgeon jersey belongs to Piper Grillo, daughter of one of Spurgeon’s agents, Dean:

The “4” is autographed by Spurgeon, the “6” by Scott Hartnell. Apparently, Hartnell was Piper’s favourite player until Spurgeon took over top position. The story goes that Hartnell saw her in the jersey during a Columbus/Minnesota game, ran over the Wild defender because of it, then signed, “Scottie loves you more.”

In response, Spurgeon provided a new jersey, asking Piper to “keep this one away from Scott.” Watch Hartnell show up at their house to deface it.

23. Spurgeon was a fantastic podcast guest. What a story. Once a total longshot, he’s now Minnesota’s captain, financially secure and a Canadian Olympic possibility. He had a great line about the “Dolla Dolla Bill Kirill” T-shirts in honour of Calder Trophy favourite Kirill Kaprizov.

“I told him I’ve been in the league 11 years and I still haven’t got a shirt. He got one in his first 20 games.”

On the Wild, in great playoff position after a 2–0 victory over Vegas on Monday night: “We’ve turned into more of a four-line, six (-defenceman), two-goalie team than we have been in the past.”

24. Sean Burke is still in quarantine watching Yellowstone or whatever, but it looks like Carey Price is trying to play deeper in goal.

25. We’re coming up on the midway part of the season, where I like to start compiling my awards lists. I do the Hart first, because that filters down to the rest of the ballot. Here’s a general overview of who I’m considering: Aleksander Barkov, Marc-Andre Fleury, Victor Hedman, Patrick Kane, Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, Mark Stone, Andrei Vasilevskiy. I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’m missing anyone.

26. During the 2010 Stanley Cup final, my Hockey Night in Canada responsibility was the Flyers. At one intermission, the team came off the ice and a player yelled, “F&*%$@g Seabrook.” I said, to no one in particular, “Who was that?” Another player heard me and answered, “It could have been all of us.” What a compliment for a guy who gave everything he had.

27. The Memorial Cup is still in limbo for 2021, but a few months ago, Sault Ste. Marie was approached about holding it both for this season and next season, in an emergency scenario. That’s not going to happen now, but I thought it was an interesting idea.

28. Jeff Marek was wondering about favourite nicknames for lines, and I’m always partial to the great 1970s Triple Crown Line from Los Angeles (Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer, Dave Taylor). One I forgot to mention, but, unfortunately, was reminded of for sad reasons is “the Cone Line.” That was John Harrington, Mark Pavelich and Buzz Schneider from the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. They were called that because teammates thought the trio would never work together, so they’d end up like students wearing cone caps in the corner of a classroom because they’d done poorly in something. (I can’t remember who told me this story, but I do remember buying a New York Times archived article that proved it to be true.)

The three combined for 20 points in five games, with Pavelich setting up two goals in the famous victory over the Soviet Union. He played 355 NHL games and I always remembered another story about him — that Rangers’ broadcasters once gifted him fishing equipment so he’d do a between-periods interview. Pavelich faced a lot of tragedy off the ice and injury on it; the NHL Alumni worked hard to help him. I was very sorry to hear of his death last week at age 63.

29. I can still remember how nervous I was to interview Walter Gretzky for the first time. It was Wayne’s final game at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Rangers made him available the day before on a special teleconference, so he wasn’t talking that morning. But Walter was standing by the gold seats near the glass, and I asked him if he’d talk. It’s a shame the video’s been lost, because he was hilarious.

“I hope Wayne gets a hat trick tonight,” he said, then paused. “No — two hat tricks!”

Wayne once was asked if there were any times Walter criticized his play; he mentioned Game 1 of the incredible 1987 Canada Cup Final. Canada trailed the Soviet Union 4–1, then scored four in a row. But the Soviets tied it and won in overtime. Laughing at the memory, Wayne said Walter told him he’d stayed on the ice too long on the 5–5 goal. (He made up for it with seven assists in the final two games.)

There are so many stories about Walter Gretzky; everybody has one. At the burial on Saturday, one of the funeral-home employees spent hours beforehand cutting a path through the snow for the family and mourners who could attend. He said, “Walter Gretzky tied my skates when I was a kid,” and wanted to do something extra as a thank you. That was his impact.

30. Hours after the memorial service, Kentucky Derby contenders raced in the San Felipe Stakes. Entered at 4–1 odds was “The Great One,” owned by Colorado’s Erik Johnson and named in honour of Wayne Gretzky. What a story a victory would have been, but alas, The Great One was up against an enormous favourite in the Bob Baffert-trained Life is Good, which took it going away. (Johnson’s horse was fifth.)

31. During the Chicago Bears’ monstrous Super Bowl season of 1985, they went into Texas Stadium and beat the Dallas Cowboys 44–0. Such a massive statement made the cover of Sports Illustrated — a huge deal at the time. Playing offensive tackle for the Cowboys that day was Chris Schultz. When we worked together at The FAN, I once asked him about that game. He alternated between laughing at the memory and being annoyed about it, remembering how Bears defensive end Richard Dent repeatedly barked at him when they lined up before the snap. (Dent was that year’s Super Bowl MVP and eventually became a Hall of Famer.)

Schultz joined the CFL’s Argonauts in 1986, beginning a stint that would get him named to the franchise’s all-time team. He loved football, had a great eye for it. We’d watch games and he’d point out things that were completely foreign to me. Not at all surprised he was so good at it on television. Too many RIPs this week.

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