The Montreal Canadiens are in the Stanley Cup Final mainly due to their commitment to a stifling defence, having one of the world's best goalies in net and, sure, some luck along the way. But would they still have done this without Nick Suzuki being acquired in trade and quickly developing into a dangerous centre? Or without Phillip Danault becoming a yearly Selke candidate? Would their long-term outlook be as rosy without Jesperi Kotkaniemi down the middle and Ryan Poehling still pushing?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the cusp of back-to-back Stanley Cup wins for many reasons, and having Brayden Point-Anthony Cirelli-Yanni Gourde as their top three centres is one of them.
Centre is a necessary strength to be successful in the NHL. You need goaltending, but it's also a position you can try and save a little money at and one can unpredictably get hot for a period and carry a team longer than it otherwise could go. You need a good blue line, too, but there you can mix in size, focus on your top four in key moments and generally aren't spending big outside of maybe one player.
If your centres run deep, you can be a success. If it's a weakness, well, you're running uphill.
That's why the position is so coveted around the league and once a team gets its hands on an elite, top-line pivot it tends to not to let them go. We'll see depth centres moved quite a bit. The New York Islanders' acquisition of J-G Pageau last year was an upper-echelon third-liner on the go. Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes was a notable trade because he's a second-line pivot — and though he was struggling at the time of the deal, he bounced back terrifically with 43 points in 47 games. The Nazem Kadri trade in 2019 was another centre of note on the move.
But when was the last time a franchise centre was traded in his prime? Matt Duchene is the closest in any recent year but, of course, we wouldn't label him a franchise centre right now.
So when Jack Eichel becomes available in trade, you have to make the attempt to bring him in. He's still just 24 with five years remaining on his contract. Since entering the league in 2015-16, Eichel's 0.95 points per game ranks 22nd in the NHL — since his breakout 2017-18 his 1.04 points per game rate is 18th.
Now, there is some risk here. A $10-million cap hit is no small thing when the upper limit is staying flat. You'd normally happily swallow that for a player of Eichel's talent, but he's also dealing with a neck injury and a reason why there's been a fall out with the Buffalo Sabres is that the team wants to approach it through rest and rehabilitation, while the player wants a surgery that's never been done on an NHL player before. Any team trying to pick up Eichel will first need to know the full picture around his health.
Regardless, he's a sought-after player, and as the Stanley Cup Final creeps toward its end, we appear to be getting closer to a resolution and a likely new home for Eichel.
“We have definitely been communicating with the team and we are heading toward a resolution,” Eichel's agent told The Athletic.
“Our stance hasn’t changed,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said. “It’s in the hands of the medical experts.”
With that, here are seven teams believed to be in the running for Eichel and what sort of players and other assets they might be able to put on the table.
The Wild took an impressive step up this season, thanks in no small part to Kirill Kaprizov's Calder Trophy-winning season. Now, how do they improve from here?
Sure, some of that will come from internal growth. Kaprizov will still get better. Joel Eriksson Ek re-upped for eight years and will be a key two-way presence for them. The defence remains a strength and while Cam Talbot is still the veteran option in net, 24-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen is the likely long-term pick at the position.
Eriksson Ek is a centre who will slot on either line one or two, but after him there isn't a real solid second pivot. Add Eichel here and the Wild might really accelerate things.
It's already shaping up to be a really tough off-season for Wild GM Bill Guerin. The looming expansion draft once again has them facing down the prospect of losing a good player, and Matt Dumba's name is the one to watch once more. They have an estimated $16.8 million in cap space per Cap Friendly and that's with eight forwards, five defencemen and two goalies, and without new deals for Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala yet. Those two alone will take them close to that number.
Four forwards and three defencemen on this team already make over $5 million, and Fiala and Kaprizov could expand that list further. Still, there is a clear desire to add a centre and while Eichel's $10 million cap hit is hefty, they could make the money work if someone like Dumba is involved.
Acquiring Eichel could also help the Wild long-term with Kaprizov. From Michael Russo of The Athletic last month:
What I hear from folks close to Kaprizov: Until Guerin shows Kaprizov a clear plan to upgrade the middle of the ice and perhaps even begins to execute the plan, I just don’t see Kaprizov wanting to commit that length of his life and career to a place where, with all due respect, he has no allegiances, no ties. Sure, the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, but I think Guerin is going to have to sell Kaprizov on his plan this off-season to get him to commit even as much as five or six years of his life.
The trick would be to move the money necessary to be able to fit Eichel's contract at all, and also balance that with giving Buffalo a package it would be satisfied moving Eichel for. That means something much younger than Dumba and it's not clear who Guerin would be willing to move from that potential group. If the Wild don't pay up for Eichel, perhaps they look to upgrade their centre position by shooting a little lower at Eichel's teammate Sam Reinhart.
Possible assets to use in trade: Jordan Greenway, Kevin Fiala, Matt Dumba, Marco Rossi, Minnesota 2021 first-rounder, Pittsburgh 2021 first-rounder
The Los Angeles Kings acquired Viktor Arvidsson last week, which gives them two good options on the right side and an upside player who went three years in a row of being one of the best 5-on-5 snipers in the game until injuries slowed him the past two seasons. He's on a value contract, too, so could the Kings now be motivated to swing a little bigger and take on more money for someone like Eichel?
With divisions likely to settle back to their old alignments, Los Angeles will be returning to a Pacific Division next season that is wide open. Outside of the Vegas Golden Knights and probably the Edmonton Oilers, every other team has questions to overcome and certainly won't be considered playoff locks. This is where the Kings could push some of their chips into the middle and really start thinking about accelerating the rebuild.
Anze Kopitar is Los Angeles' top-line centre. Quinton Byfield was last year's No. 2 overall choice and a future big-league centre, as is Alex Turcotte who the Kings chose fifth overall in 2019. Gabriel Vilardi is a 21-year-old centre who just spent the whole season with the Kings. So, you might ask, why would Los Angeles need to make a big trade for another centre? It's a fair question.
For one, adding Eichel would give the Kings an already proven stud centre to still have when Kopitar's contract expires in three years and he's 36 years old. Eichel would still be 28 at that time. Vilardi and Byfield may already give the Kings that cushion, but as long as Eichel is healthy you already know for a fact he's at that level. The other reason is Eichel would put the Kings on track to at least compete again and perhaps give Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown another window to push for a Cup in the near future. He maybe gives you a little more time to develop the young centres, too.
The Kings would have the pieces Buffalo would be after. They could, after all, move one of those young centres to a Sabres team that wants some replacement at the position. They have another high pick (eighth overall) this season and have made nine selections in the first- or second-round over the past three years. They have a lot of prospects and picks, so the question becomes if Eichel is the primary target or will the Kings instead look to the defence market and instead swing big on a Seth Jones type?
Possible assets to use in trade: Alex Turcotte, Quinton Byfield, Gabriel Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Rasmus Kupari, Los Angeles 2021 first-rounder
The likelihood of the Columbus Blue Jackets being Eichel's landing spot seem to be fading and there are a number of reasons why. First, if Buffalo needs a stud centre prospect or player in return for their captain they won't find one in Columbus. Second is the Blue Jackets are a team that a few high-profile players have looked to move on from before, so it's reasonable to wonder if Eichel would be content there for the next five years, with a no-movement clause kicking in for 2022-23. And third, Columbus is re-tooling, rebuilding, reloading — whatever you want to call it — and so moving a bunch of futures for a top-line centre to help now may be too pricey considering its situation.
Then again, Eichel is only 24 and signed long-term.
What acquiring Eichel would accomplish, though, is upgrading an area that sorely needs it. Having Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Patrik Laine on the wings is great, but centre was a real issue for Columbus this season and none of the options it tried was a home run on the top unit. In Eichel they'd at least have that cornerstone piece.
The Blue Jackets could offer Buffalo a goalie and go from there. Could Laine be an option? He brings explosive goal scoring upside after a miserable campaign, but he's an RFA who is just one more season away from being UFA eligible. Is he going to want to stick around Buffalo? Or will they find themselves having to flip him again in short order?
Eichel in Columbus is a nice idea and, if healthy, he'd give them security at a key position. But perhaps this team should be shooting a little lower for a centre target who wouldn't have to blow up their prospects and picks picture to acquire.
Possible assets to use in trade: Elvis Merzlikins, Patrik Laine, Alexandre, Texier, Liam Foudy, Yegor Chinakhov, Columbus 2021 first-rounder (fifth overall), Toronto 2021 first-rounder
Similar to the Kings, the Anaheim Ducks have spent some time rebuilding in the wilderness and might consider cashing in some assets to give them a kick heading back to the Pacific Division — and to keep Eichel away from their in-state rivals. The Ducks still have a decent blue line and John Gibson has you feeling good about your situation in net when he's healthy, but they have finished last in offence two of the past three seasons and with Ryan Getzlaf in decline, Eichel would be the bridge toward brighter days again.
They could have the sort of return Buffalo would be after, too. The Ducks have made eight picks in the first two rounds over the past three years and have a number of forwards who are 24 years old or younger that might be attractive to the Sabres. They also could move a centre, whether it's a young one like Trevor Zegras as a centrepiece for a deal (probably unlikely) or a more veteran type who is part of a bigger trade to make the money work for Anaheim and also give the Sabres a usable player in return (like Adam Henrique).
The Ducks and Kings are very similar in this space — do either see themselves in position to get bold?
Possible assets to use in trade: Trevor Zegras, Max Comtois, Rickard Rakell, Adam Henrique, Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Jones, Jacob Perreault, Brayden Tracey, Isac Lundestrom, Anaheim 2021 first-rounder (third overall)
Though the Sabres would prefer Eichel go to the Western Conference so they don't have to see him so often, if the best offers come from the East it'll be hard to pass them up considering what's at stake. The Rangers, eager to take a promising season forward again and load up their roster with more firepower, make for an intriguing possibility.
The Rangers have made huge additions in recent seasons, from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, to the ones that fell into their laps like Adam Fox and Alexis Lafreniere. They re-signed Chris Kreider rather than trade him two years ago. Some young players have come along, they've picked in the first round eight times in the past four years, and now might be the time to use some of those assets.
New York has an estimated $23.775 million in cap space, but still hasn't signed Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil or Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers should be able to fit Eichel in under this picture for next season, but in 2022 Mika Zibanejad will be a UFA and Adam Fox an RFA. After that it's Lafreniere's turn and K'Andre Miller will have had two years to earn his own big contract.
Worry about that later and get the best player now might be the approach here though. With Zibanejad and Eichel, the Rangers would have a heck of a top-two centre lineup. The time to do it might be just right, too — going back to the Metropolitan Division, New York would be looking at teams like the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins with their closing windows and off-season questions of their own and think Eichel could help them blow the door off the hinges.
Possible assets to use in trade: Pavel Buchnevich, Ryan Strome, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Braden Schneider, Vitali Kravtsov, Alexis Lafreniere, Alexandar Georgiev, New York 2021 first-rounder (15th overall)
All right, it's time to get crazy.
This can't possibly happen, can it?
Well, anything is possible. However, it is exceedingly difficult to see how the Golden Knights could swing this and stay under the cap. They had to play with a short bench at times this season because they couldn't stay cap compliant — that was partially due to the complications of getting aggressive last off-season and adding Alex Pietrangelo in free agency, which led to other sell-off trades.
Vegas has $6 million in estimated cap space and, in a perfect world, would like to bring back UFA defenceman Alec Martinez. That means the Golden Knights would have to shed salary in a deal with Buffalo, but also probably force them into a spot where they'd have to trade one of their goalies in a separate move and stop spending $12 million on the position. Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury would make the most sense to part with because of his age, but owner Bill Foley has always been against that approach.
It's just that Vegas is always in on the biggest available players and have faced tight cap crunches when making these moves before. It always finds a way around it. And it's not only being connected to Eichel because he's another fancy name, but Vegas has a clear need for a No. 1 star centre. It's the only thing it lacks and, after another disappointing playoff exit, could give GM Kelly McCrimmon an itchy trade finger. The Golden Knights have some pieces that may entice Buffalo too, so until they are officially out of the Eichel sweepstakes they're certainly included on a list like this.
Possible assets to use in trade: Shea Theodore, William Karlsson, Cody Glass, Peyton Krebs, Vegas 2021 and 2022 first-rounder
It was a frustrating and disappointing year for the Philadephia Flyers, who missed out on the playoffs, and now it'll be a defining off-season for GM Chuck Fletcher. Setting up to be one of the more active front offices, Fletcher and the Flyers are tied to any big name, including Eichel and Seth Jones. Anything could be on the table.
And the Flyers could even have the pieces to pull it off, depending on how drastically they're willing to change things. Eichel, at least, would present them with a new superstar centre to move into another era with and, like the Rangers above, may give Philadelphia a necessary shot in the arm as some of the older teams in the Metro Division begin to age out a bit.
Philadelphia has $13 million in estimated cap space and still have to sign two goalies (including RFA Carter Hart) a defenceman (RFA Travis Sanheim), and though this calculation accounts for 12 forwards, Nolan Patrick is an RFA, too. In a year from now, Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier will be UFA eligible and breakout youngster Joel Farabee will be an RFA, so picking up Eichel now may force a final decision on either of those vets.
But the fact is, this Flyers team has been in and out of the playoffs for so long that a new direction of sorts might be necessary. Eichel would be a good start.
Possible assets to use in trade: Nolan Patrick, Philippe Myers, Travis Konecny, Tyson Foerster, Cam York, Morgan Frost, Philadelphia 2021 first-rounder (13th overall).