A whole bunch of teams will be on their toes with excitement in the event Jack Eichel is actually put on the trade market by the Buffalo Sabres. And any club on the fence about at least making a phone call should contemplate the fact it’s been 15 years since we saw a centre this accomplished and young dealt -- and that guy is still racking up a point-per-game a few months shy of his 42nd birthday.
The entire hockey world was jolted when a 26-year-old Joe Thornton was traded by the Boston Bruins to the San Jose Sharks on the last day of November in 2005 for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. That out-of-the-blue move was a very different dynamic than the slow-drip brewing in Buffalo, where the icky pale of losing is sticking to everyone. The infamously underwhelming return for Thornton -- who’s producing like a pup again while playing left wing on a deadly Toronto trio -- is also, presumably, not something that would resemble any haul the Sabres would receive for Eichel. But the fact pivots the calibre of Thornton and Eichel -- who doesn’t turn 25 until October -- so infrequently get moved in their prime begs the question, what does a trade package for a superstar centre even look like in this sport?
A quick round of housekeeping before we dive into this. For those wondering about another big-time Boston centre moved in the cap era, Tyler Seguin was a good player dripping with potential when he was dealt in 2013, but hadn’t developed into the force he became in Dallas. Trading Eichel would be a different ball of wax.
Also, Eichel is locked up at a cap hit of $10 million for the next five years. That’s an extremely palatable number for a guy who has averaged over a point-per-game dating back to 2017-18 and would likely be even more prolific than that if he had the benefit of some higher-end running mates.
Finally, we have to acknowledge Eichel has not asked to be moved, nor have the Sabres indicated they’re on the precipice of dealing him. It’s just logic-infused speculation at this point, because the rumblings are getting harder to ignore and who wouldn’t be fed up with more than a half-decade of losing?
All that out of the way, it’s an interesting time to contemplate an Eichel move because there are situations with some parallels in other sports that are either ongoing or have recently come to a resolution. James Harden, the NBA’s MVP in 2017-18, pushed his way out of Houston -- and had both the figurative and literal weight to do it because part of his protest while stuck there included throwing in the wet nap on conditioning -- earlier this season and now plays for the circuit’s latest mega team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. In the NFL, teams are drooling over the possibility of acquiring 25-year-old quarterback Deshaun Watson, the rare pro sports star who toils for a more hopeless organization than Eichel. Watson has reportedly told the bumbling Houston Texans he has no intention of taking another snap for them in his career.
The full web of the four-team trade that sent Harden to Brooklyn looks like the equation Matt Damon solved on an MIT chalkboard in Good Will Hunting. Put it this way; there are first-round picks in 2027 involved. As for Watson, some speculate he could return three, four, maybe even five first-rounders in a league where NCAA players are drafted in April with the expectation they can make an impact on their NFL team five months later. As much as NHL organizations preach building from the ground up, draft pick capital just carries more weight in the NBA and NFL.
For laughs, let’s temporarily live in a world where transactions that were just a boatload of futures on one side happened frequently in hockey. I think we’d immediately come back to Thornton’s old team in Boston. Eichel is a Massachusetts boy and the Bruins are an ultra-competitive team. Boston is also the rare Cup contender that has a smidgen of breathing room under the salary cap right now with the possibility of much more to come when David Krejci’s $7.25-million hit comes off the books this summer. Imagine running an Eichel-anchored line out there right after Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have terrorized an opponent’s top defence pair.
Would Boston fork over four first-rounders to bring that scenario to life? Given how good Eichel is and the fact he’s only 24, the B’s would have to think about it. The reality, though, is those picks just don’t have the same appeal for the Sabres because they’re not likely to be high selections and -- even if they are -- an 18-year-old drafted in 2024 isn’t going to help your team until the back half of this decade. How do you sell that to a fanbase that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2011?
If I’m Sabres GM Kevyn Adams, my mind is drifting more towards high-end drafted prospects that could play now or very soon. Good teams don’t often have those in abundance because they haven’t been selecting at the top of the board. Those same quality clubs also tend to be squeezed under the cap. In the NFL, franchises find all kinds of ways to stretch contracts out like chewed gum to bring their annual hit down; not so much in the hard-cap NHL.
Perhaps that’s why the two teams linked most to Eichel out of the gate are the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. Both have been toiling in the middle or bottom of the league for a couple of seasons, allowing them to stock the prospect cupboard with gamers. (In the Rangers’ case, Lady Luck gets a huge stick tap for the way the NHL Draft Lottery played the past two years).
That said, one of the things that stuck out to me while inhaling speculation about a Watson trade came from Kevin Clark of The Ringer. His advice to NFL teams grappling with the fact there might not even be a precedent for the scale of a Watson swap was basically, if the model for the move doesn’t already exist -- in the case of this player -- you invent a new one.
NHL teams may be a little more handcuffed when it comes to weaving magic, but the sentiment stands. Given how odd it is for a centre like Eichel to become available, you test every wand and trap door at your disposal.