“Wherever that may be.”
Those four words, uttered by Jack Eichel with regards to where he’ll be playing hockey next season, might as well have been skywritten in all caps across the Western New York blue.
The face of the Buffalo Sabres franchise for the past six seasons all but confirmed that his slow-boil frustration with the floundering organization has now bubbled over.
One after another, Eichel’s candid responses to local reporters during the club’s annual locker cleanout day were like fiery emergency flares blasting out from KeyBank Center and zipping over the desks of the NHL’s other 31 teams’ front offices.
The captain declined comment when asked if he has requested a trade.
Eichel might not say it as explicitly as we will: The guy wants out.
“I’ve got to do what’s best for me, and they’ve got to do what’s best for them,” said Eichel, speaking publicly for the first time since leaving the lineup with a herniated disk. “I’m only going to play hockey for so long. I’m 24 years old and only have so many years playing this amazing game.
“I’m sure these conversations will be had, and things will go from there.”
More Eichel: “The losing is tough. It takes a toll. It’s all perspective. I guess we’ll see what happens.”
And the mic-drop moment: “I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt. I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times. Right now, the most important thing now is to get healthy and be ready to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”
That sound you hear could be one of two things: (a) the rustle of tortured Sabres faithful tugging paper bags over their heads or (b) rookie general manager Kevyn Adams’ phone ringing off the hook.
The spendy and prospect-rich New York Rangers, who had previously kicked tires on an Eichel blockbuster, will doubtlessly come knocking, particularly with owner James Dolan urgent to accelerate his team to contender status.
Weaker clubs like the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets have glaring holes up the middle plus the type of salary cap space to accommodate Eichel’s $10-million AAV. Perhaps Rob Blake, patient thus far, will be inspired to fast-track his L.A. Kings rebuild while Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are still difference-makers.
There will be other suitors, too.
A dynamic, play-driving 24-year-old centreman and team MVP who contributes to both special and creates offence at an elite level: How often do they ever become available?
We won’t waste bandwidth detailing how the Sabres sunk to this new low, an ugly denouement to their NHL-worst 10th consecutive whiff on the playoffs.
But understand Eichel’s dissatisfaction has been brewing longer than a pot of decaf at a delinquent truck stop.
Here’s an Eichel quote from 2019’s locker cleanout: “This is my fourth time doing this with you guys. We don’t want to be here…. This isn’t an easy day for anybody. It’s a product of not being good enough. It’s not an easy day for us. It’s not an easy day for our fans. Our fans deserve more.”
And one from 2020’s end-of-season presser: “I’m fed up with the losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated.”
What made Monday’s Q&A more damning was Eichel suggestion that the Sabres prevented him from seeking neck surgery, that they didn’t agree on a recovery plan.
Shouldn’t the player get last word on his own health?
“It doesn’t work like that. I wish,” said Eichel, whose main priority is full health. “I’m under contract with this team, and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do.”
Adams is scheduled to speak Wednesday, giving us plenty of time to stock up on popcorn.
Less than 11 months on the job, Adams has already fired a head coach (Ralph Krueger) Eichel loved. He’s also signed and traded away winger Taylor Hall at less than market value after handing the player all leverage.
His No. 1 goaltender, Linus Ullmark, is inching toward unrestricted free agency. No. 1 defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen said Monday that he informed Adams he’d be fine with a trade or fine with staying put.
And now: DEFCON Eichel.
Does the office really want to start 2021-22 with core players and influential dressing room voices that are indifferent or sour about representing the crest?
Even the world’s most experienced GM would be hard-pressed to win the trade where he’s dealing away the best player in the deal.
Do not be fooled by Eichel’s statistical dip this season — two goals and 16 assists before shutting it down after 21 games. He is a superstar who played through a broken rib and an abdominal injury prior to suffering the herniated disk.
While other name-brand NHL centremen could be dangled on the market — Sean Monahan? Evgeny Kuznetsov? — none are in Eichel’s stratosphere when it comes to potential.
The pressure on Adams to limit the damage here is immense. That said, he now has associate general manager Jason Karmanos (formerly of the Penguins) to help navigate landmines this summer.
Most importantly, Eichel’s full no-move clause doesn’t kick in until the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. In other words, Adams can cast a wider net than he was able to with Hall last month.
If the relationship is irreparable, now is the time to stoke a bidding war and trade Eichel for the best haul possible.