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Scenes From a (Broken) Marriage: How Jack Eichel and the Sabres Fell Apart

The former no. 2 pick’s career in Buffalo started with losing, and things have only gone downhill since. How did things get so bad?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Update: On Nov. 4, 2021, Jack Eichel was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights.

On August 5, 2021, Jack Eichel started a Twitter account.

This wouldn’t be a noteworthy development for most people, but after the season—and even more to the point, the offseason—Eichel had with the Buffalo Sabres, the sudden social media presence was momentous. For his avatar, he chose a photo of himself from the 2020 NHL All-Star Game red carpet. He’s wearing a brown velvet suit that closely resembles the one Kendall Roy took off before performing “L to the OG” in Season 2 of Succession, and sporting a close-cropped haircut that attempts to rein in his trademark fusilli-pasta hair. He looks stoic, focused on something or someone in the distance. None of the fans in the background are looking at him.

For a banner, he picked a photograph from a nondescript seaside vacation. Maybe it’s Croatia. Or Beirut. As the sun sets in the distance, a shirtless Eichel torques his body to behold the beauty.

“#9 ” was the only thing he wrote in his bio.

He followed five accounts—the UFC, the NHL, the PGA Tour, former tennis pro Mardy Fish, and the vocal, league-bucking goaltender Robin Lehner—and tweeted once to confirm that it was indeed him. Then he went silent. Thirteen days passed before anyone heard from him again. But the tweet he produced on August 19 was worth the wait—a venting, exasperated message that encapsulated half a decade of frustration and pain, both literal and figurative: a sad face.

This frowny-face emoji—it’s technically called “unamused”—was somehow both deeply appropriate and inappropriate for the situation. How else might one summarize the relationship between the Sabres and Eichel, one that turned a golden child into pyrite through gross mismanagement, unfathomable failure, and experimental neck surgeries? And what more could anyone expect from a still-just-24-year-old who once announced his impending arrival in the Rust Belt by barking “Buffalo, I’m coming for ya” and chugging a Bud Light? On the other side of this, though, lie questions about accountability, duty, and expectations. What a player owes to the organization that drafts him—and what that organization owes to that player. Those questions can’t be answered with a single emoji, but at this point in the debacle, that seems to be all anyone can muster.

On October 14, the Buffalo Sabres will play their first game of the 2021-22 NHL season. Jack Eichel will still be on the team. But he won’t be on the ice.

To understand the Eichel saga, you have to understand that it began with losing. After the Sabres made the playoffs 14 times between 1991 and 2011—including one Stanley Cup appearance, three conference finals, and one Presidents’ Trophy—the team found itself saddled with a host of bad contracts and a depleted prospect pool. As a result, the 2014 and 2015 seasons featured a near-Hinkie level of tanking in which the Sabres, then managed by Tim Murray, rid themselves of the faces of their franchise—Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers—and any other vestiges of a functioning hockey team. There were a lot of losses in those two years: 120, to be exact. But it was one specific loss that brought Eichel to the Sabres.

Having embraced the tank so thoroughly heading into the 2015 draft, Buffalo locked up the NHL’s best lottery odds. But that was also the year the league instituted a weighting system designed to discourage tanking by decreasing the odds of the three worst teams and increasing the odds of the other non-playoff teams. Thanks to that formula, that year’s first pick was awarded to the Edmonton Oilers. Buffalo was still blessed with the second pick in a draft that featured two of the most can’t-miss prospects in league history, but make no mistake, Connor McDavid, whom the Oilers would select that summer, was the ultimate prize. Eichel was second best, a very good consolation.

Being drafted and immediately heralded as a franchise savior almost never pans out the way both player and team want it to. The organizational dysfunction necessary to get into a position to select a player whose talents are worthy of such lofty expectations doesn’t usually just disappear once the player has been selected. Look at Anthony Davis in New Orleans; Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia; Sam Darnold in New York; even LeBron James, who had to leave Cleveland before eventually returning to bring a title to the promised land.

The Buffalo Sabres lost 96 games over Eichel’s first two seasons, even while the young star proved himself deserving of his draft position. His silky hands and pure stride belied his skill and overpowering speed. And with elite vision and a lethal wrist shot, Eichel finished fourth in voting for the 2016 Calder trophy and led the 2017 Sabres in points despite missing nearly two months of the season with a high ankle sprain.

But the bad vibes of losing can be suffocating, and just two years into Eichel’s tenure with the team, the narrative of “savior grows tired of decrepit franchise” began to set in. In April 2017, a report came out that said Eichel would refuse to sign an extension should coach Dan Bylsma—who was the head coach of the Penguins when Sidney Crosby blossomed into a Hall of Famer—remain in his position. Eichel spoke out, telling Buffalo News’ John Vogl that, “It’s a bit frustrating and a bit disheartening because I thought things were heading in the right direction leaving Buffalo. ... I want to be here for a long time. That’s the way I look at it. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I don’t want anybody to think that I want to be somewhere else. I want to be here, and I want to help this team win in any way that I can do that. I just want all the people there to know that.”

The next day, Bylsma was fired. Five months after that, Eichel signed an eight-year, $80 million deal with the Sabres. But the change behind the bench—and whatever karmic benefits there may be in reinforcing loyalties through word and ink—didn’t translate into an on-ice improvement. Multiple GMs attempted to surround Eichel with proven playmakers such as Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo, but they failed to strengthen the overall depth of the team or correct the noticeable lack of talent on the blue line and in between the posts. The 2017-18 season was worse than the two before it, even as Eichel’s game took another leap.

“Throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times,” O’Reilly told reporters at the end of the season. “It’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.’’

As the losing seasons continued, the team’s exit interviews with the press became more closely watched than the games. The ’18-19 season saw Eichel named captain and the team go on a 10-game winning streak that put them at the top of the NHL standings in November. But after winning just 16 more games the rest of the way, the only focus was the mental state of the Sabres’ centerpiece—which seemed to be rapidly deteriorating. “This is my fourth time doing this with you guys. We don’t want to be here,” Eichel said. The Sabres had finished 33-39-10 and fired yet another head coach in Phil Housley. “This isn’t an easy day for anybody. It’s a product of not being good enough.”

Eichel looked dejected, angry, and lost during that press conference. But more than anything, he just looked tired. Less than three months later, O’Reilly was lifting the Stanley Cup with his new team, the St. Louis Blues.

If Eichel’s stint with the Sabres is a sinking ship, then the Ralph Krueger era was the iceberg. After failing with a former Cup-winning coach (Bylsma) and a Sabres alumnus (Housley), team owners Terry and Kim Pegula decided to look outside the box—and outside the sport entirely. Krueger had coached in the NHL before—he spent one season with the Oilers in 2013—but when the Sabres hired him, he was coming off of a five-year run as the chairman of Southampton Football Club in England. “We’re going to expect Ralph to communicate well with [the young players], expect Ralph to help their development to move along here for our organization to get to the next step,” then-Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said after the hire in May 2019.

Only parts of that statement came true: Eichel did seem to thrive under Krueger, scoring a career-high 36 goals in 2019 and nearly reaching a career high in points despite playing only 68 games. But everything else was a disaster. First pick Rasmus Dahlin looked lost on the ice; Jeff Skinner’s playing time decreased even though he was coming off a season in which he scored 40 goals (and, worse, signed a contract extension worth $9 million a year); and the team as a whole struggled to put pucks in the net. The Sabres finished with just 30 wins and were one of seven teams that did not qualify for the COVID-adjusted continuation of the season. Once again, Eichel found himself at a podium attempting to explain what it feels like to lose all the time. “Listen, I’m fed up with the losing, and I’m frustrated,” he told reporters. “You know, it’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with where things have [gone]. I’m a competitor. I want to win every time I’m on the ice. I want to win a Stanley Cup every time I start a season.”

It’s easy to watch Eichel’s year-end interviews and feel like he’s complaining. It’s a lot harder to put yourself in his shoes and understand how it must feel to be a top-tier player stuck in an organization that can’t figure out how to build even a mediocre team. To celebrate birthdays and watch the years go by and feel like you’re caught in a time loop of losing. Everything stays the same, all of the time: hope followed by reality followed by failure followed by a press conference.

The herniated disk in Jack Eichel’s neck was just a catalyst. It didn’t alter any of the dynamics in his relationship with Buffalo—it simply hastened the breakup. On March 10, with the Sabres sitting on an 6-14-4 record and toiling through a brutal eight-game losing streak, the team announced that Eichel would be out at least a week with an “upper body injury.” A week turned into a month, and a month turned into the rest of the season. Sabres GM Kevyn Adams—the third in Eichel’s five-year career—told reporters in April that rehab hadn’t fixed Eichel’s herniated disk, indicating that surgery would likely be required. The expectation was that he’d get that surgery in the near future to be ready for the next season’s training camp.

But by May 10, the day of the team’s annual exit interviews, Eichel still hadn’t had surgery. And when he stepped up to the mic, it became clear why. “I would say, for sure, that I’ve been upset about the way things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” Eichel started. “There’s been a bit of a disconnect between the organization and myself.

“I think the most important thing is just trying to get healthy and figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year ...” Eichel then took a beat and chewed the inside of his cheek for a moment, perhaps pondering whether he should just come out and say it. Then he just came out and said it: “... wherever that might be.”

The disconnect, in simple terms—though there are much more complicated terms laid out by beat writers and Sabres fans/pseudo-doctors on Reddit—is that the Buffalo organization believed Eichel’s injury could heal with conservative rehab, while Eichel and his camp wanted him to have disk replacement surgery. Since Eichel is under contract, he needs sign-off from the team to get that surgery, but the organization isn’t too keen about its most important player undergoing a procedure that has, in Adams’s words, “never been done on a National Hockey League player before.”

“I’m under contract with this team, and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do,” Eichel added in his press conference. “I have a lot of thinking to do in this offseason. I think that there’s a lot that I have to consider. But for now, obviously, I’m here.”

When a franchise player starts using temporal qualifications, it’s safe to assume that he or she will soon cease to be a franchise player. Put “for now, obviously, I’m here” on a long-sleeve tee, and let Eichel wear it like Anthony Davis’s “That’s all, folks!” shirt.

This situation—not just the feud over experimental neck surgery, but the entirety of Eichel’s tenure with the Sabres—is a rare lose-lose-lose dynamic. Eichel is determined to sit out until his wishes are granted or he’s traded to a team who’ll grant them, but with five years left on his contract, the fact remains that he’s unable to make independent decisions about his own body; the Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are unable to play their one legitimate, proven star, and unable to get back the four first-round equivalents they want in a prospective trade because other teams are low-balling for a guy who obviously wants out and who also has a tenuous spinal cord; the fans, then, are left to choose between two warring factions while knowing that a rebuild is on the way after the first rebuild failed to build anything at all.

All that’s left is acrimony. Just weeks before the puck dropped on the 2021-22 season, Adams stepped up to a podium to announce that Eichel had been stripped of his captaincy. It wasn’t a surprising move—team captains don’t say “for now, obviously, I’m here”—but the execution can be described only as petty. “I feel the captain is the heartbeat of your team. I felt that we needed to address that,” Adams said, before going into far-too-explicit details about Eichel’s refusal to concede to Sabres doctors.

What started six years ago with immense hope ends now with shady press conferences and sad-face emoji, even as Eichel’s name remains on the Sabres’ books. When the team takes the ice on Thursday night for its first game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens, the awkwardness and sourness of the Eichel saga will hang from the rafters of KeyBank Center. So will the fear that Buffalo has simply become a place where hockey goes to die—where “embracing the tank” isn’t a one-time salve, but an annual tradition. Maybe the life of this franchise really did fall out of Ryan Miller’s body when he was checked by Milan Lucic in 2011, like so many Sabres fans believe. Maybe losing is a perpetual sentence. Maybe Jack Eichel just never stood a chance. Maybe the only thing to do now is look unamused.