Under normal circumstances, a long-term injury to captain and franchise centre Jack Eichel would be disastrous for the Buffalo Sabres – especially heading down the stretch run to the playoffs. Unlike the Edmonton Oilers (who have Leon Draisaitl to fall back on if Connor McDavid winds up on the injured reserve) or the Toronto Maple Leafs (who can turn to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander to pick up the slack when Auston Matthews gets hurt) the Sabres' offence rises and sets with Eichel, and a serious injury to number 15 at this point in the season means that the playoffs are, for all intents and purposes, out of reach.
Under normal circumstances, the news that Eichel will be sidelined for the "foreseeable future" with an undisclosed upper body injury (as was announced by Ralph Krueger on Saturday) would be the kind of thing that ought to send a thrill of terror through general manager Kevyn Adams. GM jobs are, as we all know, precarious, and yet another playoff miss for his reeling Sabres squad could have him flipping through the classified ads well before Ron Francis makes his first selection at the Seattle expansion draft.
These are not, however, normal circumstances. They are so very not normal, in fact, that Eichels' injury could be just the opportunity Adams needs to save his job and turn the Sabres into a playoff team for next season – provided, of course, that he sees the opportunity for what it is, and capitalizes upon it.
For most of the COVID-19-shortened 2020-21 season, Adams has been stuck between a rock and a (very, very) hard place: his team is floundering, far out of the playoff race, and there doesn't seem to be a viable way to right the ship this season. Taylor Hall, who was supposed to be a saviour – finally, a top-flight winger (not named Skinner) for Eichel to play with! – has been a colossal bust. Although he's been quite dependable when healthy, injuries have devilled Linus Ullmark, dampening his overall impact and leaving the goaltending situation in a shambles. Eric Staal hasn't quite worked out as hoped.
From a GM's perspective, the path forward is clear: accept the rotten luck, write the rest of the season off, cut your losses, and get a jump on 2021-22. In this situation, the pure hockey move is to sell-off pending UFA's, stockpile picks, and jump into the 2021 draft lottery with both feet – and with all ten fingers crossed for a top 3 selection. The saving grace of the failed Taylor hall experiment was that it was a short-term one: Hall's 1 year, $8M deal was designed precisely to determine if he'd be able to regain his MVP form on Eichel's wing (and, if he did, presumably to sign him to a longer-term deal) while leaving open the option of dishing him to a contender as a deadline rental if he did not.
As the chances of Hall working out in Buffalo faded with the Sabres' playoff hopes, the best (really the only) play became trading him to a frontrunner looking for that extra little boost that brings in the cup (retaining half his salary to make him a plausible option under the cap, and maximize his return) of whom there are a handful – including the Leafs, who (as recent history has shown) are not shy about dealing first-rounders to improve now, and are very publicly 'all in' this year. This would both net the Sabres a tidy return (probably a late first round pick and mid-level prospect, plus a salary-balancing throw-in on an expiring contract) and mitigate the danger of a draft-pick-lowering late-season surge, which is a real (and harrowing) possibility if Hall were to catch fire once it's too late to make the playoffs – something which, given how this season has gone for the Sabres, would be only too fitting.
The trouble is, players don't think like GMs, and (as everyone and their grandmother knows) Jack Eichel is sick of losing, and (although he hasn't said anything publicly) the general feeling is that he's running out of patience with the Sabres organization.
Although a fire-sale, smart draft, savvy free-agency period, and re-invigorated push in 2021-22 makes good GM-sense, to Eichel it might look like a timid management group hitting the 'eject' button a little too eagerly. He might see a pattern emerging. He might think that his employers don't want to win as badly as he does. This would be disaster. Although he's not quite in the same echelon as Matthew and McDavid, Eichel is just barely below that level (and might well join those lofty ranks on a stronger team) a generational talent of the kind most teams will never be lucky enough to get, and that you'd have to be crazy to squander.
Showing Eichel that the organization is committed to winning – whether by firing unsuccessful coaches, spending aggressively in the offseason, or doing anything and everything it takes to avert that fateful day when he walks into the GM's office and requests a trade has to be priority #1 for Adams, and for the organization. Even if it means refusing to let go of a lost season, buying when he should be selling (scuttling potentially high draft picks and wasting trade chips in the process) and hurting (perhaps killing) the Sabres chances of contending in 2021-22, Adams has no choice but to make every attempt at convincing Eichel that his future in Buffalo won't consist of watching a gun-shy management team pull the chute at the first sign of trouble every year, as he whiles away the prime of his career watching Matthews and McDavid battle for cup after cup.
This is a death trap.
These are the (extremely unusual circumstances) under which Eichel's UBI is a blessing, rather than a curse. In perilous danger of becoming stuck in hockey purgatory – spinning his wheels in a near-hopeless attempt to improve without biting the bullet and enduring a lot of painful but very necessary house cleaning, Adams now has the perfect excuse to throw in the towel join the deadline sellers before needs begin being filled – an injured Eichel, whom he can urge to relax, recover, and look forward to a bright new 2021-22 season. 'No need to rush back, Jackie boy – we're sunk now, may as well get a step on next year .... just rotten luck, no one's fault – nature of the beast etc...' he can say, at last without any danger of seeming feckless or eager to abort. Finally (if he sees the opportunity for what it is) he can place Eichel on the LTIR, get him some much-needed rest, and begin the fire-sale and restructuring (no chance he calls it a 'rebuild') for next season.
He can trade Hall and Staal for picks and prospects, and ensure a high first-rounder (almost certainly a top-five pick if he pulls the plug now) and he doesn't have to keep it – assets like that can be flipped for impact players at the draft: (this can be part of his pitch to Eichel) young, established players on reasonable contracts (the kind you can't buy during the free agent frenzy) who can help next season – and for the next four, five, or six seasons – wink wink, nudge nudge. This is the power of high first round picks – they can be swapped for building blocks, not just rentals – and the Sabres need to build around Eichel (and Dahlin) not just patch and solder. This is the kind of plan that might – just might – convince Eichel to give Adams one last chance to build a winner (or at least a promising playoff team) around him before he (quite understandably) makes that fateful request (a request which would almost certainly start the clock ticking on Adams' termination). That's if Adams recognizes this golden opportunity (an opportunity that has fallen out of the sky and landed in his lap right when he needs it most) for what it is, that is.
And if he fires Ralph Krueger, too, of course – but that's a story for another blog.