It’s no secret that the turmoil continues to grow between the Buffalo Sabres and Jack Eichel. So much so that it’s seemingly only a matter of time before Eichel is forced to take his talents elsewhere, thanks to a trade he’s likely to welcome with open arms. Can the Chicago Blackhawks and their rebuild plans make sense of adding the former second overall pick?
Of course, there are a number of things for both sides to consider before this type of move even begins to make sense. While Chicago may not seem like Eichel’s likely landing spot at first glance, there is a case to be made for why it would be a great fit all around.
Times Have Changed
Last offseason, I outlined a hypothetical scenario that explored Patrick Kane heading home to Buffalo, given the Sabres’ apparent push to become contenders and Chicago having pressed down on their reset button.
Buffalo was adding proven performers and revising their build in a way that suggested they were expecting to compete sooner rather than later. Whereas Chicago had made it clear that challenges were coming, with little expectation of winning to follow in their near future.
Needless to say, both narratives changed throughout 2020-21. Not only did the Sabres’ direction seem to derail early on, but the Blackhawks also appeared to skip some steps in their redevelopment blueprint. The veterans that Buffalo added were gone as rookie talent took over in Chicago.
So, why not unwrap what it could look like if roles were reversed and Eichel, instead, traveled back the other way to help push Chicago’s rebuild even further along?
Heading into his seventh season, Eichel has very little to show for his tenure to this point. Instead of wasting his skill any further in a city that continues to trend in the wrong direction, it’s time his impact is put towards progress that he can be proud of.
How It Supports Chicago’s Rebuild
Right off the cuff, you might wonder how adding a veteran centreman would help support the Blackhawks’ commitment to their recent youth movement. Given that Eichel already has six seasons of NHL experience on his resume, it’s easy to overlook that he’s still only 24 years old.
As far as Chicago’s current preference towards inexperience is concerned, adding Eichel into the equation would actually lower their average age, which sat at 27 throughout the 2020-21 campaign.
Last season being the outlier, with Eichel out of the lineup since early March due to injury, he’s achieved healthy year-over-year progress since breaking into the league in 2015-16. He consistently scores, assists, hits, and plays more, with all respective numbers ascending in the right direction.
That’s the type of trajectory that directly aligns with what the Blackhawks hope to continue seeing out of their prospect pool. Those such improvements would go hand in hand, complementing the lineup’s overall impact. It would push all to be at their best, battling for time on ice while helping them collectively elevate their efforts.
Centre of Attention in Chicago
It’s no secret that depth at centre is central to sustained success, and the importance of faceoff dominance can’t be overstated, with both being areas the Blackhawks lack of late. Even as their roster exceeded expectations in a lot of ways, strength down the middle was not part of that list.
Despite it having been a down year for Eichel, he still achieved a faceoff win percentage of 49.7. Among centremen who took at least 10 draws for Chicago, that would have placed him behind only David Kampf (52.8) in that respect. As Eichel continues to improve in that area of his game, a better situation surrounding him could help further his effectiveness at the dot. Not having had top-end talent to take those important draws for the Blackhawks is certainly part of the reason they couldn’t hold a lead or their postseason positioning through 2020-21. Adding a player like Eichel would address that.
Of course, all hope to see Jonathan Toews return to Chicago’s lineup. First and foremost, that would mean he’s healthy, and that’s what matters most. Second to that would be the added leadership and faceoff success that comes alongside his presence. Being able to rely on Toews winning 56.9 of his faceoffs adds a definite advantage.
An ideal scenario would see Toews and Eichel pack a one-two punch to control Chicago’s top-six, allowing Kirby Dach some breathing room to further develop and hone in on that skill set. If that’s not possible, having only one of the two would still be better than having neither of them there to set the bar and mentor the younger centres looking to improve.
Buffalo Might Undervalue the Move
While there are a variety of reasons both Buffalo and Eichel might point to as the catalyst for making this rumour a reality, it’s clearly best for all involved that this happens sooner rather than later. Each side needs a fresh start that doesn’t include the other.
“I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” Eichel said on May 10. “There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization.
“The most important thing now is to get healthy and be ready to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”
All things considered, it seems like Eichel’s market value may currently be at an all-time low. Not because any other city doubts his capabilities, but simply as a result of circumstances in Buffalo.
Obviously, the Sabres are not going to just give away what Eichel infuses into a lineup. They’ll want a suitable return, and rightfully so. However, now might be the best time for the rest of the league to throw any and every offer they have towards Buffalo, testing just how low they’re willing to go to make the deal a reality.
Necessary Financials to Find the Fit
From Chicago’s standpoint, with their focus on development, it’s unlikely they’d be willing to part with any of their more coveted assets. Yet, they would have to be prepared to create a package that helps Buffalo’s outlook while freeing up the financials to even make this plausible.
Attached to Eichel, for the next five seasons, is a $10 million AAV. That’s a hefty price to pay, but he’s the type of talent that could make it well worth the spend. With that in mind, the Blackhawks would have to free up cap space to add his contract to their books.
Couple that with the fact that Chicago is quickly closing in on their maximum number of contracts, and it becomes clear that extracting value via trades might actually be the direction they need to go. So, why not make it a worthwhile venture by adding a potentially franchise-changing player who typically isn’t as available as Eichel currently is?
Obviously, there are players that are simply untouchable. Whether their contract makes it near impossible to move them or because it would dampen Chicago’s outlook if they went that route. The suggestion here supports that they enhance their rebuild, not risk its progress.
However, with Chicago sitting at their approved spending limit, they’d have to get creative with finding the necessary funding by shaving off the type of support that Buffalo would hope to land.
Possible Pieces to Consider
With an Eichel departure, Buffalo loses a number one centre and their captain. Sure, they have others that could fill in and prospects working their way towards a roster spot, but we’re not talking about a fringe NHL player who barely moves the needle. Eichel is an impact player whose void would need to be filled effectively.
After it seemed like the Sabres were loading up on a proven veteran presence to make a deeper run through 2020-21, that approach came to a halt when it became clear now wasn’t their time. As such, it’s fair to assume that Buffalo wants to shift their thinking and focus on rounding out its roster more strategically.
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Fortunately, Chicago doesn’t lack in that respect. Having taken a conscious approach to provide ample opportunity for their prospects to blossom, the Blackhawks now seem littered with younger stars poised to make their mark. The showcase their rookies put on display last season might have helped create the perfect stance to negotiate from. It’s not as concerning to see a veteran depart, knowing there are players poised to step up in their place.
Dylan Strome (Cap Hit: $3 Million)
After being traded to Chicago, Dylan Strome saw a necessary resurgence to his career. Yet, despite a recent contract extension, he might have written himself outside of their good books this past season. As his production began to dip, he was scratched and relied upon less and less.
However, the former third overall pick has shown what he can do during his peaks, as evidenced by his 51 points through 58 games with Chicago in 2018-19. It’s just a matter of setting him up for that type of success.
He’s creative and dynamic, especially when he finds familiarity with linemates like he has with Alex DeBrincat, and is reliable in the faceoff circle. Strome is also 24, with a later birthday than Eichel, so they’d be upgrading with regards to adding youth. The fact that he plays wing and centre would add some much-needed versatility to Buffalo’s depth, as well.
Pius Suter (Cap Hit: $925,000)
Chicago’s European scouting staff is to thank for finding such impressive imports, like Pius Suter. Fresh off being named the Swiss League MVP, Suter furthered that storyline through 2020-21 by ranking in fourth for production on the Blackhawks. He accumulated 14 goals and 13 assists for 27 points in 55 contests.
Despite a streaky run of production, the 25-year-old remained among the league’s top-producing rookies all season long. Clearly, he can score. His confidence was also obvious, as he fit in right from that first puck drop. With a proven trend that sees his impact increase after familiarizing himself in every league he’s played in, that’s a great sign of things to come from yet another centre who can play on the wing.
The unique benefit gained from dealing Suter now would be that his value far outweighs his current salary cap hit, given that he’s on an entry-level contract. Buffalo would have to recognize that and bend further towards Chicago’s favour as a result.
Calvin de Haan (Cap Hit: $4.55 Million)
Who doesn’t want an experienced defenseman who can play in all situations while being expected to log 20:00 of ice time per night? Calvin de Haan can do all that and more. He’s proven it in his time with the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, and Blackhawks.
Yet, with such a crowded blue line in Chicago, making way for those ready to take the next step in their careers makes sense at this time. They might as well leverage the 30-year-old’s reputation while he still has years ahead of him as an impact defender.
Of any Blackhawk who played at least 40 games with the club last season, de Haan’s Corsi for percentage of 50.2 was second only to Ryan Carpenter. Add in that he averages a few hits and blocks per game, and the veteran really does sell himself as a potential solution to help clean up the mess on Buffalo’s back end.
Paying for Picks
Buffalo has the first overall selection at the upcoming 2021 NHL Entry Draft, but that doesn’t mean they’d shy away from bulking up on additional picks. While choosing 11th seems to support Chicago’s rebuilding efforts, parting with it wouldn’t be all that bad if it meant Eichel was the return.
Besides, they already have a prospect pool actively proving their worth. A mid-round rookie, who is far from sure to pan out as anticipated, won’t impact Chicago’s ability to develop from the ground up with those already in their system.
That said, losing such a pick might also be the price Chicago has to pay in hopes that Buffalo retains part of Eichel’s salary through the duration of his current contract.
Given the value that the Blackhawks would be handing off the other way, including a player like Suter, who’s worth much more than he’s allowed to be paid at the moment, this type of swap may not be as implausible as it seems. The right pieces simply need to be in play.
All-American Super Line
Could you imagine how dangerous an all-American line of DeBrincat, Eichel, and Kane would be? Seeing it turn into the greatest trio assembled in today’s game is not far-fetched.
There are a lot of reasons that this makes sense for both sides. Buffalo benefits from replacing youth with more of it, adding production potential across multiple positions while injecting a sturdy presence to help lead their defensive core. Chicago sheds the necessary spend and tightens up their contract count, gaining an elite centreman whose prime years could directly align with expediting their rebuild.
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