Jack Eichel’s Sabres Tenure Was Disappointing From the Start

The Jack Eichel era is over for the Buffalo Sabres. Just six years after he was drafted second overall at the 2015 NHL draft, he has been traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for a bevy of picks and prospects. While the impact surrounding this return will take years to unfold, it’s impossible to not look at the trade and wonder what could have been had Eichel stayed healthy.

Related: Golden Knights Come Out on Top of Eichel Blockbuster

No matter what you think of the return, this trade finally marks the end of one of the most confusing and disappointing stretches in Sabres’ history. To put it bluntly, the Eichel era was a failure for Buffalo from the moment that it started until his departure from the franchise.

Eichel Started as a Consolation Prize for Buffalo

The 2014-15 season was bad for the Sabres, as they were actively trying to acquire the number one overall pick for Connor McDavid. If you were a player that had any value on the trade market, you were jettisoned from the franchise, as journeymen and rookies were used to fill out their starting roster. By season’s end, the franchise scored the least goals per game, while giving up the second-most goals against per game, which is the perfect indicator of just how bad they were.

Now, the good news was the Sabres succeeded at being the worst team in the league. However, they didn’t have luck in the draft lottery, where they fell to second overall after the Edmonton Oilers won the McDavid sweepstakes. 

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
While he could have been a number-one overall pick in another draft class, Jack Eichel was the Buffalo Sabres’ consolation prize for not winning the 2015 Draft lottery and missing out on a potential generational talent in Connor McDavid. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This wasn’t the worst-case scenario, but in many ways, it started the Eichel era off on the wrong foot for Buffalo. Sure, the franchise still got a superstar talent, but it wasn’t THE superstar talent that they tanked for. Despite this, there still was no doubt that he could change the future of the franchise if the team built a stable core around him.

Sabres Failed To Make the Most Out of Eichel

Quickly, Eichel established himself as a premier centerman in the NHL. During his rookie season, he posted 24 goals and 56 points in 81 games, and by his fourth season, he showcased himself as a true superstar with a 28 goal, 82 point campaign. 

The bad news, however, is that Buffalo never took that next step alongside their number one centerman. In 2018, they finished last in the league again despite Eichel’s 64 points in 67 games, garnering the first overall pick. Even though finishing last was bad, adding a potential number one defenseman in Rasmus Dahling should have been worth it. After all, few franchises get a number one centerman and defenseman to build a long-term core around.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres
With a potential number-one defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin drafted first overall and Eichel as their top centerman, there was reason for the Sabres to believe that they had the core pieces to build a stable future. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There were signs of better things to come for Buffalo too. In 2018-19, Eichel had his best season yet, and the core looked to be improving around him with the newly acquired Jeff Skinner going off for 40 goals. Sure, they still only won 33 games, but that was an improvement over the 25 they won the prior season.

Terrible 2020-21 Season Broke the Sabres

The wheels fell off this plan for Buffalo in the coming years. While they had a few key members of their roster on lock, the core around them wasn’t able to keep up. Goaltending was shaky, offensive drivers like Skinner floundered after signing a massive $9 million per year extension, and the team looked a bit directionless after they barely missed the cut to make the 2020 playoff bubble. 

Then, the 2020-21 season proved to be a nightmare, with the Sabres starting slowing before getting completely outmatched by their limited opponents, leading to an 18 game losing streak

Related: Sabres Daily Download – Recap, Stats, Injuries & News

During this terrible season, Eichel suffered the season-ending injury that would go on to end his time in Buffalo. In many ways, this felt fitting, as everything that could go wrong did, and the things that went wrong went nuclear for the Sabres.

Eichel’s Legacy Will Stretch Farther Than the Sabres

Eichel’s injury has ignited a slew of discussions around player choice involving their own bodies versus the importance of a team protecting their investments in said players. No matter what side of the argument you fall on, it will be important for both the NHL and fans of hockey to recognize this issue. However, for the Sabers, this discussion led to the breaking point between the franchise and Eichel.

With his trade to the Golden Knights, Eichel will get a chance to become a number one center for a franchise hell-bent on winning a Stanley Cup right now. Vegas is going all-in again, and the Sabres will just have to wait and see if they got a return worthy of their injured superstar centerman.

Eichel’s Legacy with the Sabres should be a cautionary tale for teams approaching a rebuild. It’s easy to tear everything down, but far harder to build it back again. Just because you get young players with superstar potential, it doesn’t mean anything if you are unable to surround them with talent, coaching, and a winning culture.

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Eichel’s time with the Sabres should be a cautionary tale for teams looking to tank for a top draft pick, as it is easy to tear down a franchise but much harder to build it back again after you get that superstar talent in the draft. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, there is good news for Buffalo. Eichel’s trade comes at a time when the team appears to be moving in a positive direction. They are off to a hot start, despite the fact that much of their lineup is filled in by journeymen veterans. While this may not be a sustainable game plan for an entire season, it does put the trade into a different light. 

Eichel’s departure should have been just an abject failure for the Sabres, where everything went wrong and they would be entering another decade of rebuilding. Instead, it feels like the Sabres are building a new core that could lead them to the playoffs in the near term. As long as they handle this season properly, they should be able to build off of this momentum and potential goodwill to create a brighter future.

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