Nolan’s Corner: Tanking for Eichel, Eric Lindros & More

Ted Nolan is a former NHL player with the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was a head coach in the league with the Buffalo Sabres twice (1995 -1997 & 2013 -2015) and the New York Islanders (2006-2008). Nolan also coached the Latvian national men’s team at the 2012 and 2013 IIHF World Championships and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. He coached the Polish national men’s hockey team from 2017 – 2018. Each week, he shares his thoughts on the news around the NHL with The Hockey Writers’ contributor Mike Carter. 

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In this first edition of Nolan’s Corner, Ted shares his thoughts on the Jack Eichel situation with the Buffalo Sabres and the notion of tanking for a high draft pick. He also speaks about the experience of being the head coach of a team that drafted Eric Lindros, a player who, like Eichel, did not want to play for the team that held his rights.

Of course, the two situations differ, but his insights offer a glimpse into an intriguing story. The wealth of players, picks and prospects brought to teams who traded Lindros when he refused to report for duty led to championships. Might that have a similar effect for the Sabres with Eichel?

The Lindros Saga

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds drafted Lindros in the 1989 Ontario Hockey League priority selection. However, the future Hockey Hall of Famers’ parents did not want him to play in the remote city. Lindros was traded to the Oshawa Generals at the request of his parents. The Greyhounds received goalie Mike Lenarduzzi, forwards Jason Denomme and Mike DeCoff, a second-round pick in the 1991 OHL draft, a fourth-round pick in the 1992 OHL draft and $80,000 Canadian.  As a result of the whole fiasco, the OHL created a new rule that allowed players to play close to where they grew up.

Eric Lindros
When Eric Lindros didn’t want to play with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds or the Quebec Nordiques, both teams were able to move him for significant pieces that led to championships. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nolan respected Lindros’ decision throughout, relating it to his personal experience as an indigenous person. More on that in a minute.

In my research for this piece, I came across an interview with the late Angelo Bumbacco (then-Greyhounds general manager and a former longtime scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning) from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The piece centred on Lindros and was written around the time he was traded to the New York Rangers in 2001. “Looking back, the greatest thing that could have ever happened to Eric Lindros was coming to play in Sault Ste. Marie, to get the hell away from those parents,” Bumbacco said. It’s an interesting read, and you can find it in the link above.

Like Nolan’s Greyhounds, who gained heavily in the Lindros trade and went on to appear in three Memorial Cup Finals, winning it all in 1993; when the Quebec Nordiques drafted Lindros first overall in the 1991 NHL Draft, the team also ran into Lindros’ parents.

What the Nordiques got for trading “the next one” to the Philadelphia Flyers brought the Colorado Avalanche two Stanley Cups. The team turned picks into Patrick Roy and Mike Keane. Various parts of the deal brought Ray Borque into the fold for the Avalanche and Wendel Clark for a brief period with the Nordiques, in the same trade that brought in Sylvain Lefebvre, who moved with the team to Denver.

Joe Sakic Patrick Roy Colorado Avalanche
Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche pose with the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Lindros, meanwhile, appeared in one Stanley Cup Final with the Flyers, but never won a championship. As Wojnarowski notes, “the happy endings with Lindros come on the back end of trading him; wishing him goodbye, not hello.” If the Sabres are wise and hold on until the right deal presents itself, Nolan believes trading Eichel could bring similar success to the team.

The Sabres ‘Tank Year’

As head coach of the Sabres, Nolan suffered through the ‘tank year’ when the team seemed to want to lose on purpose to chase a favourable draft position and select from two highly touted prospects, Connor McDavid, at No. 1 or Jack Eichel No. 2. As we know, the team ended up with Eichel. Nolan calls the player a “heck of a talent” and is disturbed by the situation going down in New York’s Queen City. Throughout this interview, he pegged down one of his biggest concerns: the current nature of the draft and how the lottery has not stopped teams from tanking.

Note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

On the Jack Eichel Situation

Mike Carter: What’s your read on the Eichel situation, especially in light of the team taking away his captaincy? 

Nolan: It’s kind of sad that they would take the captaincy away from him. He is a young player that the organization really wanted badly as proven by going through one of those seasons where they really wanted to finish off at the bottom so that they had a chance at McDavid or Eichel. They finished second in the ball drop, so they got Eichel. He’s a heck of a talent and is a young player. But unfortunately, sometimes, losing gets the better of you. 

It’s not working for him. It’s not working for the Sabres, so maybe a mutual departure will work.

Buffalo Sabres Jack Eichel
Buffalo Sabres Jack Eichel (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

MC: Eichel’s medical status is a large part of why a trade hasn’t happened yet. Do you think there’s more to this than we know?

Nolan: You never know. His diagnosis from the Buffalo medical team didn’t suit his standard, and so he got his own, and you don’t know really what’s all behind the scenes. But, when a team trades for any player, they want their medical records and want to make sure that they can play. So, hopefully, Jack can pursue his career whether it’s in Buffalo — and it doesn’t look that way — or elsewhere. I think he’s a heck of a talent. 

It proves to everyone that it’s not one player that is going to win you championships, especially in the modern-day. Maybe back in the day, you drafted Bobby Orr and a guy like that or Gretzky or Lemieux or even Crosby who can really put you to the top. But nowadays, it’s extremely hard for one player to come in and turn a whole franchise around.”

MC: You met Eichel when your son Jordan played with him for the Sabres. What did you think of him on a human level? 

Nolan: For the brief outings and run-ins with him that I had, he seemed like a fine young man. I have nothing negative to say about Jack. I’ve watched him play, too; he’s a heck of a talent. But the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs for quite some time and have never won the Stanley Cup so that losing attitude wears thin on people after a while. Look at what St. Louis did for Ryan O’Reilly. Suddenly, he goes to the Blues, and they win, he has an outstanding year, and he never felt better in his life. Winning does that to people, and when you are losing all the time, it’s downright dreadful.

How the Sabres are Handling It All

MC: What do you think about how Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams is handling the whole situation?

Nolan: Hopefully, he has good advisers around him. I can just see the wily old veteran general managers circling over the corpse like vultures, wondering when the best time is to go in and steal a player of his calibre. It looks like Adams is maintaining his composure right now, and hopefully, he has some really good consultation behind him because moving a player like Jack Eichel is tough.

(Photo: Andy Martin Jr)
Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams (Photo: Andy Martin Jr)

I was part of the Eric Lindros trade in Sault Ste. Marie when he wouldn’t come to the Greyhounds. We drafted him, and he wasn’t happy to go to the Soo, so we traded his rights. We had seven years of players for him from his departure, and we were very fortunate to go to three Memorial Cup Finals and won the title in 1993. So, a player of that calibre could undoubtedly bring you enough resources to help you to win.

Eric Lindros Didn’t Want to Stay, Neither does Eichel

MC: What was that experience with the Lindros situation like?

Nolan: Wayne Gretzky played in the Soo, Ron Francis, and many other good players also played there. But for whatever reason, Eric didn’t want to come. Still, it was our right to draft him. Phil Esposito was the team’s owner that year, and we said, ‘well, let’s draft him and see if he’ll come. If he doesn’t come, then we trade his rights.’ So he didn’t, and we traded his rights.

We had an immediate impact with some of the players the Oshawa Generals gave us at that time, and we fully took advantage of that and ended up winning it all in 1993 because of that trade. 

So, now I think of Buffalo, and if they are wise and make some good moves with some good acquisitions, they can be successful. It’s not all about talent. People always talk about loading up on talent, but it’s not that simple. It’s the people that you win with. Now, certainly, you have to have the talent to play in the National Hockey League or you wouldn’t even be considered. But having the right kind of people coming in builds championship teams.

MC: Can you think back on any conversations you might have had with Lindros or his representatives about what he was looking for with his career at that time? 

Nolan: We went to his house one time, and it was the only conversation we had. We told him we were going to draft him, and he wasn’t too happy with that. He wanted to play down south. I think a lot of kids at that time didn’t realize how good of a place Sault Ste. Marie is and he wasn’t going to give us that opportunity to show him.

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Being indigenous and coming from a history with residential schools where they took our kids and put us as a people in a place where we didn’t want to go means I respected his position then and am fully aware of that feeling. With Lindros, I wasn’t going to try to convince a young guy to do something that he didn’t really want to do. In the end, it worked out for him and even better for us.

Eichel Forever Tied to Sabres Tank

MC: In 1995, the NHL brought in the draft lottery to try and prevent teams from tanking, but it seems it hasn’t had much of an effect. What are your thoughts on the draft lottery system and teams tanking as the Sabres did during your second stint there as head coach?

Nolan: I think it should be a lottery across the board with every team. It stops tanking, and it stops people trying to lose to acquire something. It puts everybody in the same field. Bottom line, if you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough.

MC: Tanking that year cost you your job and potentially your chance at ever coaching again in the NHL, but do you think it also affects how a fanbase views its team?

Nolan: I do. When you’re asking a normal person, a fan of the team, for them, it’s hard. Financially it’s hard, too. If you go to an NHL game, in most places, you have to be pretty well off in order to get a ticket. People who manage to save the money and go for a night out certainly don’t want a team that’s not competing as hard or trying to win as you normally should because the organization is just thinking about that draft choice. 

Buffalo was trying to do that at the time, and they got Eichel. Now, as I said, I don’t see any problem with Eichel. I just see the problem being with the whole system.

MC: You know players better than most out there. They don’t go out there trying to lose. How do they take it when a team tanks?

Nolan: Something to remember is players know when they’re surrounded by a group that doesn’t have much of a chance to win. They know that part well. So tanking is just an ugly thing in the sport that I don’t think is right for this modern age.

MC: You coached Pat Lafontaine when he had a pretty severe head injury, and you famously disagreed with the team about putting him back on the ice when he wasn’t fully recovered. Do you see any similarities here to Eichel’s situation?

Pat LaFontaine #16 of the Buffalo Sabres
Pat LaFontaine with the Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nolan: When I was with the Sabres, the doctors cleared Lafontaine and I didn’t think he was right. He went to have a second opinion and we were lucky that he didn’t go out and have a permanent injury. With Eichel, he’s got his health and the rest of his life to worry about instead of trying to score goals for any NHL team. Life is a lot more important than taking chances with your health.

When Eichel Parts With the Sabres is Anyone’s Guess

As the Sabres Eichel drama carries on, it has some worried about what happens if the situation drags on into the season and possibly, even next summer. Do lawyers eventually get involved as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wonders in the latest 31 Thoughts podcast?

One thing is for certain, no one is winning with the stalemate that is happening The Sabres aren’t getting the trade they want. Eichel isn’t playing hockey. How long this imbroglio continues is anyone’s guess but it can all change with just one phone call.

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