The Buffalo Sabres have made it official that Jack Eichel is no longer the team’s captain, which should come as a surprise to no one. On the first day of training camp, general manager Kevyn Adams made it clear that the team’s focus is moving past the entire situation and building a culture of winning. But to do that, they must start from where their feet are today: no Eichel, no captain and no trade.
The Sabres have a long road to respectability within the league, and every inch of it will be hard-fought. That begins today.
“We need to earn it,” Adams said in an appearance before the media ahead of the players taking to the ice Thursday morning in two practice groups. “This is about us as an organization, earning respect on a daily basis. It’s every conversation, practice, workout and game. If you have that mentality, it starts to build and grow.”
No, the team will not name a captain this year. Instead, they will let one materialize organically throughout the season, and perhaps that process could stretch into next season. And no, there is no giving in to pressure to back down on what the team wants in exchange for Eichel. Adams wants good value for a player in his prime who is under contract and can be the face of another franchise. Just not this one.
Sabres Will Not Set Deadline for Trading Eichel
Adams would not say whether Eichel will ever play another game for the Sabres. He left the door wide open for his return. Of course, he would have to have surgery and recover first before that is even an option. But it is still possible. It’s not the ideal scenario; it’s just not being placed outside of the realm of possibility just yet.
What the GM did hint at is that he would like to trade him before it comes to that. “When it’s the right time that we have a solution, we’re going to make the right decision.” So what does that mean?
“I don’t want to put a timeline on it because then it’s out there. I’m not sure when it’s going to be, but we’ll continue to work at it.”
Eichel failed his physical yesterday, the team announced. Regarding why a physical was done, which is a question some of you have asked of me, I received clarification today that any player needs to be officially cleared/not cleared to play for contract and insurance purposes.
You have to respect the fact that Adams will not compromise on a trade that is not right for the franchise. There might be few winning scenarios for the Sabres on the face of it, and holding out for the right trade will only serve to generate some distraction throughout the season; it’s inevitable. But in the end, if significant assets come back in return to help rebuild the team, that it took so long to get there might be forgotten when all is said and done. It’s surprising what winning will do to a fan base’s memory of past folly. Of course, they’d have to have success for that narrative to ring true.
What damage will this cause as it wears on? The Sabres want to set that aside for now. Adams remains in contact with other NHL GMs “every single day” to provide clarity on Eichel’s situation and reiterate what the team is looking for in return.
“We’re not going to cave or back down because of pressure,” he said.
“This is fluid. In this job, you have a plan. You know, we need to draft well, we need to develop our players, we need to retain our own players. We need to build around people that want to be here. It is so important when I look in guys’ eyes in the locker room, that I know they want to be a Buffalo Sabre. When you have that as your plan, you stick to it. You can’t get caught up on next week, tomorrow or a month away because that’s not how it works. There’s certain pressure points. That’s why trades happen at certain times more than others, or a player gets signed at a certain time. That’s natural in this job. But when you’re talking about putting something together at this level, we’re sticking to (our plan).”
Eichel Situation as a Distraction
Professional hockey players can block out a lot of noise when they need to. But no matter what they say, they’re human, and what gets said or written, if they hear about it, will be something that they deal with one way or another. Most can shrug it off. Others — especially when encountering it for the first time in their careers — take more time to adjust.
When it comes to the Eichel situation, Sabres players and coaches can expect to field questions throughout the season up until the very second the whole imbroglio is over for good. And then, they’ll have to tackle queries about how a great weight has been lifted and what that feels like. Here’s what Adams’ had to say about that:
“Jack Eichel is friends with these players. I was a player, it’s deeper than (just) you work together to make it simple. There’s relationships. They care about each other. These players in the locker room care about Eichel as a person. They want to see Jack healthy, back playing hockey. We all understand it. I addressed that with the team yesterday. The key for us now is, they have clarity. They are now all about how do we move forward together. Who is in this locker room, why are they in this locker room, how do we get better? That’s what those guys are talking about every day, and that’s what gets me excited.
“It doesn’t diminish the fact that there’s a friend of theirs that’s in this situation.”
Will it be an ongoing issue throughout the year that affects the play on the ice? Check back in December for an answer on that one if Eichel is still around.
Sabres Will Be Captainless, But Not Leaderless
Instead of forcing a decision or appointing a leader from the top-down, Adams opted to let the team focus on learning and growing as a young core of players. It’s hard to disagree on this front. Why force a new captain on the team when you can let an 82 game season speak for itself.
“A captain is a critical role on an NHL team, but it’s not unprecedented where you kind of let it play itself out. There’s a lot of voices in there that are strong that are good pros,” Adams said.
But that won’t stop speculation about who might have the inside track to be the Sabres’ next leader. The audition for this role will be a storyline for the club throughout the season as guys like Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt, and Rasmus Dahlin make the case that they’re here to be part of the solution and could be leaders that their peers look up to.
Then, there are the guys who that somewhat inexperienced but talented group already admires.
Kyle Okposo is not the player he once was, but he’s been around the block and is a voice that players listen to. Colin Miller knows what it’s like to be on a team that no one thinks will succeed. Everyone had low hopes for his Vegas Golden Knights squad in 2017-18 that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Zemgus Girgensons has been a Sabre for a long time. He will be someone guys turn to. The experience and groundedness that Craig Anderson brings to the table are the reasons why he came back from the brink of retirement to be in the Sabres locker room.
This group may not have a clear leader, but they will not be leaderless. That doesn’t mean they’ll be good. They probably won’t see much success this season, but sometimes you have to wade through the thorny bush before you get to climb the mountain to get the view. Having veteran voices put what the Sabres go through this season into perspective will benefit the kids. Every team needs a few dirty uncles.
The Sabres organization will try to cease the impact of the sustained Eichel situation from embroiling distractions among the group. But it might still seep through. If at the end of the year growth among the young core is evident and some pieces are added that help them be better, it’ll be pretty easy to forget all the noise.
Check out The Hockey Writers’ Buffalo Sabres season preview section for the latest news as we march towards opening night, Oct. 14.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.