The Buffalo Sabres’ 2020-21 season was not one they would like to remember. After finishing dead last in the NHL for the fourth time in eight seasons, the team did not have many positives to reflect on, once again entering the offseason with more questions than answers and some tough decisions to make. Some of those questions became a little easier to answer on June 2, though, as the hockey gods were on the Sabres’ side, when they won the 2021 NHL draft lottery, retaining the first-overall pick in this year’s draft.
What they do with the pick might be up in the air, but as general manager, Kevyn Adams has some choices to make before draft day arrives. His ultimate decision might come down to how he resolves the ongoing situations with two of his current star players: captain Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
Sabres Land the First Overall Pick
The Sabres finished the shortened, 56-game 2020-21 season with a 15-34-7 record, managing just 37 points in the standings — six points behind the next-worst team, the Anaheim Ducks. While the regular season didn’t impart much in the way of hope for what was to come during the summer, there was a shining light at the end of the tunnel: the possibility of winning the first-overall pick in the 2021 Draft.
The Sabres had a 16.6 percent chance to win the draft lottery, the highest of any team in the league. They also had a 15 percent chance to pick second, and a 68.4 percent chance to go third. As fate would have it, the lottery balls rolled just the way Adams and the Sabres front office wanted them too.
“It’s a big step in the right direction of where we’re headed and we’re excited to add this young next great Buffalo Sabres player to our franchise,” Adams said. “To me, this was an exciting night and now we have to get it right.” (From ”It’s a big step’ | Adams looks ahead following Sabres’ lottery win,’ NHL.com 6/02/2021)
Adams will absolutely have to get this one right, as the team, the City of Buffalo, and the fans have a lot riding on this offseason when it comes to getting the Sabres back on track. Ten straight seasons of losing and missing the playoffs has left little to be optimistic about, but if Adams plays his cards right, there might be some hope yet.
Eichel’s Rehab Window Is Ended
Eichel’s name has been in the news since the midway point of the regular season, way back when the Sabres were in the middle of their historic 18-game winless streak, the longest in franchise history and tied for the longest in the NHL’s salary cap era. Many had Eichel rumored to be traded midseason, then at the trade deadline, then during the offseason. Those talks have not slowed down, but have increased as we get closer to the draft each day.
Adams said last month during the team’s exit interviews that Eichel had not requested a trade, but that there would be conversations between him and the team to figure out the next steps in the recovery process. The recovery, of course, being for the neck injury that kept Eichel limited to just 21 games played in the regular season.
In his own exit interview, Eichel openly admitted a “disconnect” with the organization and with team doctors regarding the treatment of his neck injury, saying “[he’s] been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since [he’s] been hurt.” Eichel continued, “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.” (From ‘Sabres getting calls on Eichel, others’ TSN 6/07/2021)
Sabres fans are hoping that “wherever that might be” means in Buffalo. Eichel’s choice of wording might indicate the worst, though: he’s ready to move on from the team. The agreed upon 12-week recovery window between Eichel and the team recently ended, so next steps should be announced relatively soon. We can only hope it’s some good news, and not something that affects his status with the team.
The 24-year-old Eichel’s trade value has likely never been lower, as the star center had just two goals and 18 points before being injured this season, and carries a hefty price tag of $10 million per season for the next five seasons. Not only would it set the Sabres back immeasurably if they moved Eichel, but there also might not be a worse time to do it than right now.
Reinhart’s Next Contract In Limbo
The status of Reinhart’s future with the team wasn’t nearly as discussed as Eichel’s during the regular season, but picked up after — you guessed it — his own exit interview. Now, the Reinhart rumors are flying around just as fast as Eichel’s. For the Sabres, his departure would be equally as disastrous.
Reinhart is a restricted free agent (RFA) this offseason, so the Sabres have at least some leverage in his contract negotiations. He is unable to outright sign with another team, but other teams are in fact allowed to offer sheet him, a move that the Sabres could counter by matching the terms of the offer. Ideally, the Sabres would like to avoid all that and sign him to a new contract, but that might prove to be difficult.
“No one wants to go through a rebuild, especially into next year, turning 26 at the start of it or close to the start of it,” said Reinhart in his exit interviews. “It’s tough not being able to play meaningful games down the stretch… I don’t think anyone wants to go through that.” (From ‘Sabres’ Sam Reinhart: ‘No one wants to go through a rebuild,” WGRZ 5/11/2021)
Reinhart was the Sabres’ second-overall pick in 2014, one year before they took Eichel at the same spot. Both players have yet to play a single playoff game to date. His last contract was a one-year, $5.2 million contract, so he’ll likely be looking for the same, if not more, money on his next one. His performance this season will only boost his case for a raise, as he led the Sabres offensively with 25 goals and 40 points. In an 82-game season, he would have been on pace to set career highs for both categories.
“In terms of the future… I’m going to take some time. That stuff’s all going to get figured out when the time comes,” Reinhart said.
Seattle Expansion Draft Implications
What makes the Eichel and Reinhart situations so unique is that not only does Adams need to take the entry draft into consideration, but he also needs to consider the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, which will take place two days before. The expansion Kraken will have the opportunity to select one player to take from each of the other 31 NHL teams, the Sabres included. Their protected players list could look very different depending on a number of factors.
There are two options given to teams in how they would like to protect their players: first, they could protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie; second, they could protect eight skaters (forwards and defensemen), and one goalie. I believe Adams will elect to go with the first option.
If Eichel and Reinhart stick with the team, they are easy shoe-ins for the protected players list. I would imagine the protection list would look something like this: Eichel, Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, Victor Olofsson, Casey Mittelstadt, Anders Bjork, and Tage Thompson for the forwards; Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, and Will Borgen for the defense, and Linus Ullmark as the one goalie. This would leave Rasmus Asplund, Zemgus Girgensons, Cody Eakin, Kyle Okposo, and Andrew Oglevie exposed.
However, if Eichel and Reinhart do not stick around, that list becomes a lot harder to make. Some trades might need to happen, maybe even involving this year’s first-overall pick. The Sabres have until the expansion draft on July 21 to figure things out.
Sabres’ Strategy Approaching the Entry Draft
Shortly after the expansion draft, the Sabres will have to quickly shift gears and focus their attention on the entry draft, where they will presumably make the first selection. On July 23, whatever Adams does will send a message to the fanbase about where this franchise stands, and whether another rebuild is ahead.
As far as draft strategy goes, Adams said the Sabres will not draft based on positional need, but instead will draft whoever they believe projects to have the highest ceiling of any prospect, no matter their position. “We’re certainly not going to pick a player we think that has the best chance to play right away,” Adams said. “We want the player we think is the best player in the long run. So that’s really a critical differential as we kind of look at this draft.”
This would be an interesting shift in draft strategy compared to the 2020 Draft, Adams’ first, and one in which they selected Jack Quinn eighth overall ahead of players like Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti, in order to address the team’s need for more goal scoring. I would wager that Adams might stray from any planned strategy depending on the situation leading up to the draft. I think the Sabres will approach this draft one way if Eichel and Reinhart stick around, and another way if both end up being gone by the time July 23 rolls around.
If Eichel & Reinhart Stick Around
If both of these players stick around, the Sabres might have less of an incentive to use the first-overall pick. Adams did say that he was open to all possibilities regarding the pick itself, which one would have to imagine includes trading the pick for the right return. Some needs Adams has indicated he would like are a true third-line center, a capable backup goalie, and right-shooting defensemen.
If Eichel and Reinhart stayed with the team and Adams decided to also hold on to the pick, the smart move might be to draft a player like Owen Power, the 6-foot-6, left-shooting defenseman, or William Eklund, the Swedish left-winger who topped NHL Central Scouting’s European prospects list.
If Eichel & Reinhart Are Gone
If both of these players decide to move on to other teams, I think the Sabres absolutely have to hold on to the first-overall pick. And, despite Adams’ messaging that they won’t draft for positional need, that might need to be exactly what he does — after all, he would be losing his No. 1 and No. 2 centers. Those are holes in the roster that are not easy to fix.
If Eichel and Reinhart are gone, Adams and the Sabres need to draft one of the highest-ranked centers in this draft, namely one of either Matthew Beniers or Mason McTavish. They might not be ready to fill the roster holes as soon as next season, but I think their ceilings are the highest and would be the best choices in the long run, if the Sabres’ hand is forced.
Sabres Future Depends on This Offseason
I’m not usually one to make bold predictions or overemphasize the importance of certain opportunities and challenges, but I believe that the future of the Sabres depends on this offseason. This team has missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons, and have failed to even come close to being a part of the playoffs conversation in all of them. This has prompted calls for a change in ownership, a scrapping of the current roster in favor of another rebuild, and has even sparked conversations about at what point relocation could become a topic of discussion.
Nobody in and around the organization or the city of Buffalo wants to see it come to that point, but if things don’t turn around, and quick, it wouldn’t be out of the question down the road. Keeping Eichel and Reinhart, navigating the Seattle Expansion Draft, and making the right picks in the entry draft will be the key challenges for Adams this offseason, not to mention finding a new head coach. If he can do these things right, the Sabres could be on track for better days.