The NHL is rounding out the final week of the 2021-22 season, and it was a tough one for hockey fans in Nevada. The Vegas Golden Knights were officially eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in franchise history after a shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night, meaning former Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel will have to keep waiting for his first career postseason game.
Vegas’ elimination has been music to the ears of Sabres fans for two reasons. The Sabres own the Golden Knights’ first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft thanks to the trade last November that sent Eichel to the Sin City in exchange for Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs. The Sabres will now have a higher selection as a result of Vegas’ elimination. But the larger reason is that Eichel misses the playoffs yet again, something fans in Western New York couldn’t be happier to see happen to their favorite villain.
The superstar’s acrimonious departure from Buffalo due to the team’s handling of his high-profile neck injury made him public enemy number one in the city and the comments he made after he was booed heavily in his return in March poured gas on the fire. Consequently, fans have been taking to social media to mock the Golden Knights’ shortcomings with a myriad of posts and memes declaring that the Sabres won the trade and that Eichel is a cancerous presence now spreading his toxins in Las Vegas. But the fact of the matter is that the Sabres haven’t won anything yet, and fans of the team should hold off on their celebrations.
Injuries Add Up in Vegas
First of all, it’s important to note that a major factor that contributed to the Golden Knights’ first-ever playoff absence was that the team was decimated by injuries this season. Captain Mark Stone and alternate captain Max Pacioretty spent more than half the season on the shelf while Alec Martinez has missed almost three-quarters of it. Reilly Smith and Brayden McNabb also had extended absences, and injuries to both Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit have forced the team to put its faith in American Hockey League call-up Logan Thompson in goal.
While Eichel didn’t debut with his new team until Feb. 16, he shouldn’t be spared the blame for their absence in the postseason this year. He has just one point in his last six games and certainly wasn’t a boost when Vegas could have used it the most. But you have to give him a handicap since it’s his first season back after major neck surgery and almost a full year of inactivity. It’s understandable that he’s not back to his best yet as he’s likely still recovering, however, he had put up 22 points in 33 games in spite of that. The generational talent that fans have come to know should return once he’s back to 100 percent.
It’s easy for Sabres fans to mock the Golden Knights solely to get back at Eichel, but that’s not looking at the whole picture and it doesn’t indicate that Buffalo is better off now. In actuality, Vegas is a far better team than its play has reflected this year. With a healthy lineup come October, they should be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference once again.
No Winner On Either Side of Eichel Trade Yet
There’s simply far too small a sample size to declare either side of the Eichel blockbuster a winner. The Golden Knights have less than half a season from their prized acquisition and the Sabres haven’t had much more on their end. Syracuse, New York native Alex Tuch also spent the majority of the first half recuperating from injury and didn’t make his debut for his childhood team until Dec. 29, though he has been impressive with 38 points in 48 games since. Tuch seems like a dream come true for the Sabres at this point and he appears to be the natural choice to succeed Eichel as captain, but head coach Don Granato may tell him to prove he can replicate his success over a full season first.
Former Golden Knights’ top prospect Peyton Krebs was sent to Buffalo’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester, New York upon being acquired, but was soon recalled due to injuries on the Sabres. The 21-year-old looks promising and has contributed 22 points across 46 games, including two goals in Buffalo’s Heritage Classic victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it’s possible that more minor league time could benefit him before he joins the team on a permanent basis.
As for the draft pick the Sabres acquired, obviously it can’t be ruled upon yet. As was the case with the 2019 first-rounder Buffalo received from the St. Louis Blues in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, the team will have to decide whether it wants to use the pick or trade it away. They opted to use the pick from the Blues to select University of Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnson, who is still in the NCAA. Johnson is just 20 years old but it’s tough to tell at this point if fans will ever see him in the Buffalo blue and gold or if he’ll fall by the wayside. If they opt to keep the selection from Vegas, it would be in the team’s best interest to select a more NHL-ready prospect this time.
Remember Ryan O’Reilly?
It seems that Sabres fans are forgetting that the Eichel saga is essentially a sequel to that of Ryan O’Reilly, whom the team traded to the Blues in the summer of 2018. O’Reilly, whose case is so similar to Eichel’s that it’s almost eerie, fell out of favor in Buffalo over his comments after the team’s abysmal 2017-18 season concluded, even though his statements were largely accurate. He too was labeled as a cancer who fans barked to be traded, eventually getting their wish when he was shipped to Missouri for Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson and the aforementioned first-round selection.
Related: Revisiting the Blues’ Trade for Ryan O’Reilly
At first, it seemed like the Sabres won the trade in spades. Midway through the 2018-19 season, the Blues were last in the NHL while they were riding high after a 10-game winning streak. The perception was that O’Reilly’s toxicity was now killing St. Louis and that Buffalo was better off for having rid themselves of him, but the tables couldn’t have turned more emphatically afterwards.
The Sabres didn’t win two consecutive games after that November winning streak until the final two games of that season. On the other hand, O’Reilly carried the Blues to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship and captured the Conn Smythe and Franke Selke Trophies in the process. Couple this with the fact that the Sabres bungled Thompson’s initial development by bringing him up too soon and that they essentially gutted themselves for the likes of Sobotka and Berglund (who were unmitigated busts), O’Reilly certainly had the last laugh.
Thankfully for the Sabres, Thompson’s breakout this season has provided hope that maybe the trade won’t be a complete disaster on their end, but it’s tough to deny that the Blues have won out to this point. Given that, one would think the O’Reilly saga would serve as a cautionary tale for Sabres fans, but apparently, it hasn’t.
Are The Sabres Really That Good?
Sabres fans also need to hold their horses on this season. The derision of Eichel and the Golden Knights has been fueled by the fact that Buffalo has been on an impressive run over the last two months of the season. The belief on the street is that the team is at long last putting it together, but is it possible that too much is being made of it? The issue is that the Sabres have long been eliminated from postseason contention, meaning that the team has been playing for nothing but pride over that stretch. Unfortunately, they have a history of playing well when the games mean nothing. For proof, look no further than the team’s recent past.
The second half of this season has felt very similar to the Sabres’ 2015-16 campaign. Though the team finished below a .500 winning percentage, a strong end to the year inspired hope across Buffalo and there was optimism that the rising performances of Eichel, O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart and others had the Sabres on the cusp of contention again. After making a huge offseason splash by acquiring top free agent Kyle Okposo, there was a major reason to believe. So what happened the next season? The team faltered and ended up slightly regressing, leading to the firing of both head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager (GM) Tim Murray to keep the wheels on the team’s perpetual rebuild spinning in the mud.
Based on this, Sabres fans shouldn’t be too quick to assume better days are coming. It’s true that the team has looked good as of late and it is quite possible that perhaps something special is coming together. But the team hasn’t proven anything yet and still has far too many question marks surrounding it. It lacks in almost every area and will need to make some serious upgrades over the summer if it wants to have a chance at contention next season. Even if GM Kevyn Adams does go out and bring in a marquee acquisition, there’s still no guarantee of success, as the Sabres have proven in the past.
The ultimate outcome of the monumental Eichel trade is still too far off to predict for either side. The Sabres could very well turn it around with the pieces they received and make their long-awaited return to the playoffs and the Golden Knights could potentially fall apart and need to start over. But at the exact same time, they could just as easily keep spinning out while Eichel leads his team to the Stanley Cup (the latter being very realistic with the talent the Golden Knights possess). Until it becomes clear what result will occur, hockey fans in Buffalo might want to hold off on popping the champagne.