Sports

The standoff between the Buffalo Sabres and star center Jack Eichel has progressed past the point of usefulness for all involved.

It’s degenerated into public discourse for a matter than should have remained internal; now we have a general manager bragging about leverage, and agents sending Notes app missives to local media in response.

It’s a played out drama that’s a deterrent to Eichel getting healthy and a detriment to the Sabres’ ability to recoup assets for someone who is likely to never play for them again.

I respect that it’s a complicated matter due to Eichel’s neck injury, his contract (with five years and $50 million remaining) and the pandemic economy of the league. But the longer this goes, the more complicated it gets. And it’s gone as long as it has because the Sabres’ leverage doesn’t breed urgency. Which is bad news for Jack Eichel.

Sabres GM Kevyn Adams — who cannot, under any circumstances, botch this trade — sounded practically leisurely the other day, either as a negotiating ploy or statement of fact — or a little of both.

“We’re in control of this process. We have a player under contract. We don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “If there’s a deal out there that we feel is going to help us improve right away or down the road, we’d be open to it. But we’re not going to do something to do it. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Adams has gone so far as to say that the Eichel drama could extend into the preseason. “I would have no problem at all if Jack Eichel is on our team when we start training camp,” he said.

All of this set off Eichel’s camp, as agents Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli sent a statement to local media that stated “the process is not working” for their injured client.

“What is being left out of the discussion is that Jack would be able to play in the NHL for the start of the season pending medical clearance if he were allowed to have the surgery he desires, even as of [July 30th],” they wrote, “Repeated requests have been made to the Sabres since early June to no avail. The process is stopping Jack from playing in the NHL and it is not working.”

(We reached out to his agents, who did not respond. Adams is traveling this week and was unavailable, per the Sabres.)

As the drama continues, things are looking bleaker for Eichel, even as the trade outlook isn’t exactly rosy for Buffalo. Here’s where things stand and where they could be going.

The surgery

Eichel was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck earlier this year by Sabres team physicians. The course of action the team physicians preferred was a conservative rehab approach, with the hope that he could return to play in the 2020-21 season. Eichel asked to receive a second opinion, which is his right under the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.

After that rehab window was over, the team medical staff suggested an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion to alleviate Eichel’s discomfort, a commonplace procedure but one that could lead to some loss in range of motion and could require additional surgery later in life.

Eichel wanted disc replacement surgery, with an artificial disc being placed in his neck. It promises a shorter rehab time, the potential for less loss of motion and far less potential for the necessity for future surgeries.

But as the Sabres have underscored several times, disc replacement would be something revolutionary for an NHL player. “Our doctors aren’t comfortable with a surgery that’s never been done on a hockey player before,” Adams said. (That’s not necessarily true. Hockey players at other levels have gotten disc replacements. But no NHL players have.)

Dr. Chad Prusmack is a neurosurgeon based in Colorado, who would perform the disc replacement surgery on Eichel. He appeared on the “31 Thoughts” podcast this week, saying that this is the best course of treatment for Eichel. He disagreed that “it’s never been done” should be a counterargument, as he believes artificial disc replacement has been successful in other sports — just not in the NHL yet. “And if anyone says that a fusion is better in the long run, they are not telling the truth or they do not know the literature,” he said.

It’s an interesting interview, but one that may not make the case for Eichel’s surgical preference as well as his camp intended. Prusmack says several times that anterior cervical discectomy with fusion would help Eichel, and that “from a risk management standpoint” it would be the logical option for the Sabres.

“I think a cervical fusion is an excellent option. I don’t think it’s the best option for Jack, nor do I think it is for any hockey player,” he said, saying that Eichel will have a “better outcome” with disc replacement.

If you’re the Sabres, you have an “excellent option” with mitigated risk in the short term that your team physicians have signed off on as a trusted procedure. You also have all the leverage in determining that Eichel should have that surgery. Section 34.4 of the CBA gives team physicians the final call on “diagnosis or course of treatment” after taking into consideration the player’s preferences and any second opinion.

This has been at the heart of the public impasse between player and team. Eichel’s agents said last weekend that “our camp was initially under the impression that the Sabres specialist was in agreement with the artificial disc replacement surgery until that was no longer the case. Which read very conspiratorial.

There’s simply no way around the fact that Eichel’s union collectively bargained a contract that gives his team the power to choose which of these procedures — which, again, would both help the player get back on the ice — he should undergo. The only way Eichel is having artificial disc replacement is with another NHL franchise, provided they’re more concerned with his long-term health rather than a low-risk operation that will, at the very least, allow him to play out the rest of his contract.


The contract

In Oct. 2017, Sabres GM Jason Botterill announced an eight-year contract extension for Eichel that would pay him $80 million from 2018-19 to 2025-26.

“I just look forward to being a part of this city for the next nine years and all the successes that we’re going to have,” Eichel said at the time. “I couldn’t be more excited about the future here in Buffalo.”

Botterill was fired after the second year of that contract. Eichel has requested a trade after the third season was completed.

So much for the future.

There is absolutely no doubt that Eichel’s contract, combined with his injury and his preferred method to remedy it, has given general managers around the league pause. Again: He has $50 million left on his contract, and a full no-movement clause that kicks in for 2022-23. That’s not a contract you assume if there’s an iota of uncertainty about the player’s long-term health.

But the real problem with the contract is when it was signed.

Eichel, like Connor McDavid, signed their contracts in 2017, or B.A.M.: Before Auston Matthews. Two years later, the Toronto Maple Leafs center would sign a five-year deal with an average annual value of $11.634 million. Not eight years, even though he’s every bit the franchise player they are. Five years.

“My job was to facilitate the best contract that I could on behalf of Auston and his family. If a byproduct of that was such that there was an impact on the marketplace, then great. Top players need to be paid accordingly,” his agent Judd Moldaver, the senior VP of Wasserman Hockey, told me recently.

I think he’s being humble. The Matthews contract was a paleotectonic shift of the marketplace. Had he signed it two years earlier, maybe McDavid doesn’t commit eight years to a franchise that’s had more head coaches (three) than playoff appearances since he’s signed. Maybe Eichel thinks twice about going that long with a team now its 10th year of missing the postseason.

If he had, Eichel would have two years left at $20 million right now. And that’s remarkably different math for skittish NHL GMs.


The trade market

I was speaking to an NHL player recently when Eichel’s name came up. “He’s a hell of a player. If Jack Eichel is on my team, I’d be like ‘f— yeah, this is awesome, I don’t care what he makes,'” said the player. “That said, you’re taking on someone who has a serious neck thing who’s making $10 million a year.”

That, we are.

There seems to be more teams out of the Eichel Derby than in it at the moment. The Los Angeles Kings have moved on. Michael Russo has reported that the Minnesota Wild were backing out for the moment, as the price tag was too high. (And that dead cap space on the books for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise makes for some interesting math down the line.)

The New York Rangers have been sniffing around a trade for a while, but they’ll have a rather long wait if they’re waiting for the Sabres to retain 50% of his salary, as one of their media proxies floated recently. Everyone assumes the Vegas Golden Knights are still on his trail, and could create the necessary cap space by shipping out injured Alex Tuch ($4.75 million) and winger Reilly Smith ($5 million).

The Anaheim Ducks are there, even if they don’t want to include Trevor Zegras or Jamie Drysdale in a trade. The Columbus Blue Jackets are reportedly in the mix, too. Could the Seattle Kraken get involved, with their significant cap space? Eh, a little hard to ante up top prospects when you only drafted your first ones last month.

The Sabres are in control of Eichel’s surgery options. They’re in control of his contract. They can’t control the marketplace, however.

“We’re continuing to have a lot of conversations with teams. The phone rings. We have conversations,” said Adams during the NHL draft.

It could be argued that Adams overplayed his hand here. That by asking for too much, teams moved on with other plans and whatever he ends up with isn’t going to be as good as what he could have secured earlier in the offseason.

But he’s the guy with the 24-year-old superstar center, and he’s clearly content to sell when someone meets his price, and not a moment before that.

The Jack Eichel standoff with the Buffalo Sabres has everything you want in a pro sports drama: acrimony, betrayal, millionaires airing grievances, the future of a franchise at stake. Unfortunately, it also has a flat salary, a $10 million cap hit, a wonky neck injury and a player who really, really needs to end up on a team with upward mobility rather than mired in a rebuild. (Side-eying you, Ducks and Jackets.)

“He’s been in such a bad culture in Buffalo,” said one NHL source, “and it’s been for his entire NHL career.”

Getting out of that culture has proven to be even worse for Jack Eichel.

1. The NHL broke a land-speed record in responding to charges from Anna Kane that her estranged husband Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks (a) bet on NHL games, (b) bet for and against the Sharks and (c) intentionally tried to lose games on which he wagered. The allegations hit on Saturday afternoon, and by 6:36 p.m. ET the league had announced an investigation. “The integrity of our game is paramount,” it wrote.

If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s the same one the league used in banning referee Tim Peel earlier this year after a hot mic caught him saying that he called a penalty against the Nashville Predators because … well, he felt like it. “Nothing is more important than ensuring the integrity of our game,” said senior VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell.

Some fans wondered why the NHL responded quickly to this controversy while its response to others — like the ongoing sexual assault investigation in Chicago — has been noticeably slower. Here are a few reasons for the difference: MGM Resorts, Caesars Sportsbook, FanDuel, DraftKings, Bally’s, PointsBet. The NHL has a partnership with all of these sports wagering entities. It sees betting on games by fans as the next horizon of attracting new money to the NHL, especially with the advent of puck and player tracking. “Integrity” is the fulcrum of that effort, as evidenced by the NHL’s announcement last month that Sportradar will be its “Official Integrity Partner” for the next 10 years.

In 2019, commissioner Gary Bettman said “if a sportsbook isn’t comfortable with us, then they shouldn’t permit betting on our games.” This investigation is meant to ensure that comfort.

2. David Purdum and I did a comprehensive piece on the Kane investigation this week, including the possible fallout. The person putting together the investigation is Jared Maples, who took over as the NHL’s chief security officer in June. He was previously in charge of New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness since 2017.

Basically, it’s a search for a smoking gun. A bookie willing to share information on potential wagers on hockey by Kane, with a paper or electronic trail that backs it up. Multiple sources have told me that any sizable wagers on hockey would stand out like a sore thumb: While a lot of money gets dropped on future bets like Stanley Cup winners, individual games don’t see that kind of volume. If he bet big — and he’d need to, given his debts — someone would notice.

3. There have now been multiple reports about Kane’s teammates not wanting him back with the Sharks next season.

While the past season may have added fuel to that fire, this tracks back to 2018, when the Sharks committed seven years and $49 million to a player that frequently defied team rules, such as gambling in Vegas on road trips to play the Golden Knights. The Sharks rewarded him with a long-term contract commitment with robust trade protection — he submits three teams to whom he could be traded every season. It was a decision that left the locker room stunned, with little explanation from management as to why it needed that kind of deal with Kane.

I spent two years out in San Jose before moving back to Brooklyn. Stories about Kane’s gambling were legion around the team. There were stories about huge debts. There were stories about the Sharks having to reach out to those whom Kane owed money in an effort to smooth things over, including a Las Vegas casino. There were always stories. I imagine you’ll hear more of them in the coming weeks.

As one current NHL player told me this week: “I just can’t see the guy playing another game in San Jose. I don’t know how he could.”


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Convincing Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury’s decision to play for the Chicago Blackhawks this season is a game-changer in the Western Conference. Fleury had 27.7 goals saved above average and added five wins to the Golden Knights last season. Given what the Blackhawks had, what they added and what they’re hopefully getting back in Jonathan Toews, the addition of Fleury playing 50 to 55 games next season puts them in the playoff picture.

Are they top three in the Central? That’s a tall task, given Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis, Dallas and Winnipeg are there. But they’re in the wild-card picture — especially with the Pacific Division being so top-heavy.

Loser: Seth Jones deal(s)

I think Seth Jones is going to do just fine with the Blackhawks. But the more you think about the way things worked out there, the more baffling it gets.

It was obvious the market for Jones was small, by his own making: He reportedly wanted to play in Chicago, Denver or Dallas. The latter two would have had trouble hitting the salary targets he had for a new contract. Yet the Blackhawks still anted up two first-rounders, a second-rounder and Adam Boqvist to Columbus for a player that wanted out.

Then they signed him to an eight-year deal with a full no-movement clause, and a $9.5 million annual cap hit whose sole purpose appears to have been to get Zach Werenski an even bigger contract in Columbus ($9,583,333 AAV, and congrats to him on that). It all now feels like they were bidding against themselves.

Winner: Marco Rossi

Fantastic news from Michael Russo of The Athletic, who reports that Marco Rossi will take part in Wild prospects camp this month and will participate in Austria’s Olympic qualifying action. Rossi had a year stolen from him by COVID. Happy to see he’s on the road back.

Loser: The NHL vs. the IOC

Once again, the NHL will lend its players to another business so it can profit off of their names, likenesses and abilities for a few weeks. In return, it will have the honor of not having any promotion during the Winter Olympics in the form of logos around the rink or on NHL players, and the honor of not having rights to house highlights of those players’ exploits on the world stage on its website or other digital media.

Again: We all want the NHL players in the Olympics. But the fact it’s going to happen and the IOC hasn’t budged on marketing rights means stopping the regular-season dead cold in February still doesn’t maximize a return for the NHL or the NHLPA.

Winner: Good numbers

Kudos to Winnipeg Jets center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is changing his jersey number next season to honor Matiss Kivlenieks, his former teammate in Columbus who died in a tragic accident last month. I love when a jersey number can tell a story. I love it even more when it can keep a memory alive.

Loser: Bad math

We know the Seattle Kraken didn’t anticipate Philipp Grubauer making it to free agency, and moved fast to land him. Guess it was too fast, as their contract with him was rejected by the NHL because it violated the salary-variance rules spelled out in the new CBA. It was quickly rectified, but how does this happen?

According to Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, quite hilariously: “The person ordinarily filing contract paperwork for the Kraken was unexpectedly off that day, and the team thought it was in compliance with the CBA’s many rules and regulations when the deal was submitted.”

Winner: Joe Sakic

It’s not been the greatest offseason for Sakic (see: the Grubauer fiasco), but signing Ryan Murray from the Devils to replace Ryan Graves, whom they traded to the Devils, is one of these moves that makes him a top-tier GM. They save $1,166,667 against the cap, get out from the second year of Graves’ deal and get a player who has the ability to fill that lineup hole quite nicely — and got a second-round pick from New Jersey out of the switcheroo, too.

Loser: Colorado appetites

If you haven’t read this translated interview with Nikita Zadorov in which he discusses Nathan MacKinnon‘s control of pregame meal menus, please do. I truly hope all of that sauce-less chickpea pasta eventually pays off with a Stanley Cup, which MacKinnon’s teammates then fill with penne and vodka sauce.


Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Great piece here from Emily Kaplan on Ovechkin’s contract with the Capitals, and how it all came together.

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