Winners and losers as the Jack Eichel Derby comes to an end

NHL News

There’s something wholly appropriate about the Vegas Golden Knights having a trade announced at 4:30 a.m. local time in a city where high-stakes gambles still happen in the predawn hours.

Every blockbuster trade is a gamble. Assuming Jack Eichel comes through his artificial disk replacement surgery as a healthy star, the Golden Knights are betting that he’s the piece in their lineup that pushes them over the hump for a Stanley Cup championship. They’ve got some serious roster decisions ahead of them in adding his contract, so he better be worth it.

The Sabres are betting forward Alex Tuch, center Peyton Krebs, a top-10 protected 2022 first-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick help transition them into the next phase of the franchise, post-Eichel. And that turning the page on a captain who no longer wanted to steer this ship is for the betterment of the rest of the crew.

“We need to build this organization with people that are dying to be Buffalo Sabres,” GM Kevyn Adams said.

Who or what won the trade? Who lost it? A look at the fallout from the Eichel trade:

Winner: Jack Eichel

He tweeted a Photoshopped image of himself as a Vegas Golden Knight. I simply can’t stress this enough, because it’s indicative of the sheer elation Jack Eichel must feel for this process to finally be over.

He gets the surgery he wants for a better post-NHL life. He gets out of another rebuild in Buffalo. He gets to play for a Stanley Cup contender whose super-aggressive owner spares no expense in attempting to win, in a market that’s going to treat him like a hockey deity.

It was tense, ugly, frustrating and infuriating. But the liberation of Jack Eichel might have been worth the wait. Well, except for that whole “potentially missing the Olympics” thing, because Eichel and Auston Matthews up the gut would have been awesome for the U.S. squad.

Loser: Chandler Stevenson

The Eichel trade was less than 10 hours old when Vegas Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon was getting asked about Eichel centering Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, which had been Stevenson’s gig for the last couple of seasons. If he has to drop down the lineup, it’s not a total loss: He can move to No. 3 center and skate with Alex Tu … oh, right.

Winner: Peyton Krebs

It’s good to be wanted. It’s better to be desired. Krebs, the 20-year-old first-rounder from 2017, was the player Adams identified as his must-have player in the trade. “Peyton Krebs was someone we had targeted and worked really hard to get into this deal,” he said. Not a bad level-up: Going from 13:44 per game, being unable to move up the depth chart on a team that needed both centers and cheap labor, to arguably being the centerpiece of a Jack Eichel trade.

Loser: Alex Tuch

Tuch said that “being from Upstate New York, it’s been a dream of mine to put on the Sabres jersey.” Problem No. 1. Upstate New York ain’t Western New York, sir. Problem No. 2: One assumes winning the Stanley Cup was also a dream, and he’s just going to have to reset the clock on that one.

Winner: ‘The Kucherov maneuver’

The Golden Knights now have $27.2 million on long-term injured reserve between Eichel, Mark Stone, Pacioretty and Jake Bischoff. As currently constructed, the Knights couldn’t have all three return to the team without shipping money out. Losing a Reilly Smith or Alec Martinez via trade doesn’t really help the cause.

Whatever shall they do? I mean, it’s not like they could just stash an injured player on long-term injured reserve until Game 1 of the playoffs like the Tampa Bay Lightning did with Nikita Kucherov last season, right?

“As we speak, we’ve got in excess of $30 million that’s either on long-term injury or eligible to be on long-term injury. That takes any immediate pressure off of our salary cap. You do have to ask yourself what happens if we return to full health, and yet sometimes you never return to full health,” said GM Kelly McCrimmon, saying the quiet part out loud.

Loser: Salary retention

Jack Eichel’s trade value was like a parfait of complications. There was the surgery layer, the post-surgery health layer, the trade payment layer and then the salary cap hit layer. Each one impacted the return the Sabres could receive in a trade. Simplifying any of them would, theoretically, increase the bounty to Buffalo.

So why didn’t the Sabres retain a portion of Eichel’s $10 million annual cap hit?

“Some [teams] were like ‘we’d love to talk to you Kevin, but salary retention was the only way we were going to start the conversation,’ and that was an absolute non-starter with us, that we would not compromise on,” said Adams.

OK, but wouldn’t retaining salary allow more teams to bid on Eichel, thus increasing competition in the marketplace, thus increasing the return for Buffalo?

“When we were talking about the term of the contract we were trading away, to retain salary for this level of player was going to be a non-starter,” said Adams. “We want to make sure we have the flexibility to move forward, not just in the short term but four or five years down the road. So that was something we were not going to comprise on.”

(When Adams says “for a player of this level,” it almost sounded like retaining salary for a franchise player was an abhorrent notion. Like, how dare they ask?)

A few NHL team executives I reached out to wondered what the trade would have looked like with salary retained. Those offers didn’t come in?

“No, in terms of conversations and offers that were made. The short answer is no. But like I said, it’s about the flexibility to be able to do things down the road that we want to be able to do if we had done that,” said Adams. “That’s why it was a non-starter. But teams still picked up the phone and still made offers despite that. It didn’t move the needle as far as the return.”

We’ll have to take his word for it. But remain skeptical.

Winner: Kevyn Adams

I gave the Sabres a ‘C’ grade for the Eichel trade. The return wasn’t commensurate with the player they traded, but there were market forces beyond their control that put a damper on the process. But Adams gets a win here for his patience in waiting out the package from Vegas that he wanted, for better or worse.

“It is a really challenging situation. It’s so complicated when you’re dealing with a superstar player. And then you take in the medical and all the other things that were going on,” he said. “What I felt strongly about was that we were not going to be backed into a corner.”

Tuch’s a solid NHL player signed through 2025-26 that the Sabres can keep or flip. Krebs has a lot of fans in the prospect evaluation world, even if he might not project as a top-line player. The Sabres refused to retain salary “for a player of this level,” and yet didn’t demand an unconditional first-round pick “for a player of this level.” So that’s a bummer.

But Sabres fans shouldn’t walk away from the Eichel trade as bummed as they did the Ryan O’Reilly trade, when the Sabres failed to secure a blue-chip prospect or a player of Tuch’s age and contract. That’s where the bar was set for this franchise, and Adams cleared it.

Loser: Future Golden Knights

If you’re a first-round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights, a word of advice: rent, don’t buy.

Krebs, drafted 17th overall in 2019 is a Sabre. Cody Glass (No. 6 in 2017) is a Predator. Nick Suzuki (No. 13, 2017) is a Canadien. Erik Brannstrom (No. 15, 2017) is a Senator. They didn’t even use their 2018 first-rounder, which they sent to Detroit in the trade for Tomas Tatar. And now either their 2022 or 2023 first-round pick will be Buffalo’s.

Vegas owner Bill Foley truly lives for today. Although we assume 2019 first-rounder Brendan Brisson, son of Eichel’s power-broker agent Pat Brisson, will stick around.

Winner: Disc replacement

There were some general managers that couldn’t get clearance from their own medical teams to make the Eichel trade, because they agreed with the Sabres doctors on fusion surgery over disc replacement surgery. But In the end, there were at least three teams that were willing to defer to Jack Eichel and his team on choosing artificial disc replacement surgery over disc fusion surgery.

As the process continued, it seemed like more medical experts were backing the idea the disc replacement surgery — while never having been performed on an NHL player — was acceptable.

“I guess we look at the surgery in general terms, that people in martial arts have had the surgery, people in contact sports have had the surgery, no one in hockey has had the surgery. So does that put some uncertainty into it? I guess it does,” said McCrimmon. “Do we have a comfort level that he’s going to return to full health? We do.”

Loser: Persistent rebuilding

The reason Jack Eichel is no longer a Buffalo Sabre is because the Buffalo Sabres stink and have stunk for the better part of a decade. Eichel took part in no less than three different rebuilds during his seven NHL seasons: The Tim Murray-led one that resulted in his drafting; another one in 2017 when Jason Botterill took over; and a third one under Adams.

Eichel told Sportsnet that he asked for a trade after the 2019-20 season. “It just seemed that we were heading towards another … I don’t want to say rebuild but, we weren’t really in a position that we were going to try and win. I went to the team and said I wasn’t really happy with the idea of that,” he said.

As Adams recalled it: “He shared with me that it was a frustration for him and it built over time.”

There’s always going to be a part of me that believes if a player commits eight years to a franchise for $80 million, he shouldn’t beg out after two seasons of it. But this a hopeless “Groundhog Day” of mismanagement and futility.

Oh, the irony: The Sabres’ utter failure was both the reason they got Jack Eichel and the reason they eventually lost him.

Jersey Fouls

From the wilds of British Columbia:

It’s always fun to see a Jersey Foul like this because you’re never sure, in the moment, if this is a fan of an opposing team that absolutely loathes the Vancouver Canucks or a Canucks fan whose spirit was finally broken by 50 years of futility into wearing his shame on his back. In either case, a glorious Foul, even if the colliding double-S’s are a little distracting from a design perspective.

Meanwhile in Chicago:

No word if this is a commentary on morals.

Three things about the Blackhawks and Kyle Beach

1. One of my first requests after the Kyle Beach investigation was released was that Chicago Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich have his name taken off the Stanley Cup. Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz made that request within days of the report, and this week the Hockey Hall of Fame acknowledged that Aldrich’s name had been “X’d” out.

After Beach gave an emotional interview to TSN, speaking about his pain in watching his abuser hoist the Cup and celebrate with the team in 2010, this became a necessity. The next step could be the Blackhawks collecting Aldrich’s Stanley Cup ring. But in seeing that photo of the Cup, my eyes were drawn to the top left corner, where Stan Bowman’s name is. And Al MacIssac’s name is. And then there’s Joel Quenneville’s name. They’re all out of jobs for their role in this coverup. Their names remain on the Cup.

We can “X” out names or take down a Stanley Cup banner or make all sorts of cosmetic changes. But it’s become rather obvious that this moment in hockey history — Chicago’s first Stanley Cup win since 1961 — is forever tainted by the team’s complicit acceptance of the pursuit of success over the safety of one of their players. Brad Aldrich has been removed from the Stanley Cup. The stench of that lapse in morality and judgement is going to linger on it in perpetuity.

2. I know this isn’t a popular stance, but I don’t believe Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should have followed Bowman and Quenneville in being compelled to step aside from his job.

There’s been a fundamental misunderstanding about an assistant general manager’s role with the team, and the power they wield. Cheveldayoff walked out of that meeting believing the Blackhawks’ team president, general manager and the coach who had Brad Aldrich on his staff would take care of the issue. He’ll have to live with the fact that he didn’t say anything when it became obvious that they hadn’t. But I agree with commissioner Gary Bettman, who said on Monday: “His boss and his boss’ boss, he believed were investigating and taking care of it. He had no basis to know what the conclusion was and he was advised I think three weeks later that Aldrich was leaving the organization.”

That said … he deserved some level of punishment from the league for being complicit in this, and here’s why.

Bettman said the $2 million fine given to the Blackhawks was “a message to all clubs as to how I view their organizational responsibilities.” He also said that the league’s hotline is meant to empower the bystander, letting “people understand that there is a remedy to deal with improper acts, whether or not they witnessed them or they’re subject to them.”

Punishing Cheveldayoff with a fine or a suspension — and either of those can be imposed by the commissioner — would be a message that those with knowledge of improper acts can’t wait for their team’s upper management to handle them, post-Kyle Beach. As Bettman said, “if you have a problem in your organization, you better deal with it.” And there needed to be a sense of the consequences if they didn’t.

3. I wasn’t surprised to see NHLPA executive director Don Fehr make it through his call with the executive board with his job intact. In speaking to several players over the weekend, it was clear they were upset with the PA’s inaction when Kyle Beach and his agent came to them for help and to warn them about Brad Aldrich. But the players were more concerned with learning how this happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again, than using this an opportunity to oust Fehr.

They had lots of questions. Like what the NHLPA’s role in supporting players who aren’t playing in the NHL should be — Beach came to the them as a minor-league player. There was a lot of concern about the role played by Dr. Brian Shaw, a psychologist and program administrator with the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program, in not alerting USA Hockey about having Aldrich on staff at a 2011 tournament. Was that an issue with the confidentiality pact between Shaw and Beach? It was Fehr himself that said in a statement that “while this program is confidential between players and the doctors, the grave nature of this incident should have resulted in further action on our part. The fact that it did not was a serious failure.”

On the call, Fehr made it clear that he would have taken action had it been made clear to him that Beach claimed he was sexually assaulted by Aldrich. He made the case that he had not been made aware of the severity of the claims, and that led to inaction. The players appear to have accepted that explanation, at least for now.

The board recommended an internal investigation on that failure by the NHLPA on this matter. Shaw wasn’t called out by name by Fehr, but the finger was pointed squarely there in his public statement. I’ve heard Shaw is nearing the end of his run with the NHLPA after years serving with its player assistance program, to the point where his replacement is already on staff and has been for two years. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Shaw bow out as a result of what could be a months-long investigation, collateral damage for the NHLPA’s inaction on this.

Winners and losers of the week (non-Jack Eichel division)

Winner: Chris Drury

The Rangers locked up Adam Fox to a seven-year contract with a $9.5 million annual cap hit. That’s less than the average annual value of Zach Werenski‘s deal ($9,583,333) and matches the AAV of that of Charlie McAvoy, who at last check does not have his name on the Norris Trophy like Fox does. GM Chris Drury’s been doing great work contractually, with this deal and the Mika Zibanejad contract. And how good does that four-year deal for Igor Shesterkin look these days? Good enough to excuse those Tom Wilson-inspired signings in the summer?

Loser: Alexis Lafrenière

The first overall pick in 2020 has one more season left on his rookie contract after this one. The Rangers already have around $59.9 million in committed salary when he’s due to begin his next campaign. Can you smell the bridge contract?

Winner: Moritz Seider

The Detroit Red Wings defenseman won the rookie of the month award for October, planting his flag atop the Calder Trophy race. Fun fact: The NHL has never had two defensemen win the Calder within a three-year span since Kent Douglas and Jacques Laperriere won them in back-to-back seasons in 1962-63 and 1963-64.

Loser: Cole Caufield

Caufield was the heavy favorite to win the Calder before the season, but the offensively starved Canadiens sent him to the AHL after he tallied one assist in 10 games this season. He’s now fourth in Calder Trophy betting odds, behind Detroit’s Lucas Raymond, Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras and Seider.

Winner: Looking good

David Pastrnak is a low-key fashion icon in the NHL.

Loser: Feeling bad

The number of teams being impacted by positive COVID diagnoses continues to grow. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been severely impacted, with both Sidney Crosby and Mike Sullivan missing time. The San Jose Sharks had coach Bob Boughner and others out of their lineup. After last season, the NHL took down the page on their media site that gave day-to-day update on players that are in the league COVID protocol. That may have been wishful thinking.

Winner: Specificity

Chipotle was named “the Official Mexican-themed quick service and Mexican-themed fast-casual restaurant of the National Hockey League.” We’re all for the specificity of naming rights, going forward. “Auntie Anne’s: The Official Bite-Sized Pretzels and Marinara Dipping Sauce of the National Hockey League.”

Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

The fantasy hockey impact of the Eichel trade.

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