Grading the Jack Eichel trade: Sabres whiff on franchise-altering deal

NHL News

After months of rumors about a Jack Eichel trade, the deal was finally completed Thursday, with the Vegas Golden Knights landing the 25-year-old center from the Buffalo Sabres.

Going to Buffalo are veteran forward Alex Tuch and prospect Peyton Krebs, and there will also be a swap of picks:

  • If Vegas’ first-round pick in the 2022 draft is not a top-10 pick, then Vegas will transfer its own first-round pick in the 2022 draft and its own second-round pick in the 2023 draft to Buffalo; Buffalo will transfer its own third-round pick in the 2023 draft to Vegas.

  • If Vegas’ first-round draft pick in the 2022 draft is a top-10 pick, then Vegas will transfer its own first-round pick in the 2023 draft and its own second-round pick in the 2024 draft to Buffalo; in this scenario, Buffalo will transfer its own third-round pick in the 2024 draft to Vegas.

Now that the deal is done, how did both GMs do? Here are our grades for Sabres GM Kevyn Adams and Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon:

The Jack Eichel trade saga ended with its most predictable conclusion, which is Golden Knights owner Bill Foley continuing to collect star players at different positions like a child rearranging Pokemon cards.

The Knights built their team on the back of a star goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury, then added another in Robin Lehner. They made a huge swing in acquiring winger Mark Stone from Ottawa, then gave him what was the richest contract in the team’s short history and the first with full trade protection. The goalies and the winger failed to get Foley his Stanley Cup, so next it was the star defenseman: Free-agent prize Alex Pietrangelo, whom they signed away from the St. Louis Blues in 2020. And Vegas still fell short.

So, logically, the last position to fill would be No. 1 center, and immediately the hockey world made the marriage with Buffalo that was consummated on Thursday.

Yawn …

From an on-ice perspective, the Golden Knights acquired a superstar without giving up anything close to equal value for him.

Eichel fills a considerable void and makes the Golden Knights a considerably better team — when they’re healthy and he’s presumably healthy. Assuming neither is one of the dominoes yet to fall to allow Eichel’s salary to be added to the roster — more on that in a moment — having William Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson move down the lineup behind Eichel gives Vegas absolutely remarkable depth at center.

The Knights also are also going to be able to give Eichel dynamic wingers with whom to play. I don’t see a scenario in which Eichel doesn’t start with Stone and/or Max Pacioretty on his wing, unless the latter is sacrificed to the salary-cap gods. When he spent most of his time with Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson in the 2019-20 season, Eichel had 21.5 goals scored above average and added four wins to the Sabres. Give him talent and watch him go.

If there’s a nagging concern about Eichel on the ice, it’s that we don’t quite know yet what he can do to help Foley’s team win the Stanley Cup because … we’ve never seen him in the playoffs, thanks to Buffalo’s ineptness. There have also been questions about his attitude behind the scenes in Buffalo, which seems like a natural byproduct of being absolutely miserable in constant defeat and endless directional changes for the franchise.

It should be noted that the playoffs are where Vegas might miss Tuch the most. He was a terrific supporting cast player in the postseason, chipping in 19 goals in 66 games.

Giving up Krebs continues the Knights’ tradition of sacrificing their first-round picks to acquire veteran talent. Nick Suzuki turned into Pacioretty. Erik Brannstrom was traded for Stone. Cody Glass became Nolan Patrick. Heck, they even sent a first-rounder to Detroit for Tomas Tatar, which became Joe Veleno for the Wings. Maybe this results in Vegas winning a Stanley Cup. Or maybe Suzuki won’t be the only star who got away.

Off the ice, the Golden Knights were able to land Eichel because they’re going to allow him to have artificial disk replacement surgery rather than fusion surgery. There are medical experts who believe this is fine. There are some who see it as less of a sure thing than the traditional fusion surgery route. For the Knights’ sake, let’s hope Eichel and his team have been right on this one.

When Eichel does return in a few months, Vegas is going to have some salary-cap questions to answer. He is signed through the 2025-26 season with a $10 million average annual value. Buffalo did not retain any salary in the trade.

With Stone, Pacioretty and Eichel all healthy, the Knights are going to be close to $10 million over the salary cap. There have been some creative accounting proposals on how to make it work leading up to Eichel’s debut later in the season, but more sacrifices are going to have to be made to fit him in. Trading defenseman Alec Martinez ($5.25 million AAV) and pending free-agent forward Reilly Smith ($5 million AAV) gets you there, but those are two huge pieces of the puzzle being shipped out.

So let’s get creative here: The Knights keep the band together and “Kucherov” Jack Eichel, keeping him on long-term injured reserve until he’s miraculously healthy for Game 1 of the playoffs. It’s not ideal. It might not pass the NHL sniff test. But it’s better than gutting the roster now rather than in the offseason.

But the elephant in the room is that the Golden Knights aren’t all that great right now: 4-5-0, looking like a shadow of themselves with those players out of the lineup. Keep in mind that Eichel is signed through 2025-26. Vegas has 17 players under contract for next season, and only eight of them have some sort of trade protection. If this team doesn’t turn things around to make the playoffs, just wait it out.

Hey, there’s a reason that first-rounder was lottery-protected.

I was speaking with an NHL general manager the other day about the Jack Eichel Derby. He told me that he wanted in, despite some reservations about the cap hit and the cost. But his desires were immaterial: The team’s medical staff had made it clear that it would not allow Eichel to have the disk replacement surgery he desired; like the Sabres’ medical staff, his team’s staff felt disk fusion surgery was the best option.

“Even if I wanted him, I couldn’t get him,” was the executive’s lament.

A general manager’s return on a trade is going to be only as good as the market to acquire that player. It’s not about being a silver-tongued salesman. It’s about leverage. The Sabres had little of it here, unfortunately.

“Because of the cap hit and the injury, Eichel’s market wasn’t what it would have been,” one NHL general manager told ESPN on Thursday.

The biggest tell that Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams wasn’t getting Jack Eichel value in his Jack Eichel trade was on Wednesday, when an “offer” from the Calgary Flames was leaked that made star forward Matthew Tkachuk the centerpiece. It felt like a rather transparent message through the media to get the Golden Knights to up their offer. Based on this return, they didn’t take the bait.

The Sabres couldn’t change the fact that teams couldn’t (or wouldn’t) trade for Eichel due to his desired surgery. They couldn’t change the fact that some teams — the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers being two of them — opted for a different path to avoid anteing up their considerable prospects for Eichel. (In Los Angeles’ case, an Eichel trade might have been two years too early for where their prospect development curve is.)

But the Sabres could have changed the fact that teams balked at the $10 million cap hit through 2025-26 by retaining salary on the trade. That would have opened up the market to other teams. They would have enriched the return — would that first-rounder from Vegas still be lottery-protected if the Sabres had taken on some of Eichel’s salary freight?

Adams and the team’s owners — Terry and Kim Pegula — needed to swallow their pride and swallow some cash on the Eichel contract. Weaponizing cap space is the coin of the realm in the NHL. Smart teams such as New Jersey and Carolina understand this. The Eichel trade would have been no different: Wouldn’t it have been worth $5 million annually through 2025-26 to dramatically increase the bounty for Eichel from teams such as, say, the Colorado Avalanche?

So that’s the what-if. As for what the Sabres actually received here, the reviews are mixed.

“Assuming he gets to full health, it is an excellent deal for Vegas. Having said that, I don’t mind Buffalo’s approach. Tuch, when he’s healthy, and Krebs are two quality NHL players, and both are under team control for a while,” one NHL general manager said.

This is true: Tuch, 25, carries a $4.75 million AAV through 2025-26. He’s also a Syracuse native who had 400 friends and family at the game when the Knights traveled through Buffalo in 2017-18. A guy who wouldn’t mind playing in western New York. Imagine that.

Tuch is a power forward who scores goals, although he doesn’t necessarily drive his line’s offense. But he’s a solid player in need of a larger role, which he’ll get in Buffalo.

Krebs, 20, is signed through 2023-34, then will be a restricted free agent after that. He’s a three-zone player, a fierce competitor and a strong playmaker. At least he has been before reaching the AHL and NHL, where we’ve not yet seen enough of him.

“If Peyton Krebs is so good, why wasn’t he on the Golden Knights this year?” one NHL talent evaluator asked. It’s a legitimate question, given the team’s lack of center depth and need for cheap labor.

But another NHL executive liked the return better than most. “It’s not bad at all. Tuch’s a good player on a good contract, Krebs is a legit prospect. Eichel’s fantastic, but $10 million is a lot and there’s uncertainty with the injury,” they said.

The complications with Eichel’s health and contract made this a tricky transaction for the Sabres. There are ways they could have maximized their return but did not. But on the whole, many of the circumstances here were out of their control.

The entire franchise is haunted by the Ryan O’Reilly trade, which was the last time a star center wanted out of Buffalo. Of the assets the team acquired in 2018, only forward Tage Thompson and prospect Ryan Johnson are still in the mix. While the Sabres were left considering their whiff on the trade, O’Reilly was winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for the Stanley Cup champion Blues. It still stings.

It’s hard not to be moderately concerned that the same situation could play out with Eichel and this trade, although the return is obviously more promising at first glance.

In the end, the biggest knock on this trade for Buffalo is that it ever had to happen. That the feelings between a franchise player and his franchise became so bitter — whether it was due to inept management that led to a career of team failure or the refusal to allow Eichel the medical treatment he desired — that a trade was necessitated.

Thursday felt like the end of the Jack Eichel era in Buffalo more than it felt like the dawn of a new one for the Sabres.

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