Rewind to April 8, 2019, the annual locker clean-out day, where Jack Eichel was quoted as saying “It is on us as players to be better on the ice every night. It just hasn’t been good enough. The product on the ice hasn’t been good enough. It falls on nobody but ourselves.”
Our story quickly begins that day.
Eichel knew back in April 2019 that he would need to elevate his game to an even higher level, if he wanted to help propel his Buffalo Sabres into playoff contention.
Fast forward 69 games later, Eichel accepted the challenge and elevated his game.
Eichel sees himself have a career-year, scoring a career-high 36 goals in 68 games.
The rest of the Buffalo Sabres? Not so much.
On May 26, the National Hockey League announced their “Return to Play Plan”.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced plans for a tournament to determine the Stanley Cup Champion – 24 teams would be included. This announcement unceremoniously ended the 2019-20 regular season for seven teams.
One team of those seven teams? Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres.
For the ninth consecutive time, and fifth consecutive for Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres find themselves on the outside looking in at the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
One thing is for certain – the Buffalo Sabres are toeing a fine line when it comes to their captain, Jack Eichel.
“Listen,” Eichel told media on Thursday. “I’m fed up with the losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated. It’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow.
In Eichel’s five seasons, the Buffalo Sabres have played a total of 397 games. Eichel has played in 354 of those games.
Despite Eichel scoring 337 points (137 goals, 200 assists) over that stretch, the Sabres have played to a disappointing 156-188-53 record.
Eichel’s version of the Sabres has never finished above sixth in the Atlantic Division and has rarely found themselves in contention at any point.
With Eichel’s continued frustration, one has to begin to wonder - when does the other shoe drop in Buffalo?
We saw reported from the Associated Press that Jason Botterill will return for another year at the helm of the directionless franchise.
There was never much doubt about the status of Ralph Krueger but he will also return next season.
With players praising Krueger in their post-season exit interviews, the real onus here appears to be on Botterill and his ability to acquire talent to fill out the Sabres lineup.
Botterill has had his fair share of wins and losses in the trade market – forwards Jeff Skinner and Ryan O’Reilly immediately come to mind.
More recently, acquiring forward Dominik Kahun last trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins strikes as another potential win for Botterill.
Botterill has shown a penchant for acquiring young, cost-controlled assets in trades with other franchises, while mostly using free agency as a crutch to stock the franchise’s cupboard. For example, goaltender Carter Hutton continues to be the biggest fish Botterill has caught on the open market.
Botterill clearly has not appeared to be too enticed by the thrill of free agency.
With that thought in mind, now might be the time for him to put up or shut up with the trade market – especially with the team rolling into another uncertain offseason.
For a while, it always felt like the question was who would play with Eichel but that has since changed.
The question now is – aside from Eichel, who will score?
Botterill has had multiple shots at resolving the team’s offensive deficiencies and has failed multiple times.
Forward Jimmy Vesey, acquired for a 2021 third-round pick, scored nine goals in 64 games.
Forward Michael Frolik, acquired for a 2020 fourth-round pick, scored one goal in 19 games.
Forward Wayne Simmonds, acquired for a conditional 2021 fifth-round pick, tallied one assist in seven games.
With this coming season being the final one of Botterill’s original contract, this offseason might just be Botterill’s last shot to swing for the fences.
One has to think that Botterill has to pull out all the stops to make this offense more successful than it ever has been under his tutelage.
Botterill will need to step up his game this offseason to prove he actually has some sort of plan to lead this once-playoff bound franchise out of the league’s cellar.
No matter what the next move is, it is never great when you hear your captain and franchise star tell media that he is “definitely not in the greatest place with where the last little bit went and it’s definitely worn on me.”
It feels beyond irresponsible to be speculating on a potential Eichel departure from Buffalo, but it does bear noting that Eichel’s contract has six more seasons on it, with a no-movement clause kicking in after the 2021-22 season.
Many fans hope that by the time Eichel’s contact is up for renewal at the end of the 2025-26 season, Buffalo will have been able to finally turn the corner, return to relevancy and keep Eichel in town for the duration of his professional hockey career.
Bringing it back to 2020-21, the build toward the playoffs starts again this offseason - the same story we have heard for the last decade. Only this time, Botterill hopes to flip the script with his job potentially on the line.