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Perspective on the Eichel Era in Buffalo

How the fans respond will matter.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a couple weeks: are we ready for this talk?

On November 4th, 2021, it finally happened. After nearly six months of a wildly embarrassing rhetorical battle between the Buffalo Sabres front office and the Jack Eichel camp, the star center was finally traded to the Vegas Golden Knights. The front office decided to draw a line in the sand about what kind of surgery he would receive for a particularly ugly injury, and it was a standoff almost as soon as we knew the battle was on. Unless he got their choice of surgery Eichel would be traded as it became clear in late spring. Even if he had gotten their surgery that was probably already the death knell of a deteriorating relationship between player and management.

Perhaps the move had its roots a year prior after ownership axed a shocking number of employees up and down the organization, citing the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. Supposedly the Sabres captain, depending on how you read into his words in certain interviews since the trade happened, asked for a trade at that point which shocked the new GM and ownership alike leading to a series of otherwise inexplicable moves that fall.

Nobody with any insight on the last decade of Buffalo Sabres history will tell you it was ever a great relationship simply by virtue of the on-ice results. Winning solves all problems after all. After the early morning trade on that brisk November morning, Sabres fans vented hostility toward their departing captain even as he expressed gratitude for his fruitless time in Buffalo. Some of the things that came across local sports radio and social media channels from fans was shocking because the nature of the Eichel slander had precisely nothing to do with the on-ice results. We all felt frustrated, he did too, but suddenly many Sabres fans felt at ease to call him an outsider and regurgitate the man’s love for his hometown New England Patriots like it’s not perfectly normal to like the team you were raised watching.

I vividly recall one Boxing Day a few years back. Jack Eichel scored two goals against his childhood team, the Boston Bruins. Home for the holidays I watched the game with an uncle who repeated a common fan truism in sports across the world: “Fans are forever, players come and go…” before finishing “…that kind of performance is how you endear yourself to a city that would otherwise hate you.” I knew what he meant immediately: all the fawning over Tom Brady could be forgiven if he plays hard for our team, our set of laundry, our crest. What immediately seemed to dissolve away after Eichel was traded was this perspective on his time with us here in Buffalo: he always gave us his best.

It’s nearly impossible to win a trade where a player like Jack Eichel is leaving your team and elite 1C will be a hole to fill going forward. What we did or didn’t get in return for Eichel will pan out over time; but what we need now as Sabres fans as he goes onto a Western Conference contender and potentially shows us a more painful replay of the O’Reilly saga is perspective: cold, real but deeply fan-rooted perspective.

In the National Hockey League, the teams that haven’t won the Stanley Cup exist in states of distance from it. Historic or presently winning franchises compete for the Cup too, of course, but to the Cup-less sides there is a noticeable difference. When one of these franchises gets a star of Jack Eichel’s caliber, the comparisons with Sidney Crosby’s impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins or Alexander Ovechkin’s impact on the Washington Capitals will naturally come up. You get these generational players to win Stanley Cups. That latter example seemed more relevant for us during Eichel’s time here: it might take a while (several separate rebuilds perhaps) but we do have Jack Eichel. There was a certain pressure on Ovi and the Caps that didn’t exist in the same way for Sid and the Pens. It’s the Stanley Cup. In this league, it’s always the Stanley Cup: as it should be.

When you have a superstar who gives you Stanley Cup expectations it matters how those expectations are dealt with, because both individual attachment and civic pride are wrapped up them. Jack Eichel always sensed those expectations here; it was audible in his voice. What he realized is that no matter how seriously he took them, he was never going to be able to do it all.

Let’s just say it: it’s irrelevant whether Jack Eichel asked for a trade in 2020. Don’t act surprised at that: we all felt hopeless after that Tuesday in the summer of COVID when everybody and their trainer was fired. It looked as though a third (?) rebuild/reset was coming on in just the fifth year since Eichel was drafted. The difference however is that you and I got off our phones and turned back to our real lives. That massacre of firings I dubbed “Red Tuesday” was not something Jack Eichel could turn away from, captain or not, that was to be his life. This is his job, his profession in the sport he loves. Perhaps he just expressed some displeasure at the situation and wanted to see some roster-building progress around him. Evidently the new front office saw Eichel’s point-of-view when they proceeded to make moves to bring in Taylor Hall among others to, as the new GM Kevyn Adams put it on tape: “…go for the Stanley Cup.”

We look back and laugh at that episode of Sabres Embedded as if anyone knew what would happen at the time. Technically the prior season that was discontinued saw the Sabres only miss the bubble playoffs by one point in the standings! The new season however would be another season out of playoff contention before March… when the season began in January! It shouldn’t surprise any of us then when Jack Eichel went down with what can only be described as a very painful injury of a herniated spinal disk in his neck, and the whole wavering relationship between management and player came to a head at the slightest disagreement (and this wasn’t a slight disagreement). The injury was just the catalyst for what was already a precarious situation. And let’s be clear here: that’s on the front office, not the player.

So why did we fans start roasting the guy as soon as the central registry made the trade official?

Every season we were increasingly less surprised they didn’t take the next step as a team was another season Jack Eichel wondered when he wouldn’t be centering the only competitive line on the roster. On top of the poor construction was the poor deployment of former head coach Ralph Krueger, who infamously put Jeff Skinner in the press box or the fourth line when he was feeling generous. Eichel’s best winger the season prior was disappeared for no discernable reason other than some old-fashioned punishment for not getting on the score sheet. Really, ask yourself some questions if you’re a fan feeling like booing when Eichel comes back to KeyBank Center in a Vegas jersey. Think back to his time here…

How often did we say to ourselves as fans: this squad couldn’t win a first round matchup with Columbus or Florida? How often did we say they could use help on defense? How often did we say the goaltending wasn’t quite there? How often did we complain about a lack of secondary scoring? How often did we say nobody whose name didn’t start with a J could score?

There are many reasons Jack Eichel, our dreamt-of franchise savior in 2015, is no longer a Buffalo Sabre. One of those reasons is not Jack Eichel. Wise fans always tended to agree the turnover and mismanagement of three GMs and four coaches often left Eichel to carry the whole team on his back. When you’re in a situation like that, you might just hurt yourself. Some nights this truth visited us in stark relief. And yet when the day finally came and the trade to christen the divorce finally came across the wire we found all our tired, obscure, small-town reasons to hate Jack Eichel. Fighting makes breakups seem less painful, eh? Our insecurity as a fanbase is no excuse to vilify one of the best Sabres in franchise history.

And yet we’re completely right as fans to feel disappointed. As a franchise it was an era wasted in the cleanest sense of that expression. Eichel never sniffed the playoffs here. Even Pierre Turgeon saw the playoffs as a Sabre. No decade of Sabres history has been worse than the one Eichel was drafted into. Disappointment is a perfectly valid reaction to an era wasted. But if that disappointment escapes your body in the form of booing, that’s on your lack of perspective.

In a few short years nobody will be blaming any of this on Jack Eichel. He will occupy a place in franchise history not too unlike Pierre Turgeon. But when we think back on him, perspective should color our thoughts on the player himself. Until then we need to process the disappointment with perspective, not anger toward someone who gave us some of the best years of their athletic life. We ought to live up to our moniker as the City of Good Neighbors for someone like Jack.

Boos don’t reflect well on us after what management put him through. If we boo him, all those cynical out-of-market fans who think less of us will be confirmed in their belief we are some horde of Neanderthals. Cheers on the other hand are the signal to him and every impartial observer within earshot that we understand what happened: that the fanbase gets it even if management does not. It was a failure of the front office, not the fans.

I don’t know about you, but I for one am cheering for him.