Why there’s a surprisingly bright future for the Sabres, post-Jack Eichel

When the Buffalo Sabres finally traded Jack Eichel to the Vegas Golden Knights last week, it didn’t just mark the end of the NHL’s most contentious standoff — it marked the end of an era.

The Sabres literally ruined themselves for the chance to draft Jack Eichel in 2015. (Or Connor McDavid … no disrespect intended to consolation prizes.) In 2017, they signed him to an $80 million contract extension to be the focal point of the franchise, the star at the center of their galaxy. He was the player that was going to lead the Sabres to unprecedented success — perhaps even the first Stanley Cup in the team’s 51-season history.

For six seasons, they built around him, and for six seasons, the Sabres were terrible, finishing an average of 24 points out of a playoff spot during Eichel’s tenure.

That lack of success compelled Eichel to ask out of Buffalo. When the team and the player hit an impasse on how to properly mend his injured neck, his “ask” became a demand, a fractured relationship became unmendable and Eichel was welcomed to Las Vegas through a phalanx for showgirls while the Sabres saw the center of their universe suddenly extinguished.

Watching Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams try to sell optimism in his post-trade press conference was like watching someone trying to whisper a sonnet during a Mastodon concert — no one heard anything but the thunderous noise of Jack Eichel’s departure.

But Adams is optimistic. He thinks Buffalo fans should be too, despite the team having had more general managers (four) than playoff games (zero) over the last 10 years.

The crazy part: I think he’s right.

Post-Eichel, the Sabres are going to be OK. Maybe better than OK. Maybe great one day.

I asked Adams a hypothetical when I spoke to him on Tuesday: What if a Sabres fan — one of the real hard cores, the ones who wear those Rob Ray Buffalo head jerseys to the game — came up to him in the concourse and asked him how far away they are from contending?

“I would say that there some real positives. Sometimes it’s hard, day to day, to see growth. But when you can take a step back, reflect a little more, it’s maybe a little bit easier to see that,” the general manager said.

He rattled off names on the roster like 24-year-old forwards Rasmus Asplund and Tage Thompson, as well as currently injured center Casey Mittelstadt and defenseman Henri Jokiharju.

“We’re in a spot right now as an organization where we have to grow our players,” he said. “We have to develop them in Buffalo, in Rochester [in the AHL], develop the ones that we just drafted, with the goal of getting this core identified so we can move forward. It’s trending the right way, and that’s exciting. To me, that’s an important thing that I would talk to that fan about.”

Buffalo fans have become accustomed to the team’s sharp turns under owner Terry Pegula, bouncing from one rebuild to the next with the adroitness of a frozen puck. None have been sharper than this one.

Only don’t call it a “rebuild.” Adams hate the term. He likes “build.” Call it a “build,” per his request.

“The reason that word is so important is because we’re not trying to force something,” he said. “It’s about getting better. To me, the message to the players is about being accountable every day, habits on and off the ice. Build every day, get better and success will take care of itself.”

Adams views Buffalo’s team building like they’re different levels of the same structure. There’s a floor with the current Sabres, which includes 21-year-old Rasmus Dahlin and 20-year-old Dylan Cozens. They’re a touch more experienced than the ones on the floor below, where forwards John-Jason Peterka, Jack Quinn and newly acquired Peyton Krebs are there with defenseman Mattias Samuelsson and gloriously named goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. (Adams goes with “UPL” on every reference.) The floor below that houses blue-chip prospects like 2021 No. 1 overall pick defenseman Owen Power (Michigan), winger Isak Rosen (Sweden) and goalie Devon Levi (Northeastern), whom they targeted in the Sam Reinhart trade from Florida.

Whether the elevator in that building eventually reaches the penthouse is anyone’s guess, but the potential is there. Corey Pronman of The Athletic, one of the most respected futures analysts in the business, ranked the Sabres as having the top prospect pool in the NHL this season.

Where, exactly, does Adams have a copy of that article hanging up in his office?

He laughed. “I’ve learned in this job not to read anything or pay attention to the noise,” Adams said. “But that’s good to hear. We want to draft well and truly have people who grow up in this organization who truly want to be a Buffalo Sabre and care about putting that jersey on and have it be something special. Our community and our fans will feel that.”

Adams said something similar in his press conference after the trade, and it was seen by some to be a criticism of Eichel, who apparently very much did not want to be a Buffalo Sabre any longer. But Adams said it less an attempt to throw shade at the guy leaving than a mission statement for future acquisitions.

“Look at a guy like Alex Tuch in the Jack trade,” Adams said of the former Golden Knights winger. “He dreamed of playing with the Buffalo Sabres and wants to be part of this community. That’s intentional how we’re putting this team together. We owe that to our fan base and or community.”

This whole “get local talent” thing is an NHL trope, whether it’s the Montreal Canadiens treating the acquisition of French-Canadian players like it’s their destiny or the Wild literally drafting “Mr. Hockey Minnesota” last summer in Jack Peart. But Adams said when he was a player, having that loyalty to city and team was important, and he manages thusly.

“You give everything you have to that organization and that city, and it becomes really powerful,” he said. “And sitting in this chair, doing this job, I understand what the community wants. I understand the DNA of our fans. The love for this team and the passion that the city has. We have to earn that. I say that to the players every day.”

Adams is forthright with his fan credentials, a history he actually shares with Pegula. Adams sat in the orange seats with his dad at The Aud as a kid growing up in Clarence, New York. He’s felt the connection between fan and team before, and he’s desperate to make that connection again.

Andrew Peters hopes he does.

Peters played in Buffalo for five seasons, including the great “what if?” 2005-06 season when the Sabres were a few healthy defensemen in a conference final Game 7 away from potentially going all the way. He co-hosts the popular “After The Whistle” podcast with Craig Rivet, and he’s ready to see that bond between the franchise and its fans solidify again.

“It sucks for the fans because I was here when the team was really good, and I know what they want and what they deserve,” he said. “This thing has been royally messed up year after year. I love this city. I love these fans. I hope they get it right.

“But is there optimism to be had? Not right now,” Peters continued. “I mean, there’s optimism with how the team plays, but not with how long it’s going to take for this team to reach the next level. Kevyn has all these pieces, but that doesn’t amount to anything right now. I don’t know if [the Eichel trade] puts them back further or keeps them on a steady path. But if they have nine pieces, they need at least six of them to work out.”

Peters thinks in a young league, they could be “three years away from being very good.”

Hey, that’s optimistic!

“Wait, it is? I thought I was being a jerk,” he said.

When a team’s last playoff appearance was a month before “The Hangover Part II” hit theaters … yeah, it’s optimistic.

Beyond the players in the pipeline, Adams thinks he has other pieces falling into place. Like head coach Don Granato, who earned the gig after coming on as an interim coach last season. “His background is developing hockey players, and he’s got a really good way of holding players accountable but teaching at the same point. And that’s not easy,” said Adams.

A lot was written when the Sabres gutted their hockey operations department, and not much has been written about them building it back. Adams said the team had to “reset things” due to the pandemic economics, which included a reassessment of where the team wanted to allocate its player personnel resources. “I maybe took a lot of criticism for that, but I wanted to take my time to figure out the best areas to build out,” he said. The team has around 13 scouts now, and Adams said there’s still an opportunity to grow the front office larger.

It’s already made a couple of key hires. Buffalo lit up the hockey analytics community when it hired Sam Ventura as vice president of hockey strategy and research, and then added Domenic Galamini Jr., manager of research projects for Stathletes. “Sam is incredibly intelligent. A great understanding of that data. And a really good way of explaining it to me,” said Adams with a laugh.

It feels like the Sabres have preached patience for the last decade, and the sermon continues. Adams just gave that speech to Peyton Krebs, the prospect the team targeted from Vegas in the Eichel trade. He had lunch with Krebs in Rochester and gave it to him straight: “We know you can play on our team today. But what we’re really excited about is setting you up for long-term success. Not just surviving in the NHL.”

Now that the volume has been turned down on the Jack Eichel conjecture, Adams thinks the plan can get more attention.

“Our fans get it, but they want to know ‘why?’ And I respect the fact I have to explain it,” he said. “We’re not waking up one day and making these decisions. We have a plan. We have a vision of what we’re going to build and how we’re going to build it. Everyone wants instant success. We all do. But we can’t compromise. And we can’t get emotional or reactive in the short term.”

If Kevyn Adams and the Buffalo Sabres were emotional or reactive in the short term, we probably wouldn’t have waited until November to see a Jack Eichel trade.

“That’s probably fair,” Adams said, laughing. “Good point.”

General managers are frequently tethered to the star players they trade, especially when those stars shine brighter in their next destination. Jason Botterill is the “Sabres GM who traded Ryan O’Reilly” most because O’Reilly made a bad trade worse by winning the Conn Smythe the following season for the St. Louis Blues.

Adams is always going to be the Sabres general manager that traded Jack Eichel. There’s every chance that he helps the Knights lift their first Stanley Cup before any Sabres player takes his first sip from the Chalice.

There are Sabres fans that will wish him well. And there are Sabres fans who hope, to their very core, that Adams gets it so right in his “build” that Eichel regrets not being a part of it.

“It’s 50/50 among the fans,” said Peters. “I bet if you had a parade for Eichel out of town and brought everyone from Western New York to it, I bet half of them would be holding up their jerseys and the other half would be giving him the bird.”

Jersey Fouls

From the Disney+ series “Mighty Ducks: Game Changers:”

Good catch here. Kenny Wu’s sweater is a violation of the “Temporal Correctness” Jersey Foul rule, in which a player’s name and number can only appear on the jersey that they wore while a member of the team. (The exception being if the player’s number is retired, then it can cross generations of sweaters.) Kenny Wu did not play for The Mighty Ducks in the first film of the series, when they wore these District 5 sweaters. He appeared in “D2” when they represented the U.S. internationally and “D3” when they wore the sweaters that mimicked those of their NHL namesake. So, yes, this is a Foul. Tell your friend to play up.


Three things about future Hall of Famers

1. The Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Monday night, which means it’s time to turn our attention to the Class of 2022. Roberto Luongo is eligible. So are Henrik and Daniel Sedin. It’s Henrik Zetterberg‘s first season of eligibility. Ditto Rick Nash.

We’ll get into the odds for their potential induction on Tuesday, but I’d like to reiterate my preferred scenario for maximum chaos: Hall of Fame committee member Brian Burke nominates Henrik, no one bothers to nominate Daniel, and we get one twin as a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the other twin attending his ceremony as a guest. How does one say “cringe” in Swedish?

2. Another Hall of Fame induction, another year that Alex Mogilny doesn’t have a plaque. Let’s just keep saying it until we speak it into existence: Mogilny’s 0.478 goals-per-game average is better than this year’s selections Jarome Iginla (0.402) and Marian Hossa (0.401), for a total of 473 goals. His 1.04 points-per-game average is better than over 30 Hall of Fame forwards. He’s one of only 29 players in NHL history in the Triple Gold Club, winning a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and an IIHF world championship. And, of course, he was the first player from the Soviet Union to defect to the United States as a 20-year-old.

His last season was 2005-06. It’s beyond time to get this legend in the Hall.

3. My friend Sean McIndoe did a breakdown of some active potential Hall of Famers on The Athletic. One of them is Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, whose candidacy I’ve touted for years. He has 730 points at 33 years old, so gaining 1,000 points isn’t out of the question. He’s the best left wing of the last decade not named Alex Ovechkin. He’s fourth in points since the 2014-15 season (544). Were it not for playing in Patrice Bergeron‘s shadow — well, and not being a center — he’d likely have a Selke Trophy by now, for that awards validation component.

Most of all: He fulfills the “fame” component, which frankly should be valued more by the selection committee. I mean, it’s literally in the name of the place. Brad Marchand, Hall of Famer. It could happen.


Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Fan Support

Kudos to all the Pittsburgh area fans who showed up to support the girl who plays goalie for the Mars Hockey Club men’s team, who was on the receiving end of ugly, vulgar chants from the Armstrong student section on Oct. 28. “We have a lot of respect for the way our goalie has handled herself and how she refuses to let any of the recent events keep her off the ice,” said the team.

Loser: Shirts

Never before has a New Jersey Devils victory over the Florida Panthers in early November inspired such … art.

Winner: Social media snark

Sassy team social media feeds have been all the rage since the Los Angeles Kings started the trend several years ago. The AHL Utica Comets leveled up by trolling Montreal Canadiens rookie Cole Caufield, the Calder Trophy favorite who was demoted to the minors after a disastrous start to his season.

This since-deleted tweet that called him invisible led to an admonishment from the AHL, an interview given by Caufield’s father about “bullying” and Caufield himself doing the ‘I’m not mad, but they should act like human beings and never do that again’ thing. What else could a Twitter troll ask for?

Loser: Mentions

All that said … did they really have to tweet at Caufield? Granted, his feed is mostly Wisconsin Hockey retweets, but on the off chance he’s actually an active user, there’s no need to send the flying monkeys his way online. Indirect mockery next time. Lesson learned.

Winner: Fixing 5-on-3 power plays

The Minnesota Wild were on a 5-on-3 power play on Wednesday night against the Arizona Coyotes and did what every team should do when they have a two-man advantage: Run the thing from behind the opponents’ net. Look at Mats Zuccarello and Kirill Kaprizov playing catch and baffling the entire penalty kill. This could be you, 31 other teams!

Loser: Fixing Seattle’s power play

The Seattle Kraken are last in the Pacific Division for a number of reasons — hello, goaltending — but they’ve scored two or fewer goals in seven of their 13 games. One reason: The worst power play in the NHL, at 9.5%. Seattle is 4-for-42 on the season in 13 games. (Incredibly, that’s not the fewest power-play goals this season, as both the Coyotes and the Vegas Golden Knights have just three, but in far fewer opportunities.)

Winner: NHL hotline

The NHL’s tip line has been derided by media and fans since it was announced in the wake of former Calgary coach Bill Peters’ resignation in 2019. But according to the league, it was that hotline that led to the Anaheim Ducks‘ internal investigation, which led to the resignation of general manager Bob Murray.

Look, there’s a lot of work to be done, and the “hotline” isn’t a cure-all. But credit where it’s due: The NHL’s memo to teams in late October following the Chicago Blackhawks scandal that urged reporting of managerial abuse, coupled with this tip-line, compelled the Ducks to clean up an “abusive culture” in its front office.

Loser: Reputations

I called a dozen sources when the Ducks announced that Murray was on administrative leave. Almost all of them said some variation of “this is no surprise” or “this was bound to happen.” Not because they knew of any inciting incident, but because of the totality of Murray’s abusive actions through the years. That they felt this situation was so predictable was in and of itself predictable, because there are known abusive people still dutifully employed in hockey — although that seems to be finally changing.

As for Murray, here’s hoping his get the support and help that he needs for alcohol abuse. “I vow to make changes to my life, starting with enrolling in a treatment program,” he said.

Winner: Alex Ovechkin, delivery man

Alex Ovechkin brought two boxes of pizza to the media work room at the Capitals’ practice facility on Wednesday, saying that “when you’re hungry, you’re hungry.”

Loser: Me

The pizza was free, and I was not there.


Puck Headlines

From your friends at ESPN

Great piece here from Kristen Shilton on goaltending tandems and how they operate, with a focus on the Florida Panthers.

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