The Jack Eichel trade rumors are finally finished, and the team that was connected to them for the longest time finally got their target.
On Thursday, after months of speculation and standoffish behavior between player and team, the Buffalo Sabres traded their former captain and three-time All Star and a conditional third round pick in 2023 to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, and conditional first and second-round picks in 2022 and 2023, respectively (the condition being that, should Vegas’s pick fall in the top 10, the picks would defer to the following year.)
For the Sabres, it ends a near eight-month-long saga revolving around Eichel. Since suffering a neck injury in early March that effectively ended his 2020-21 season, the two sides became embroiled in a feud regarding the type of surgery Eichel would receive. Eichel went with an independent specialist’s recommendation of artificial disk replacement; Buffalo preferred Eichel to undergo fusion surgery. It is mildly concerning that an organization would tell an individual how they should take care of their body, but I can at least understand Buffalo’s concern when the only notable athlete to undergo artificial disk replacement is Tiger Woods. The current collective bargaining agreement for the NHL also gives teams ultimate authority over decisions such as this, so it wasn’t as if the Sabres were violating any rules. Either way, it seemed that the two sides were effectively headed for a split, and the trade carousel was in full rotation.
There were plenty of teams that wanted in on the action. Calgary had sent their own offer that, according to Kevin Weekes, included Matthew Tkachuk, a first-round pick, and two or three prospects (a deal that I personally would have ran with.) Minnesota and Anaheim were both linked to Eichel at points, with both teams having the need to justify the move and the future assets necessary to pull it off. Even the Carolina Hurricanes, despite being the last undefeated team in the league, did their due diligence on the feasibility of an Eichel trade. Ultimately, however, it was the Golden Knights that came away from the Eichel sweepstakes with the center in tow.
While a lot of hockey fans are prematurely declaring Buffalo the winners of this trade, it’s hard for me to see this as anything but a win-win at the moment. Buffalo gets two or three valuable assets to center their next rebuild around, while Vegas gets the franchise center they’ve needed for a long time. It was an issue that teams like Dallas and Montreal exposed in upset playoff wins over Vegas, so the need was definitely there. Top-line centers like Eichel rarely hit the trade market to begin with; it’s even rarer when those centers are still in or just approaching their prime. They had to give up a couple of pieces to get their guy, but the risk is definitely worth taking.
Vegas did win the day…but I have to ask what it cost in the end. There’s three things that have to be discussed in the context of this trade: health, timing, and financial ramifications.
Health is the most obvious red flag that sticks out. Like I stated earlier, the only notable athlete to undergo artificial disk replacement is Tiger Woods; for the NHL, this is unprecedented territory. Perhaps it was this lack of a baseline expectation that made Buffalo hesitant on Eichel’s request which, while still a little questionable morally, isn’t entirely wrong. Eichel, his camp, and the Golden Knights have all likely done their due diligence to ensure this was the right path to take, but there’s no guarantee that Eichel will be the same player after the surgery. Even if he does and is able to follow the earliest timetable, Eichel wouldn’t be able to play his first game as a Golden Knight until after the Olympic break, putting him at roughly a year between games. Given that Vegas paid a premium to get Eichel in a Knights uniform, they’ll need to hope that the surgery is a success.
It brings us to the second part of my hesitance about calling the trade a success: the timing of it all. While the Knights basically replaced one key injured player in Tuch for another in Eichel, that’s the tip of the iceberg with the injury problems plaguing Vegas. Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson are all out with long-term injuries. Nolan Patrick and Zach Whitecloud are also currently on the injured list. Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, and Mattias Janmark have all missed time early in the season. These aren’t insignificant pieces; many of these are players who play major minutes in key situations. The sheer amount of injuries are part of the explanation behind Vegas’s mediocre .500 start to the season, and the organization is counting on their depth players to keep the ship afloat until reinforcements arrive.
Even if Eichel returns fully healthy and the team is able to be at full strength, the Knights still have to contend against the third and most important ramification of all: the salary cap. There’s no current need to fret about it, as the Knights currently have $16 million tied up in injured reserve. The likely staggered returns of their players will keep them alright for now, possibly requiring a couple of minor moves to balance the books. When everyone comes back, however? Vegas is looking straight into a $7 million overage. Unless Vegas pulls a Tampa Bay and keeps Eichel or any other major player on LTIR until the playoffs (hello, instant playoff villain role), they’ll have to find a way to shed salary and possibly be the odd contending team that has to sell at the deadline.
The expiring contracts for this season such as Reilly Smith, McNabb, and Janmark are all but playing their final years in Vegas, so trading them for future assets to get something out of them would be a start. In order to re-sign any key restricted free agents like Nic Hague or Nicolas Roy, however, more cap-cutting might be in store. Chandler Stephenson has been a great fit for Vegas and has cemented himself as an NHL-caliber player, but is his $2.75 million AAV worth it for a third-line center role? What about Evgenii Dadonov, who would be in the mix to take Smith’s spot next to Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson (Marchessault, whose contract expires after the 2022-23 season, might also be a name worth considering.) Laurent Brossoit could also be a name worth floating around for $2.3 million in savings, especially if Logan Thompson continues to play well in the AHL. If a team wanted to be bold and take full advantage, they could contact Vegas about Shea Theodore and try to land a legitimate top-four defenseman for a bargain price and catch the Knights in a situation where they have no leverage.
See the problem? Even if the initial package looks like a bargain, the fallout from this deal will shake up the roster even further. If the Knights want to at least be cap-compliant, let alone avoid the cap-manipulating tactics they had to pull last season, they will have to sacrifice three or four NHL-caliber assets in exchange for adding Eichel to their core for the foreseeable future.
Situations like this have been the double-edged sword that has defined Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon’s run at the helm of the NHL’s 31st franchise. Throughout his time in Sin City, McCrimmon has never been afraid to go big-game hunting, and his roster resembles an NBA-caliber super team at this stage. It’s a tactic that works great in NHL 22 with the salary cap off, but real-world hockey management means no one can play this fast and this loose with the cap without sacrifices. The decisions to bring in Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone were great at establishing Vegas as a legitimate player, but such moves played a role in sending out the likes of Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt. Signing Alex Pietrangelo last offseason and extending trade deadline acquisitions such as Alec Martinez and Robin Lehner were huge moves, but it forced Vegas to sell the cornerstone of their franchise in Marc-Andre Fleury for literally nothing. With Eichel in tow, Vegas now has to endure its most aggressive cost-cutting venture yet.
For all the franchise-altering moves McCrimmon has made, the Eichel deal will be, in my honest opinion, what ultimately defines his tenure as the Golden Knights GM. If everything checks out and the Las Vegas Strip becomes home to a Stanley Cup parade in the near future, McCrimmon will be the subject of universal praise for his handling of the situation and arguably revolutionize the way Cup contenders are built, for better or worse. If not, he becomes this generation’s version of Peter Chiarelli, dooming Vegas to a long-term salary cap hell like Chiarelli did to Boston and Edmonton. The pressure for McCrimmon and the Golden Knights to complete owner Bill Foley’s “Cup in six” timeline is at an all-time high. Now it’s time to deliver.