Pain. That has been the past decade for Buffalo Sabres fans.
The Sabres once again finished in last place, yet signs of optimism were blossoming from the team. Buffalo had hoped to end the season with interim head coach Don Granato getting more out of prospects in the organization than his predecessor, Ralph Krueger, ever did. However, after the mood of the locker room interviews on Monday, the Blue and Gold are staring down the barrel of another long, difficult rebuild.
Eichel’s comments lead to more rumors of a trade
Center Jack Eichel made plenty of waves on Monday in his closeout interview. Eichel revealed a lot more about his injuries during the season, the team’s say in his decisions involving injuries, and Eichel’s overall feelings towards the organization. To no surprise, those comments carried the biggest weight, including Eichel hinting that the team is preventing him from making his own decision on the herniated disc in his neck.
Jack Eichel essentially says the Sabres wouldn't let him have surgery on his herniated disk in his neck. His body, his choice? "It doesn't work like that. I wish. … I'm under contract with this team and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can't do." — John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) May 10, 2021
The Sabres captain also hinted that his time as a Sabre might already be finished, “I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt. I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times.”
Revealing that the team has a say with how to handle his neck injury connects the dots as to why then-head coach Ralph Krueger lied about his injury back in February. However, Krueger was gone by the time Buffalo announced Eichel’s season would end on injured reserve. Eichel also suffered an injury before the season, breaking a rib while training.
Eichel said he broke a rib before the season, a few weeks before training camp. he did it shooting — Paul Hamilton (@pham1717) May 10, 2021
Despite the injuries, Eichel played in 21 games and still managed 18 points, good for seventh on the team. Whether Eichel stays in Buffalo or not remains to be seen, but the franchise center is simply focused on getting healthy, “Right now, for me, the most important thing now is to try to get healthy, figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that may be.”
Rumors were already floating around after the 2020 season involving Eichel’s future in Buffalo. The 24-year old center cited the team’s struggles as tough to keep going through. Eichel’s comments have an eerily similar look to that of former Sabre Ryan O’Reilly. In 2018, O’Reilly acknowledged that he had lost the love for the game while playing in Buffalo.
Eichel wasn’t the only Sabre upset
Center Sam Reinhart was also not excited about the prospect of another rebuild, showing plenty of frustrations of his own during the end-of-season press conference.
Sam Reinhart, who is 14 months from being a UFA, is frustrated. The RFA says he hasn't given thought to his next contract with the Sabres. pic.twitter.com/3eOq7g9JV3 — John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) May 10, 2021
Reinhart is coming off of a career-high with 25 goals in just 54 games, while also taking on the top center role for the second half of the season. Reinhart usually played on Eichel’s wing but Granato put Reinhart in Eichel’s spot, allowing the 2014 second-overall pick to flourish. Due to no long-term deal ever being put in place, Reinhart’s camp has more bargaining power over his next contract. That includes how short he wants his term to be since Reinhart can hit unrestricted free agency as soon as 2022.
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was another player turning heads with his end-of-season comments. The 26-year old has also been linked to trade rumors for a couple of years. While having a tendency to be inconsistent, Ristolainen still averages 23:53 minutes per game over his eight-year career. Ristolainen has only one more year on his current contract and can also become an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
Rasmus Ristolainen says he told Sabres GM Kevyn Adams he's open to all scenarios. He's fine with getting traded and fine with staying. — John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) May 10, 2021
Buffalo could be looking at three players with major roles on this roster wanting a fresh start somewhere else.
It’s all but certain that fans will walk away and spend their money elsewhere if another rebuild is imminent. Owners Terry and Kim Pegula are very hands-on with the Sabres since buying the team in 2010. The team has missed the postseason every year after that, which is no longer a coincidence. The Pegulas are too involved with this team and it shows whenever they speak. Last year, Kim Pegula riled the fan base up by saying, “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see positives in.”
One year later, Buffalo is the first team to finish in 31st place for the second time in NHL history and could easily threaten to finish in 32nd place when the Seattle Kraken join the NHL next season. Buffalo has four last-place finishes in their decade-long playoff drought.
Six head coaches. Four team presidents. Three GMs. Zero playoff berths. There is only one common thread that ties the last nine Buffalo Sabres seasons: They’ve all been played under Terry & Kim Pegula. More from @frank_seravalli: https://t.co/bhMne1RrRw#TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/PZaYhKItLE — TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) June 16, 2020
The problem is, the Pegulas ARE fans. They are constantly in the affairs of the Sabres organization. The Pegulas let the front office of their football team, the Buffalo Bills, do their job without interference. The Bills are now one of the new darlings of the NFL, while the Sabres continue to stumble every year. Sadly, it may be even longer before the Sabres are even relevant again. Yes, the team’s youth showed promise after the horrific 18-game winless streak, but if Eichel and Reinhart want out of Buffalo, the Sabres could be staring at another long-term rebuild.
A new challenger arrives
Buffalo has some tough decisions to make regarding the Kraken and the newest expansion draft. Buffalo could lose a young player for nothing if they are not careful with their protections. They might even need to coerce Seattle into taking a less desirable player with draft picks. For a 31st-place team, the fact they could be burned by the expansion draft is almost laughable but it is true. Buffalo would most likely protect forwards Eichel, Reinhart, Jeff Skinner (no-movement clause), and Casey Mittelstadt and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. With those players set, any combination of simulations could allow one or more of the following forwards to be exposed:
That is a lot of youth. Asplund and Thompson are just 23. Bjork is 24, coming over from Boston at the NHL Trade Deadline for winger Taylor Hall. Olofsson is the “elder statesman” at 25 and is a power-play specialist with a quick shot. If the Sabres don’t offer the Kraken a pick or two, one of those players leaves for nothing.
What comes next?
General manager Kevyn Adams has a lot to worry about this offseason. Adams has to get through a head coaching hire, an expansion draft, Eichel being upset and possibly wanting out, revamping his goaltending, and re-signing restricted free agents like Reinhart, Dahlin, and Mittelstadt. That is a lot for Adams to take care of in his first full offseason at the helm.
It would not be a shock if Buffalo tears it down to go younger and start anew. Don Granato was interesting to watch with a young team needing development. The interim head coach would also be cost-effective to retain and promote, which helps ownership save money.
Meanwhile, the fans get the same thing they have been seeing for a decade: Pain.
Be sure to comment your pain below and follow me on Twitter at @DerekKramer49