Jack Eichel is “fed up with losing.” This comes in the wake of a season when his offensive production, minutes per game and analytics ticked upward for the fifth season in a row.
There are a lot of tough questions being asked about the Buffalo Sabres right now, but some have begun to question if this is the beginning of the end for Eichel’s time in the city.
— Matthew Bové (@Matt_Bove) May 28, 2020
With Braden Holtby’s $6.1 million cap hit set to come off the books, the Washington Capitals have a surprising amount of cap space available. Despite their two excellent top centers, could the perennial Metropolitan Division powerhouse make a play for the malcontent Sabres’ captain?
Can Washington Afford Jack?
Eichel is signed to a mammoth contract worth $10 million per season through 2025-26. Surprisingly, with some tweaks, the Capitals could absorb that salary. With the combined contracts of Holtby, Radko Gudas, and Brenden Dillon, the Capitals have $10 million in cap space available. It would be a tight fit for the club, but that’s assuming $0 in salary is sent back to the Sabres in a trade. Considering the high-caliber player Eichel is, there’s no way a deal would get done without players going back to Buffalo.
What Would it Take?
The Capitals are blessed with two excellent centers in (future Hall of Famer) Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For Eichel, also a center, to make any sense for the Capitals, one of those players must go back to Buffalo in the trade. Backstrom recently signed a new contract, so it stands to reason that Kuznetsov would be the man headed out.
Eichel for Kuznetsov in a one-for-one deal isn’t quite enough to make a trade happen. As good as Kuznetsov is, the supporting cast he has had around him his whole career has to be taken into account and then juxtaposed against what little help Eichel has had. Also, swapping Eichel for another top center doesn’t really help Buffalo. They’d essentially be giving a top center away for another top center in return. Eichel is also 23 years old and about to enter his prime, while Kuznetsov is 28 and in his prime. Buffalo has to receive more to make a deal work.
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Buffalo needs help at center beyond their top line. One of the biggest issues they’ve had is their lack of a No. 2 center. Conveniently, the Capitals have a third-line center who could be a No. 2 on many teams. Lars Eller would be a fine fit in Buffalo at center while the Sabres wait for prospect Dylan Cozens to develop.
Eller brings some 5-on-5 point production while also being solid in his own end and capable on special teams. He was the only center on the Capitals this season who earned extensive time on both the power play and penalty kill. He is a big, strong, smart, reliable player with veteran experience. Honestly, outside the context of this article, the Sabres might want to explore a trade for Eller.
Even with Kuznetsov and Eller in the mix, Eichel’s youth probably would require a first-round pick to go to Buffalo in this trade. Washington would probably get a second-round pick in return. The final trade would shake out like this:
To Buffalo: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, 2021 first-round pick
To Washington: Jack Eichel, 2021 second-round pick
Why It Wouldn’t Work
The first roadblock for the Capitals would be Kuznetsov’s 15-team, no-trade clause. It’s no secret that Buffalo is struggling, and it’s hard to imagine any player willing to be shipped from a perennial contender to a perennial lottery-pick team. Without speaking to Kuznetsov or his agent, it’s hard to know for sure that he would veto a trade to Buffalo, but it’s a fair assumption based on what some other players have done.
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Assuming that the Sabres are not on Kuznetsov’s no-trade list, the next obstacle would be that he is a possible “flight risk.” Patrik Berglund’s unceremonious departure in the wake of the Ryan O’Reilly trade has to have left a sour taste in Buffalo’s mouth.
It would be unconscionable for the Sabres to trade their captain and franchise’s future for a Russian star in the prime of his career who could flee to Russia if things didn’t go his way. Newly promoted general manager (GM), Kevyn Adams, cannot afford to make the same kind of mistake his predecessor made.
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While it might seem like the Capitals have the salary space and pieces in place to make a bid for Eichel’s services, the reality of NHL contracts make it implausible at best. If the Sabres decide to trade Eichel, Adams is going to have to try to get a king’s ransom for him since it’s very hard to get back enough value for star players. Former Sabres GM, Jason Botterill, found that out the hard way. As good as Eichel is, the Capitals will get along fine without him.