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Sabres' high hopes take a big hit with Eichel injury

Eight minutes.

That's how far away a somber Dan Bylsma said the Buffalo Sabres were from the end of practice Wednesday morning in KeyBank Center. It might turn into eight minutes that define their season before it even started.

The Sabres' coach tried to put on a brave face with reporters after enduring the sight of Jack Eichel going down in a heap on the ice and then hobbling off to the dressing room. But he knew. Everyone in the room did too.

Eichel is the face of the franchise and you're not going to see him for at least a month. I wouldn't be surprised if it's quite a bit more than that. High-ankle sprains are like Kryptonite to hockey players.

Losing Eichel is the nightmare scenario for the Sabres, close to Armageddon for their playoff hopes before the puck is dropped Thursday against Montreal. If Eichel misses more than 20 of the 82 games, you can forget about this team having any shot at competing for a playoff berth this season.

The margin for error is small enough as it is. There's no way this club can withstand that kind of loss. Cross your fingers and toes that he's back before Thanksgiving.

The scene seemed so innocuous. Then came the sound. It was just like a similarly routine morning a few years ago when Lindy Ruff suddenly was drilled to the ice during practice and his howls filled the empty arena. Same with Eichel.

He screamed and you looked up and saw him writhing on the ice, holding what looked like his left knee or ankle after a harmless collision with Zemgus Girgensons during a power-play drill. It was hard to believe what your eyes were telling you because Eichel virtually never took a hard hit his entire rookie season. He missed one game, and that was because of food poisoning.

Most of the players encircled Eichel. Trainers came on to the ice. He skated off but only by putting all his weight on his right leg until he hopped down the tunnel and into the dressing room.

Bylsma said he knew the players were shocked right away. The arena fell quiet for the final couple of minutes of practice. No chatter, not much hard skating.

"I think we all felt it on the ice," Bylsma said. "We were having a good practice, a lot of jump and enthusiasm in practice and that happened and took the wind out of the arena a little bit and the wind out of the guys a little bit. At that point in time you could probably slap them in the face to say, 'snap out of it' but everyone's thoughts are with the injury and with the extent of it."

At the time reporters were talking to the team, players were all in hopeful mode. It was the only way to be. They had to know the season had just taken a dark turn.

The Sabres have eight games in October and have six in November by Nov. 11, which would be four weeks without Eichel. That's 14 games off the schedule and seems like it would be wildly optimistic for Eichel to return in that span, so let's forge further into it.

Buffalo has 14 games in November, which would mean Eichel would miss 22 games if he were out seven weeks. Add another six games in early December for a total of 28 if Eichel is out two months (eight weeks).

Bylsma tried to say injuries happen and this one stood out more because it was at the beginning of the season. It was more like he was trying to convince himself. For this to happen the day before the opener is plain brutal.

Bylsma tried to say the Sabres are not just Eichel or for that matter Ryan O'Reilly, in another example he used. That's how he's going to have to sell it. But Eichel is the guy on this team. He sells tickets and jerseys. He's the one every out-of-town reporter comes to talk to. He's the one who was on Team North America, the talk of the World Cup.

You hear high-ankle sprain and you think Robin Lehner, who missed three months last year when he suffered the injury in the second period of the opener against Ottawa. But Lehner is a goalie, a much tougher recovery to make, and was overweight at the start of the season.

Sidney Crosby suffered the injury with a feet-first slide into the boards in 2008. He missed 50 days, which in terms of this year's Sabres schedule would put Eichel at 22-25 games.

When Connor McDavid went down in Edmonton last year with his collarbone injury, he was out three months and the Oilers were toast. Lo and behold, the Sabres are in Edmonton on Sunday for what is a nationally televised game in Canada, the second game ever in the Oilers' new Rogers Place. And like the meeting that McDavid missed last year in Rexall Place, there will now be no McEichel matchup in Edmonton for the second straight year.

This is a loss for the NHL at large and it has not been a good week on the injury front.

Crosby is out with a concussion. Boston announced Patrice Bergeron will not start the season due to a lower-body injury. Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau is sidelined 3-4 months after a skate lacerated his leg during the final exhibition game. Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray is dealing with a broken hand suffered during the World Cup.

The Sabres thought they were catching a big break early in the day when they learned Montreal goalie Carey Price won't make the trip here for the opener due to the flu. But Kyle Okposo is still out, O'Reilly's balky back might prevent him from taking faceoffs and now there's Eichel.

Bylsma was happy to get the return of three defensemen this week in injured Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian and now-signed Rasmus Ristolainen. He was taking the glass is half-full approach. He has to. Pondering the other side, for a franchise hoping to make real strides this year, had to be too much to bear.

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