Sabres center Jack Eichel and coach Phil Housley both said that they disagree with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to suspend the Sabres’ captain for two games after Eichel hit Colorado Avalanche center Carl Soderberg with an illegal check to the head late in the second period of Saturday’s 3-0 loss at Colorado.
Eichel will miss home games against Dallas on Tuesday and Pittsburgh on Thursday. In a corresponding move, the Sabres recalled Alexander Nylander from Rochester.
“It’s tough. Obviously, you don’t want to miss two games with the team,” Eichel said Monday after practice at KeyBank Center. “It’s the league’s decision. Obviously, we have to stand by it. But I don’t agree with it. Obviously, if you look at the hit and you look at their rule book, I just didn’t think that it matched up. That’s not an illegal hit. I don’t move myself to lower it into him.
“If you watch the hit, he actually is at fault for dropping his head down there. It’s a 50/50 puck that I’m trying to make a hockey play on. You see me, I had my eyes on the puck the whole time and then I actually make a play on the puck after, so, you know, it’s kind of frustrating.
“If they’re going to have a rule about head shots, it has to be pretty black and white. If all head shots are suspendable, suspend all head shots. But it’s tough to see them picking and choosing what they feel is suspendable. But it’s a decision you have to live with."
#Sabres lines at today’s practice with Eichel suspended:
Girgensons, Nelson, Eichel
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) March 11, 2019
Housley echoed Eichel’s remarks in a brief press conference.
“I don’t agree with the decision,” Housley said, “but we have to live with it. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
Eichel received a penalty for an "illegal check to the head" at 14:48 of the second period after he and Soderberg were engaged in a puck battle in the neutral zone. Soderberg fell briefly on his stomach before heading to the bench. He played the rest of the game and appeared uninjured.
Eichel had a phone hearing Sunday with the NHL's Department of Player Safety, which issued the first fine or suspension of his four-year NHL career.
"With Soderberg reaching for the puck, Eichel cut sharply in front of him with his upper body hitting Soderberg's head and making it the main point of contact on a hit where such head contact was avoidable," the league said.
"While we acknowledge Eichel's argument that Soderberg is low and reaching for the puck, this hit does not meet any of the criteria for unavoidable head contact under Rule 48."
Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and based on his average annual salary, Eichel will forfeit $107,526.88. The money goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
The league absolved Soderberg of contributing to the nature of the hit.
"His head and core move in a consistent manner," the league said, "and do not suddenly and materially change position in a way that changes the nature of this hit from a full body check to one that picks the head."
Eichel had been agitated after taking a late and high hit from former Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov in the first period. Zadorov received a minor penalty for roughing on the play, which came after a whistle for offsides. He is not facing supplemental discipline.
"I think it was a physical game, so that’s what it required," Eichel said. "I don’t think I was finishing my check. I finished more than just one check, but I don’t think I was finishing a check there. It’s a hockey play that unfortunately led to me getting suspended for two games."
Eichel is eligible to return Saturday at Carolina. Eichel has 25 goals, 47 assists and 72 points in 65 games this season. He missed three games earlier this season after suffering an upper-body injury.
"No one’s going to be able to replace him," Sabres forward Sam Reinhart said. "That’s just a fact with the talent he has, so I think either with him in the lineup or out of the lineup, I think at this time when things aren’t going well for really anybody you’ve just got to play your game and take advantage of bounces hopefully and settle yourself down and play with some composure."
Is there anything Eichel can learn from this experience?
“I don’t know,” Eichel said. “What do you learn from a suspension? Avoid contact? It’s tough, you know? It’s a physical game and things happen really fast out there, so you’re constantly required to make split-second decisions and that one, I’m bracing myself thinking contact’s coming and he tries to poke it around me and go into the inside and his head goes off my back.”