Can this marriage be saved?
Star center Jack Eichel on Monday did what he usually does this time of year: speak about how tough it is to suffer through a losing season with the Buffalo Sabres, who missed the playoffs for an NHL record-tying 10th straight season.
However, Eichel’s frustration level sunk to new depths, with him strongly suggesting he could be playing for another team next year.
Isn’t the all-star center under contract with Buffalo for five more seasons? Yes, but most long-term sports contract are not ironclad, particularly in the age of athlete empowerment.
In the NBA, LeBron James’ famous staging of his free agent signing with the Miami Heat in 2010, on a live TV show called “The Decision,” paved the way for many an NBA superstar to feel free to change teams when it suits them.
In the NFL, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made it clear he wants out of Green Bay, though it remains to be seen if the team will accommodate its unhappy star.
In the NHL, goaltender Patrick Roy forced his way out of Montreal, landing in Colorado, and Mark Messier did the same with Edmonton, moving to the New York Rangers.
Eichel missed the Sabres’ final 33 games of the season due to a herniated disk in his neck. On Monday he said he had a “disconnect” with the team over the best course of medical treatment. Eichel wanted to have surgery, but the team prescribed rest and rehabilitation.
On Wednesday, Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams said team doctors were not comfortable with Eichel having the surgery because the procedure has never been done on an NHL player.
Eichel said he was forced to defer to the team’s medical decision.
“I’m under contract with this team and they definitely hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do,” he said.
The Sabres hold some cards when it comes to Eichel’s contract, but don’t bet the ranch against Eichel finding a new hockey home if he follows through on wanting out of Buffalo. Eichel could file an injury grievance through the NHL Players’ Association, which could result in a hearing by an arbitrator and a chance to have the surgery if his side wins.
Otherwise, it may appear that Eichel doesn’t have much leverage. He has a no-movement clause in his Sabres contract that will take effect after the 2021-22 season, which means he will then have a say in whether he may be traded and to which teams. Even then, nothing in his contract permits him to force a trade.
In the real world, unhappy stars are not “good for the room,” as they say in hockey. Eichel isn’t going to embarrass himself by quitting on the team while he’s on the ice, a hockey version of James Harden’s disappearing act with the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
But there are subtler ways of checking out, isolating himself from his teammates or coaches, or even forgoing his salary and refusing to report to work next fall.
News sports columnist Mike Harrington pointed out this week that the Sabres have a good young nucleus of players to build around, plus whatever talent and draft picks they might get in an Eichel trade, and a top three draft pick to make in July.
Can the Sabres patch things up with their star? Don’t bet on it.
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