It’s possible no general manager in the National Hockey League has more on his agenda this offseason than Kevyn Adams of the Buffalo Sabres.
Adams, who oversaw a last-place finish during a calamitous first year on the job, is interviewing candidates to become the Sabres’ next head coach. He also owns the first overall pick in the NHL draft, which will be held virtually on July 23-24. Then there’s the Seattle expansion draft, a process that will lead to the departure of one player from Buffalo’s roster. Sam Reinhart and/or Rasmus Ristolainen may be traded. Rasmus Dahlin is a restricted free agent.
Yet, no item on Adams’ offseason to-do list will be more impactful than the Jack Eichel dilemma. Eichel, the Sabres’ captain and star center, expressed frustration to the media during locker cleanout day last month about a “disconnect” between he and the team regarding his preference to have surgery on the herniated disk in his neck that limited him to only 21 games this season.
Eichel reportedly wants an artificial disc replacement, a procedure that’s never been done before on a professional hockey player. The Sabres and their team doctors won’t approve the surgery. The standoff may lead Adams to trade Eichel with five years remaining on a contract that carries a $10 million annual salary cap hit.
No trade involving Eichel will be simple. Obtaining equal value isn't possible after Eichel totaled only two goals this season. There are also medical questions and Adams may try to wait until after the expansion draft since he would possibly have to protect multiple players acquired in a trade.
While it’s not a stretch to say every team in the NHL would want Eichel, only a few have the assets and cap space to make a deal work:
Projected cap space: $22.55 million, according to CapFriendly.com.
Potential NHL targets: Winger Rickard Rakell, winger Troy Terry, center Sam Steel, winger Maxime Comtois, center Adam Henrique, winger Jakob Silfverberg, center Trevor Zegras.
Prospects to consider: Center Isaac Lundstrom, center Benoit-Olivier Groulx, winger Blake McLaughlin, goalie Lukas Dostal, winger Jacob Perreault.
Any Eichel trade should not involve an Atlantic Division opponent – sorry, Bruins fans – and the return must include at least one player that can help the Sabres in 2021-22. That’s what makes the Ducks an intriguing partner.
The Ducks will try to push the Sabres to take on the final three years of Henrique’s contract, which carries a $5.85 million cap hit. Henrique, 31, had 12 goals and 21 points in 45 games this season, and he finished with 26 goals the previous season. The problem, though, is Henrique has a 10-team no-trade list.
If the Sabres aren’t on Henrique’s list, his inclusion provides Adams with leverage in negotiations.
This is how Adams can acquire Trevor Zegras or Maxime Comtois.
My preference would be Zegras, a 20-year-old center drafted ninth overall in 2019. He had a solid first season of pro hockey, finishing third on the team in goals above replacement, a metric by Evolving-Hockey.com that measures a player's overall value. Zegras had three goals and 13 points in 24 NHL games.
Comtois, 22, totaled 16 goals and a team-high 33 points in 56 games this season. He was drafted in the second round in 2017 and proved this season that he’s ready for a top-six role.
Additionally, the Sabres need to push for Troy Terry, a 23-year-old who, according to Evolving-Hockey.com, ranked first on the Ducks in goals above replacement. Terry totaled seven goals and 20 points in 48 games. He also ranked fifth on the team in generating on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5.
With goaltending a need, the Sabres also should target Lukas Dostal. The 20-year-old had a .916 save percentage in 24 games this season in the American Hockey League.
Possible trade package: Zegras, Henrique, Terry, Dostal and a first-round draft pick in 2022. It's unlikely the Ducks would be willing to move the No. 3 pick in this year's draft.
Projected cap space: $13.723 million.
Potential NHL targets: Winger Johnny Gaudreau, center Sean Monahan, winger Matthew Tkachuk, center Elias Lindholm.
Prospects to consider: Center Connor Zary, goalie Dustin Wolf, winger Jakob Pelletier.
You’ll hear analysts try to push Gaudreau or Monahan on the Sabres. Adams should refuse offers including either player. Gaudreau is entering the final season of his contract, and Monahan underwent hip surgery after another disappointing season with the Flames.
Tkachuk needs to be the target. He’ll count $7 million against the cap this season and will require a $9 million qualifying offer as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022. Tkachuk is worth the financial commitment. He’s the exact type of player the Sabres need and would embrace facing his brother Brady, a forward for the Ottawa Senators, in the Atlantic Division.
The other option here is center Elias Lindholm, who totaled 27 and 29 goals in 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively. Lindholm, 26, has three years remaining on a contract that counts $4.85 million against the salary cap.
My suggestion would be to push the Flames to include Connor Zary and a first-round draft pick. Zary, a 20-year-old center, had three goals and seven points in nine AHL games this season. He also had 24 points in 15 games with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League.
Possible trade package: Tkachuk, Zary and a 2021 first-round draft pick (12th overall).
Los Angeles Kings
Projected cap space: $20.49 million.
Potential NHL targets: Winger Alex Iafallo, center Quinton Byfield, goalie Jonathan Quick, center Gabe Vilardi.
Prospects to consider: Center Alex Turcotte, winger Arthur Kaliyev, winger Tyler Madden, center Akil Thomas, center Rasmus Kupari, winger Lias Andersson.
Iafallo should be a focus in negotiations with the Kings. The Eden native carries a reasonable cap hit – $4 million annually through 2024-25 – and he has improved every season since making his NHL debut 2017-18. Iafallo has totaled 45 goals across the past three years, including 13 while averaging a career-high 19:53 of ice time in 2020-21. His production and cap hit will likely make him unavailable in trade talks, though.
If the Sabres deal with Los Angeles, they’re likely going to have to take on Quick’s contract. Quick, a 35-year-old goalie, is owed $5.8 million in each of the next two seasons and he’s been a below-average goaltender for the past three years.
However, agreeing to take on Quick ensures the Sabres can acquire more valuable pieces and they have the cap space to spare if they’re dealing Eichel. The Kings won’t want to part with Byfield, so Adams needs to insist on acquiring Turcotte and Vilardi.
Turcotte, a 20-year-old center, hasn’t produced remarkable offensive numbers since being drafted fifth overall in 2019. He had six goals and 21 points in 32 AHL games this season. His only year at the University of Wisconsin included nine goals in 29 games. Turcotte has upside, though, and needs time to physically mature.
Vilardi, who was drafted 11th overall in 2017, had 10 goals and 23 points in 54 games with the Kings this season. He’s only 21 years old and is also a center. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, Vilardi ranked third on the Kings in goals above replacement, a metric that assigns a value to a player's overall contributions.
Another prospect to watch is center Rasmus Kupari, a first-round draft pick in 2020-21. Kupari, 21, had eight goals and 23 points in 32 games with the AHL's Ontario Reign.
Possible trade package: Turcotte, Vilardi, Quick, a 2021 first-round pick (8th overall) and a 2022 third-round pick.
Projected cap space: $17.828 million.
Potential NHL targets: Winger Marcus Foligno, winger Jordan Greenway, center Nico Sturm, defenseman Matt Dumba.
Prospects to consider: Winger Matthew Boldy, center Marco Rossi, goalie Hunter Jones, center Jack McBain.
The challenge Adams faces is acquiring players who want to be in Buffalo, especially if you’re adding a veteran. After all, who wants to go from a contender to a team that has finished last in four of the past eight years?
That’s why it’s tempting to ask for Foligno in any trade involving the Wild. He knows what it means to play in Buffalo. Plus, Foligno would provide leadership and physical play to the bottom-six.
Foligno is owed $3.1 million in each of the next two seasons. Defenseman Matt Dumba is another possible throw-in, but I predict the Wild will entice Seattle to select Dumba in the expansion draft.
Minnesota will need to go through cap gymnastics to make this work. Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek are restricted free agents.
Nico Sturm and Matthew Boldy are my other primary targets in an Eichel trade. Sturm, 21, can fill a need at center immediately. He had 11 goals and 17 points in 50 games while playing a bottom-six role this season. Boldy, meanwhile, had a remarkable debut season in the AHL and should be ready for the NHL soon. He’s only 20 years old and the sort of skilled winger the Sabres need.
Trade package: Foligno, Sturm, Boldy and a 2021 first-round pick. The Wild may part with more to create the cap space to add Eichel and sign their important restricted free agents.
New York Rangers
Projected cap space: $23.775 million.
Potential NHL targets: Center Filip Chytil, winger Kaapo Kakko, winger Vitali Kravtsov, goalie Alex Georgiev, defenseman K’Andre Miller, Pavel Buchnevich.
Prospects to consider: Center Morgan Barron, winger Lauri Pajuniemi, center Karl Henriksson, defenseman Zac Jones, winger Will Cuylle, defenseman Nils Lundqvist.
The Rangers can make an Eichel trade work if they are willing to move Alexis Lafreniere or Kaapo Kakko, but it sounds like newly appointed General Manager Chris Drury doesn’t want to go that route.
The Sabres also aren’t in need of a defenseman, so neither K’Andre Miller nor Nils Lundqvist are all that attractive as part of an Eichel trade. A package built around Filip Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov and Alex Georgiev would not be enough for me to pull the trigger on a deal, either.
The Rangers can try to convince Adams by agreeing to part with Pavel Buchnevich, a 26-year-old wing with 20 goals in 54 games this season. Buchnevich is a restricted free agent, but the Sabres can afford to give him a new contract.
Buffalo also should push to acquire winger Vitali Kravtsov. A 21-year-old who spent most of this past season in Russia, Kravtsov was drafted ninth overall in 2018. Georgiev, 25, has a .912 save percentage in 96 career NHL games.
While the Rangers have a glaring need at center and reportedly had interest in Eichel last offseason, they likely won't be willing to part with the assets necessary to make a deal that works for Buffalo.
Possible trade package: Buchnevich, Kravtsov, Georgiev and a 2021 first-round draft pick (15th overall).