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Inside the Sabres: Team must address void at center in any trade involving Jack Eichel

Inside the Sabres: Team must address void at center in any trade involving Jack Eichel

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Casey Mittelstadt appeared in 41 games with the Buffalo Sabres last season.

There have been no notable developments regarding the Buffalo Sabres’ plan for Jack Eichel since the star center’s agents released a statement last month saying both sides agreed surgery is necessary.

Eichel’s surgeon, Dr. Chad J. Prusmack, joined Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek on Sportsnet’s 31 "Thoughts podcast" to detail why the surgery not approved by Sabres doctors, an artificial disk replacement, would benefit the disgruntled center in the short and long term.

It was complete silence on the Eichel front until two New York Rangers fans, Ryan Mead and Greg Kaplan, leased a digital billboard in Buffalo, only a half-mile from KeyBank Center, urging the Sabres to complete the trade.

Eichel, a 24-year-old with five 20-goal seasons, remains on the Sabres’ roster with approximately four weeks until the start of Don Granato’s first training camp as coach. General Manager Kevyn Adams insisted last month that he would have no issue having Eichel with the club at that time, yet it’s difficult to envision such a scenario when the franchise is intent on handing the reins over to a new young core, led by Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens.

Read the full analysis from Lance Lysowski

Until a trade is complete, it’s impossible to forecast what the roster will be at the start of camp, let alone when the season opens in Buffalo against Montreal on Oct. 14.

With Eichel expected to be traded before the start of the season, and Sam Reinhart a member of the Florida Panthers following a draft-day deal last month, the Sabres are thin at forward, particularly at center. The roster, as presently constructed, has promising, albeit unproven, talent up front. Any Eichel trade is expected to address the glaring need.

“We have a lot of potential in the form of talent that’s in place to make big steps in a very short span,” Granato said last month. “I’ve had a lot of experience and been fortunate enough to be around extremely talented hockey players, the Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuks and the Charlie McAvoys and (Zach) Werenskis and I saw those kids develop fast from 16, 17, 18 years old. Now I look at our player pool, it is really exciting for me with the hindsight I have and the experiences I’ve gone through.”

Free-agent frenzy passed without the Sabres adding any high-priced free agents. Their most notable addition at forward was Vinnie Hinostroza, a fast, middle-six winger who totaled a career-high 16 goals with Arizona in 2018-19. Rather than using the club’s significant cap space – CapFriendly.com projects Buffalo with $28.06 million to spend, including Eichel’s $10 million hit – Adams prioritized adding effective role players who bring value on the ice and in the dressing room without taking opportunity away from Cozens, Mittelstadt and others.

In addition to Hinostroza, the Sabres signed forwards John Hayden and Ryan MacInnis, bottom-six types who played for Granato elsewhere, to two-way contracts. Otherwise, these mock lines, excluding an injured Eichel, are like the ones used by Buffalo during the final weeks of last season:

Anders Bjork – Cozens – Victor Olofsson

Rasmus Asplund – Mittelstadt – Tage Thompson

Jeff Skinner – Cody Eakin – Arttu Ruotsalainen

Drake Caggiula – Zemgus Girgensons – Hinostroza/Kyle Okposo

The Sabres also have the following forwards under contract, though each will likely start the season in Rochester: Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Brett Murray, Sean Malone, Andrew Oglevie, Brandon Biro, Linus Weissbach, Lukas Rousek and Matej Pekar.

Quinn, a 19-year-old winger drafted eighth overall by Buffalo in October 2020, will need more time in the American Hockey League after playing through a hernia in his 15 games with the Amerks last season. Quinn totaled two goals and nine points, and he received a brief audition at center before undergoing surgery.

Peterka, another promising winger with an impressive left-handed shot, was drafted in the second round, No. 34 overall, last year and had a promising final season in Germany before signing his entry-level contract with Buffalo in the spring.

While the Amerks will have an exciting forward group, there aren’t any solutions at center. As of now, the Sabres would likely need to move Girgensons back to the middle, a position he hasn’t played full-time since 2016-17. Eakin, meanwhile, is coming off a disappointing season, totaling three goals and seven points in 46 games after signing a two-year, $4.5 million contract.

Asplund exceled on the wing under Granato, with six goals and 10 points in 23 games, and Ruotsalainen hasn’t played center since his move to North America at the start of last season.

There aren’t many unsigned, free-agent centers, as the list includes Eric Staal, Travis Zajac, Casey Cizikas, Valtteri Filppula, Carter Rowney, Alex Galchenyuk and Derick Brassard.

More depth is needed in the event of underperformance or injury, and the Sabres could use someone to take pressure off Cozens and Mittelstadt, even if the plan is for those two to receive significant minutes and difficult matchups.

“I've been consistent with this: We need to build around a young core of players,” Adams said last month. “We need to give these – not give. We need to provide an opportunity for these players to learn how to play in critical moments, grow up together. We need to identify players that want to be here. And we need to be excited about that.

“We need to get those group of core young players into the community, connecting with our fans. And then you're going to bring in that next tier of guys, like the Owen Powers and players we just drafted and have that young nucleus that really grows up together. And there'll be guys that take steps that are part of it moving forward. And there'll be guys that maybe they don't, and then we move on. But we have to know that.”

While the New York Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad has a no-movement clause that would likely bar a trade to Buffalo, a three-team swap involving Eichel could land the Sabres a younger center. Other teams reportedly interested in Eichel have notable players at that position, particularly Trevor Zegras (Anaheim) and Marco Rossi (Minnesota).

Proper evaluations of young wingers will be difficult if the Sabres don’t have adequate depth down the middle. Thompson, 23, had seven goals and 12 points in 25 games under Granato, leading the Sabres in individual shot quality at 5-on-5 during that span, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Bjork, a 25-year-old winger acquired in the Taylor Hall trade, had three goals and six points in 15 games with Buffalo, but he played on the perimeter too often, as illustrated by his poor shot quality.

The Sabres will also likely give Asplund and Ruotsalainen an extended look in the NHL. And the club needs to figure out what it has in Olofsson, a 25-year-old who has scored 20 of his 35 career goals on the power play. He’s owed $3.05 million this season and will likely require a raise as a restricted free agent next summer.

The club’s depth on defense appears strong long term, led by Dahlin, Jokiharju and Power, who is returning to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season. But any trade involving Eichel must address all the club has lost offensively this summer.

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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