121
Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk about a possible Jack Eichel trade

If you’ve spent any time on Twitter, CalgaryPuck or have just chatted with folks who follow the Calgary Flames over the off-season, eventually one topic comes up: Jack Eichel. More specifically, wouldn’t it be amazing if the Flames managed to acquire him?

Friends, let’s talk about a possible trade for Jack Eichel.

Where the Flames are at

All due respect to the Flames, their management, coaches and players, but right now they’re in hockey purgatory. They’re a middleweight. They have a roster full of good and pretty good players, and a farm system that produces pretty good players, but they don’t have any elite pieces. (They’re not alone, as many clubs lack elite pieces.)

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The Flames’ roster composition will give them a fighting chance for a playoff spot every single season, and maybe they can win a round or two, but they’re not composed in a manner that allows them to become a powerhouse. (They need an elite-level talent to help the roster slot properly.) They’re “doomed” to be perpetually pretty good, but not quite great. There are worse things to be destined to be, but if you’re hoping for a Stanley Cup it can be a bit frustrating from a fan perspective.

The team’s new arena opens in 2024-25, giving the Flames three final seasons to chase a Stanley Cup in their current home, the Saddledome.

Where the Sabres are at

Flames general manager Brad Treliving got his job in April 2014 and he’s put the Flames firmly into the “pretty good” pack. Since Treliving’s been GM, Buffalo is now on their third GM: Kevyn Adams has replaced Jason Botterill, who replaced Tim Murray. In that span, Buffalo has made zero playoff appearances and Adams’ arrival has continued the Sabres’ cycle of rebuilds.

So far this off-season, the Sabres have traded away Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart, and they’ve already amassed a few extra draft picks over the next few seasons. It seems apparent that the current edict is accumulating young assets and finding ways to weaponize their cap space.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

And they need to resolve their current conflict with their captain, Eichel.

The Eichel situation

Let’s get this out there: Eichel is a fantastic hockey player.

A product of Boston’s minor hockey programs, he came to stardom with the U.S. National Development Program and was drafted by Buffalo second overall in 2015 after an amazing season with the Boston University Terriers. He went pro the following season.

Eichel has been a perpetually pretty good NHL player, arguably with his upper limit of achievement hamstrung by his supporting cast (or lack thereof) in Buffalo. He’s never won an individual NHL trophy and besides three All-Star Game appearances his list of achievements as a pro is pretty lean. His NHL peak was 2019-20, where he finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting and was fifth among all NHLers in Goals Above Replacement, per Evolving Hockey.

But 2020-21 was a rough year for Eichel. He suffered a few injuries early on, then his season ended in early March due to a herniated disc in his neck. Here’s ESPN’s Greg Wyshinski to give a Cole’s Notes version of the saga following Eichel’s initial rehab window:

After that rehab window was over, the team medical staff suggested an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion to alleviate Eichel’s discomfort, a commonplace procedure but one that could lead to some loss in range of motion and could require additional surgery later in life.

Eichel wanted disc replacement surgery, with an artificial disc being placed in his neck. It promises a shorter rehab time, the potential for less loss of motion and far less potential for the necessity for future surgeries.

But as the Sabres have underscored several times, disc replacement would be something revolutionary for an NHL player. “Our doctors aren’t comfortable with a surgery that’s never been done on a hockey player before,” Adams said. (That’s not necessarily true. Hockey players at other levels have gotten disc replacements. But no NHL players have.)

In short: the Sabres want to use a more common neck surgery that has generally been more reliable in the past, but carries with it some drawbacks – such as loss of range of motion and the likelihood of future fusion procedures. The Eichel camp wants to use the replacement disc surgery that’s been used extensively in other sports, but never on an active NHL player, because it theoretically has fewer of the drawbacks that fusion surgery carries. Both sides have valid viewpoints, but the athlete’s camp has dug in, likely in an effort to protect his long-term health and prevent further surgeries and complications.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Because of this disagreement, it seems likely that Eichel will be traded.

Risk and reward

Eichel is 24, turning 25 in October, and he has five years remaining on a contract that carries a $10 million cap hit.

Since going pro, Eichel has had the following Wins Above Replacement performances:

  • 2015-16: 0.5
  • 2016-17: 1.2
  • 2017-18: 1.9
  • 2018-19: 1.3
  • 2019-20: 3.9
  • 2020-21: 0.4

You can probably throw out 2015-16 (his rookie season) and 2020-21 (his injury-plagued season) as outliers. If so, then his average season’s Wins Above Replacement would be 2.1. That’s pretty good, and means he’s as impactful as Matthew Tkachuk or Andrew Mangiapane were in 2019-20 or Mark Giordano was in 2020-21. If you’re thinking “Man, the Flames need to replace Giordano’s on-ice impacts,” then a fully-healthy Eichel would be a really tantalizing answer.

The questions, though, are the price tag, and what Eichel would the Flames be getting? The reported price tag for Eichel right now is the equivalent of four first round picks, which would be something like Sean Monahan, Dillon Dube, a 2023 first round pick, and probably one of Matthew Coronato, Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

If whatever surgery Eichel gets returns him to full function and performance, a $10 million cap hit and four assets is probably worthwhile because he can be a difference-maker. His addition would make the Flames extremely deep at centre and make them a dangerous team. But the lack of clarity regarding Eichel’s health and recovery, and even the possibility that either surgery option would result in him being not quite as awesome as he was beforehand, carry with them a lot of risks for whatever team acquires him.

Eichel at 100% is worth $10 million and four assets. Eichel at 85% is merely pretty good, and a $10 million cap hit and four assets to acquire a pretty good player is a really tough price to pay if Eichel wouldn’t make the Flames markedly better, and the young assets sent to Buffalo would potential hurt Calgary’s depth over the long term.

If you’re not sure if/when Eichel will be the player he was in 2019-20, or even a reasonable facsimile, expending major assets to land him in a trade is a gigantic gamble. This risk/reward calculus is likely why Eichel remains a Sabre as of this writing, and possibly will remain one until Buffalo’s asking price comes down or his health status becomes more clear.