Welcome back to FlamesNation’s 2021 Flames Trade Targets series, in which our team of writers takes a look at some of the players around the league either in need of a change of scenery or rumoured to be on the market.
Very seldom do players of Jack Eichel’s calibre become available on the trade market.
The Buffalo Sabres selected Eichel second overall, one pick behind Connor McDavid, at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He quickly emerged as a star on an otherwise underwhelming team, scoring 355 points (139 goals, 216 assists) in 375 games over his first six NHL seasons.
Eichel and the Sabres have missed the playoffs in every year of their partnership. Buffalo’s post-season drought extends all the way back to 2011 and appears unlikely to end at any point in the near future. The Sabres finished dead last in the 2020–21 season and currently possess the first pick in the 2021 draft.
It appears Eichel may not be around to play with whoever the Sabres select at that position. Rumours have swirled around Eichel potentially wanting out of Buffalo ever since the Sabres’ regular season ended with a whimper in May; Eichel poured a full can of gasoline on the situation when, at his exit interview with the media, he expressed his displeasure
with the organization over their management of a neck injury he sustained during the season.
Back in 2017, Eichel reportedly
threatened not to re-sign with Buffalo unless the team removed head coach Dan Bylsma from his position; then-GM Tim Murray fired Bylsma the next day.
Eichel subsequently signed an eight-year extension with the Sabres worth $10 million per season. Five years remain on that deal, which does not currently feature any trade or movement protection. (A full no-movement clause will take effect starting with the 2022–23 season).
The Sabres have acquired the likes of Jeff Skinner, Taylor Hall, and Eric Staal in recent years in attempts to “appease
” an increasingly frustrated Eichel, but the majority of their moves have backfired (sometimes in spectacular fashion). Notably, Hall and Staal combined for just five goals in 69 games with the Sabres before both being traded to playoff teams at the deadline.
Now, it seems Eichel’s time in Buffalo has come to an end. Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman appeared
on last Thursday morning’s edition of “The Instigators”—with former players Craig Rivet and Andrew Peters—on Buffalo sports radio station WGR 550 and shared the latest on the situation between the Sabres and their captain.
FRIEDMAN: Everybody knows this is out there. So, what the Sabres are trying to do is say, “Well, we’ve got eight teams”—I’m just throwing a number out there—”eight teams that are interested in Eichel and, you know, we’re going to play you all against each other and drive up the value.” And what these teams are saying is, “Yes, we know you have other teams, but [Eichel]’s got an injury and we don’t know about the process.” They kind of were wishy-washy and they kind of used that against [the Sabres]. And they also say, “Look, you guys aren’t exactly dealing from a position of strength, here.” So, it’s a big poker game, it’s a big battle—
PETERS: The Sabres aren’t—the Sabres aren’t dealing from a position of strength?
FRIEDMAN: That’s what other teams will tell Buffalo—
PETERS: See, here’s the thing. Now, I’m no general manager—”Instigators,” Elliotte Friedman joining us here—Craig, I told Craig the other day off the air, he has the general managers’ brain. So, Craig, you feel free to chop me off on this one. But, the Sabres don’t have to trade him! That is their position of strength. [FRIEDMAN: Right.] Like, I don’t understand, what do you mean? They have five more years with Jack, and—
FRIEDMAN: Well, that’s the thing. Well, hold on—yes and no. That’s the game that you have to play, Andrew, is, you—
PETERS: But that’s the reality of it, because Jack’s—we’re going to do everything we need to do to get Jack back to 100 percent and Jack’s a competitor, so he’s going to play his ass off. I don’t ever question that.
FRIEDMAN: No, but that—but that’s the whole thing. That’s the poker game we’re playing right now is, other teams are saying, “You’ve got an unhappy player who doesn’t want to come back,” and the Sabres, I really think, at the end of the day, want to move on. They don’t want him back. They want to move on.
Back in April, David Pagnotta appeared on TSN 690 in Montreal and mentioned the Flames
as a team potentially interested in acquiring Eichel’s services. On the surface, the idea makes sense. Eichel would likely become the Flames’ most talented centre since the team traded Joe Nieuwendyk to Dallas in 1995.
assessed Eichel’s play in the 2020–21 season as having been worth 5.2 goals above replacement (GAR) and 2.1 expected goals above replacement (xGAR) in 21 games. Eichel’s season was derailed by a neck injury that hampered his effectiveness
when he played.
In 2018–19 and 2019–20, respectively, Eichel contributed 12.5 and 16.5 GAR and 6.7 and 21.8 xGAR. He scored 82 points (28 goals, 54 assists) in 77 games during 2018–19 before exploding for 36 goals in just 68 games the following year.
Eichel’s 78 points in the shortened 2019-20 campaign ranked 10th in the NHL; his 36 goals placed eighth.
A selection of Jack Eichel’s play-driving figures with the Buffalo Sabres (data from Natural Stat Trick, all 5v5)
Individual Scoring Chances/60
Individual Expected Goals/60
Goals For %
On-Ice Rel Expected Goals %
Note: In the second-last column, a positive number indicates the Sabres had better offensive results with Eichel on the ice than without him. In the last column on the right, a negative number indicates the Sabres allowed fewer chances with Eichel on the ice than without him.
More of Jack Eichel’s play-driving figures with the Buffalo Sabres (data from Hockey-Reference and NST)
5v5 On-Ice Goals For
5v5 On-Ice Goals Against
5v5 On-Ice Expected Goals For
5v5 On-Ice Expected Goals Against
On-Ice 5v5 shooting percentage
On-Ice 5v5 save percentage
Eichel had trouble finishing in 2020–21, capitalizing on a mere 3.30% of his shots, but posted some of the strongest defensive numbers of his career before being shut down for the season.
For the first time in his career, Eichel saw his goaltenders save fewer than 90% of the shots they faced during his shifts at even strength. While the Sabres won the 5-on-5 expected goals battle by a roughly 12-to-9 margin with Eichel on the ice, they were outscored 16-to-10.
Individually, Eichel posted career-worst rates for shots, scoring chances, and expected goals. He largely offset that by pulling his fair share of weight at the Sabres’ end of the ice, limiting the opposition to just 25.85 shots against/60 and 1.73 expected goals against/60 during his shifts. For reference, the Sabres typically allowed 32.69 shots against/60 and 2.38 expected goals against/60 in 2020–21.
Eichel scored just two goals in 21 games last season. That’s unlikely to happen again, although his recent injury history does raise a few concerns. In addition to the herniated disk he dealt with in 2020–21, Eichel suffered
a cracked rib in training camp prior to this past season and missed a total of 36 games between the 2016–17 and 2017–18 campaigns.
When he’s on, Eichel is one of the top offensive players in the NHL. He scored 281 points (113 goals, 168 assists) in 273 games between 2016–17 and 2019–20, good enough to place him 22nd in the league during that span. His 1.03 points-per-game rate ranked 12th, behind only the following players:
- Connor McDavid
- Nikita Kucherov
- Brad Marchand
- Evgeni Malkin
- Sidney Crosby
- Leon Draisaitl
- Steven Stamkos
- Patrick Kane
- Nathan MacKinnon
- David Pastrnak
- Artemi Panarin
That’s some elite company.
With no NTC or NMC currently in effect on his contract, Eichel has no control over his destination in a potential trade. He’s from Massachusetts and attended Boston University before joining the Sabres.
Eichel is a 6’2″, right-shooting centre who still managed to score 18 points in 21 games while battling through multiple ailments and playing for an atrocious Sabres team in 2020–21. His health may cause some hesitancy among members of NHL front offices, but there’s little doubt he’ll command a hefty return in a trade.
It’s possible a trade sending Eichel to Calgary would require Matthew Tkachuk (and other pieces) to head the other way. The Flames’ 2021 first-round pick—12th overall—and top prospects Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary could also be in play.
If the Flames want to land this summer’s big fish, they’ll likely have to pay a big price. Eichel carries some small question marks but also possesses the elite scoring ability all teams crave.
Acquiring Eichel in a trade would completely reshape the Flames’ future. Would it be for better or for worse? While it certainly depends on what assets they would part with, we’ll let you decide.
2021 Trade Targets