Sabres focused on looking ahead with Eichel now in the past

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres had just completed a pregame meeting and veteran forward Kyle Okposo was struck by what he noticed once the coaches left the room.

Rather than head their separate ways, most players stuck around to chat. Without referencing how things went in the past, Okposo was making a clear point about the current — post-Jack Eichel — makeup of the Sabres and the bonds being formed among a group of developing youngsters and journeymen.

“We all truly enjoy being around each other. And that’s a really special thing when you’re in the NHL, because it doesn’t happen everywhere,” Okposo said.

The moment made him reflect to his youth hockey days of teammates always hanging out together and playing mini-sticks in arena hallways.

“This is the grown-up version of that,” he said. “I think we have a team in there and we have guys in there who truly care about each other. And our whole thing is happening the way it’s supposed to. And I’m really excited about our future.”

The Eichel era in Buffalo officially ended on Nov. 4, when the former face of the franchise was traded to Vegas. In reality, the players who remained in Buffalo had moved on from their deposed captain long before then.

It was nothing personal, said Okposo, who maintains close ties to Eichel. It was a matter of having to look forward, start fresh and have this group of players develop, as he put it, organically and “write their own chapters.”

There is plenty of blame to go around for how Eichel’s six seasons in Buffalo proved a failure.

There were questionable trades and high-priced signings with no vision toward developing team culture by instead allowing cliques to form among players. There was the decision to thrust Eichel into the role of captain, perhaps before he was ready for the responsibility.

And there was ownership’s impatience with losing, which led to a revolving door of front-office firings, leaving a Frankenstein’s monster of a roster assembled by one or another former GM to fit the needs of one or another former coach.

Add it up, and the Sabres’ decision to essentially tank the 2014-15 season for a shot to draft either Connor McDavid or Eichel led to Buffalo finishing last in the standings four times and 10 seasons without a playoff appearance to match the NHL’s longest drought.

With Eichel gone, along with the offseason departures of forward Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, the Sabres can start new with a core of youngsters and a first-time NHL head coach in Don Granato with a track record of player development.

In replacing Ralph Krueger in March and Buffalo in the midst of an 18-game winless streak, Granato has insisted the team play without fear of making mistakes and a focus on staying on the attack.

Too often, Granato said, players are accustomed to playing in fear a miscue will lead to being benched. Granato has removed that threat while acknowledging it takes time for players to recalibrate.

It’s a philosophy and a system built with an eye on the future in hopes that players gain confidence through experience.

At 7-6-2, the Sabres are off to a better start than expected, while enduring the tell-tale peaks and valleys of a team seeking its identity. And they’ve been competitive despite missing four key players to injury, plus forward Alex Tuch, who was acquired in the Eichel trade but remains sidelined through January with a shoulder injury.

Granato has emphasized staying in the moment, but allowed himself an opportunity to depart from his message in assessing whether the Sabres had pinned a franchise’s hopes on one player.

“I think moving forward, there’s more concern for me in the players we got. We’re extremely excited about what we got back. But nobody’s our savior,” Granato said. “Nobody has to come in here being a savior. Maybe that’s been the challenge of the past.”

MUSIC CITY MATT

Matt Duchene has rediscovered his groove in his third season with the Nashville Predators. With nine goals — three of them game-winners — and seven assists, he’s just the fourth player in franchise history to have 16 or more points through the first 15 games of a season.

He’s already surpassed last year’s totals, when he had six goals and 13 points in 34 games. And Duchene’s burst in production coincides with the Predators going 8-1-1 after an 1-4 start. All but one assist came during the 10-game run.

“I really haven’t changed anything in terms of my approach, my mentality,” Duchene said, after scoring the decisive goal in a 4-3 overtime win at St. Louis last week.

The 13-year NHL veteran is a nine-time 20-goal-scorer who signed a seven-year, $56 million deal with Nashville in free agency in 2019.

Coach John Hynes has seen a difference.

“He’s faster this year, much more competitive on the puck,” Hynes said.

NHL Rink Wrap: Pitlick, Batherson surprise stars, Maple Leafs win again, and Kessel’s streak

Top player from Saturday in the NHL

Rem Pitlick, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota Wild forward Rem Pitlick entered Saturday’s game in Seattle with zero goals in 15 career NHL games.

He left Saturday’s game with three goals, recording a natural hat trick in the Wild’s 4-2 win over the Kraken.

He was able to take advantage of sloppy Seattle play with the puck to sneak in for a couple of breakaways to beat Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer. The Wild are off to a great start this season and with Saturday’s win have now won five of their past six games and are 10-4-0 overall. It is the second best start to a season in franchise history.

The Kraken, meanwhile, are not having the start anybody in Seattle wanted for their inagurual season, now sitting with a 4-10-1 record and have lost four games in a row.

Highlights from Saturday in the NHL

The New York Rangers were big winners in Columbus on Saturday night, and it was this stretch in the second period where they scored three goals in one minute and three seconds to help push them to the win.

Morgan Rielly‘s goal with 11.8 seconds to play in regulation lifted the Toronto Maple Leafs to another win. After a slow start that saw them win just two of their first six games the Maple Leafs have now won eight of their past nine games.

The big game of the night was in Tampa Bay where the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Lightning were hosting the league’s best team so far this season, the Florida Panthers. It did not disappoint. The Lightning were 3-2 winners in overtime thanks to this Brayden Point goal. Point also had a fight in this game.

Three Takeaways from Saturday in the NHL

Batherson leads Senators to surprising win

The Ottawa Senators entered Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on a six-game losing streak and with nine regulars from their lineup sidelined. Seemed like a tough challenge. All they did was jump out to a 5-0 lead on their way to a convincing 6-3 win. Drake Batherson was the big star for the Senators in this game, scoring two goals and adding two more assists for a four-point game. After winning two of their first three games the Senators were 1-8-1 in their previous 10 games entering Saturday.

Phil Kessel‘s ironman streak continues

The Arizona Coyotes lost again on Saturday, dropping a 4-1 decision to the Nashville Predators to bring their record to just 1-13-1 through their first 15 games, collecting just three out of a possible 30 points in the standings. That is bad. The good news, though, is that Phil Kessel’s ironman streak is still going strong and on Saturday night increased to 915 consecutive games, moving him ahead of Gary Unger for sole possession of the third-longest ironman streak in NHL history. Doug Jarvis holds the NHL record at 964 games. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Keith Yandle has the second-longest streak at 934 games. Both players could move ahead of Jarvis this season.

Avalanche, Golden Knights getting back on track

The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights have been two of the best teams in the NHL over the past few years, and both entered this season with Stanley Cup goals. They both got off to slower than expected starts, with injuries playing a big role for both teams. They are starting to both turn things around and both were big winners on Saturday night. The Avalanche were 6-2 winners over the San Jose Sharks, giving them 13 goals over their past two games since Nathan MacKinnon went out of the lineup. They are now 5-2-1 over their past eight games, earning 11 out of a possible 16 points during that stretch. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, were 7-4 winners over the Vancouver Canucks and are now 8-2-0 in their past 10 games after winning just one of their first four five games. Mark Stone is back in the lineup now, and they still have Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, and of course Jack Eichel all still waiting to return.

Sunday’s big story

It might actually be the Anaheim Ducks. They enter their game against the Vancouver Canucks on a six-game winning streak, while Troy Terry looks to extend his current point streak to 14 consecutive games. Nobody expected the Ducks to be this competitive, while Terry’s point streak might be even more surprising than the early team success. He also has five multi-point games already this season. Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid is also looking to extend his current point streak to 14 consecutive games to match Terry’s in their game against the St. Louis Blues.

Saturday’s NHL scores

Boston Bruins 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Winnipeg Jets 3, Los Angeles Kings 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Buffalo Sabres 4
Ottawa Senators 6, Pittsburgh Penguins 3
Detroit Red Wings 3, Montreal Canadiens 2 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Florida Panthers 2 (OT)
New York Rangers 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 3
Carolina Hurricanes 3, St. Louis Blues 2
Nashville Predators 4, Arizona Coyotes 1
Dallas Stars 5, Philadelphia Flyers 2
Colorado Avalanche 6, San Jose Sharks 2
Minnesota Wild 4, Seattle Kraken 2
Vegas Golden Knights 7, Vancouver Canucks 4

NHL Rink Wrap: Hart continues great start for Flyers; Eichel has surgery

Top player from Friday in the NHL

Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

The only question that mattered for the Philadelphia Flyers for the 2021-22 season was which version of Carter Hart they were going to get in goal.

Would it be the version from the first two years that was setting the foundation for a strong career that would finally give the Flyers their franchise goalie?

Or would it be a repeat of the 2020-21 season that threw his future and potential into question?

So far the answer is the former, and his strong early season performance continued on Friday night with a stellar 39-save effort to help lead the Flyers to a 2-1 win over the first place Carolina Hurricanes. Hart kept the Flyers in the game long enough for the team to rally with a pair of third period goals to secure the win.

In his nine starts this season Hart has a .930 save percentage and a 4-3-2 record for the Flyers. The record does not do justice to how well he has played.

Highlights from Friday in the NHL

Another night, another goal, another multi-point night, and another Hall of Fame jumped ahead of on the all-time goal list for Alex Ovechkin. He scored his 12th goal of the season and 742nd goal of his career in the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night to move ahead of Brett Hull for sole possession of fourth place on the NHL all-time goal scoring list. Here is the goal.

Dustin Tokarski played great for the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night to help lead them to a surprising 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers. These two saves late in the third period were his best of the game.

William Nylander tied the game for the Toronto Maple Leafs late in the third period, and then Auston Matthews scored the game-winning goal in overtime.

Three Takeaways from Friday in the NHL

The Oilers are still all about the power play, McDavid and Draisaitl

It really is amazing to watch this Edmonton Oilers team. The power play is as good as we have ever seen in the modern era, and it scored two more times on Friday night, both from Leon Draisaitl as he increased his league-leading goal total to 14 goals for the season. The power play is clicking at nearly 50 percent through the first 12 games of the season, which is an insane rate. The Oilers also have the two best offensive players in the world in Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. But they just get so little from everybody else on the roster during 5-on-5 play, not only getting badly outscored when those two are not on the ice, but not generating any offense of any kind. Eventually that will be a problem they have to address. The Oilers were outscored 3-0 during 5-on-5 play on Friday night in their 3-2 loss to the Sabres.

Chicago wins again under Derek King

The Chicago Blackhawks are now 3-0-0 since replacing head coach Jeremy Colliton with Derek King thanks to their 2-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Friday night. Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome scored the goals, while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 22 out of 23 shots in the win. After being one of the worst defensive teams in the league through the first month of the season, always giving up goals in the first minutes of games, Chicago has allowed just four total goals, and none in the first period, since the coaching change.

Jack Eichel has surgery

The Vegas Golden Knights announced on Friday that newly acquired center Jack Eichel underwent successful surgery disk replacement surgery and had no complications. He has been waiting to have this surgery for months after the Buffalo Sabres would not agree to allow him to have it, furthering the divide between him and the team and resulting in his recent trade to the Golden Knights. There is still no exact timetable for his return to the lineup, but it is expected to be at least three months before he plays. He should still be expected to make his debut during the 2021-22 regular season. When he does make his debut the Golden Knights should still have one of the best rosters in the NHL, especially with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson back in the lineup as well.

Saturday’s big story

The big game of the day on Saturday is in Tampa Bay where the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Lightning host one of the NHL’s best teams, their cross-state rivals the Florida Panthers. These two teams met in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago and it was one of the best series of the entire postseason. This has always been an underrated rivalry, and now that both teams are Stanley Cup contenders it should be going to an entirely new level. The other big game on Saturday is in Carolina where the 10-2-0 Hurricanes host the 8-2-2 St. Louis Blues in what could be a potential Stanley Cup Final preview based on what we have seen from these two teams early on this season.

Friday’s NHL scores

Washington Capitals 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3
Buffalo Sabres 3, Edmonton Oilers 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 2, Calgary Flames 1 (OT)
Philadelphia Flyers 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, Arizona Coyotes 1

Olympic Stock Watch: Brutal month for Jones; Russian goalie competition

The NHL currently plans on sending players to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, with an early February break in the schedule. For some Olympic men’s hockey teams, most roster spots are no-brainers. That said, there’s room to move. Players can work their way off or onto Olympic rosters. In some cases, a fringe player could end up being key.

PHT’s Olympic Stock Watch monitors ups and downs for players for the U.S. men’s ice hockey team, Team Canada, and other countries hunting for medals.

Olympic Stock: Down

Seth Jones

Woof.

When USA Hockey named Seth Jones among its first three Olympic selections, people already grumbled. Rumblings were picking up about Jones maybe not being quite the elite defenseman many believe(d) him to be, and the Blackhawks hastily paid him to be. Beyond that, Adam Fox is the reigning Norris Trophy winner.

It wasn’t unreasonable to draw line between then-U.S. GM Stan Bowman and Jones being among the first three named (two of three were Blackhawks, as Patrick Kane also received that honor).

Apparently a lot can change in a month.

Bowman is out as both Blackhawks and U.S. Olympic GM. The Blackhawks aren’t just a disaster off the ice — they’re also a mess on it.

Now, it’s absurd to lay all the blame on Jones’ feet. Chicago’s problems stem from before he ever arrived. Yet, if you look beyond scoring totals (11 assists in 13 games), it’s tougher and tougher to argue that he’s anywhere close to a $9.5 million defenseman.

You can’t even just wave it away as Jones being sunk by bad teammates alone. By metrics like Expected Goals, he ranks among the worst even relative to his teammates:

Olympic Stock Watch: Brutal month for Seth Jones, Fleury xGAR
via Evolving Hockey

Without Bowman’s ego attached to the situation, it’s fair to wonder where Jones should slot in. This isn’t the U.S. defense of the past; there are a ton of quality blue liners to choose from.

• USA Hockey management, in general

Grimly, Stan Bowman isn’t the only high-ranking U.S. Olympic official embroiled in off-ice controversy. U.S. assistant GM Bill Guerin was named in a lawsuit steming from his time as Penguins assistant GM.

You may also recall USA Hockey executive John Vanbiesbrouck’s past (in 2003, he resigned as an OHL coach after using a racial slur while describing Trevor Daley).

It all makes you wonder if Bowman’s resignation may be part of a larger change in USA Hockey management. Or, at least, if there should be more changes.

• Marc-Andre Fleury

Much like Jones, you can’t blame the Blackhawks’ blunders on Marc-Andre Fleury alone. This team’s been an absolute disaster defensively — extending beyond when Jones and “MAF” were around.

But there’s no denying Fleury’s stock plummeted with Team Canada. Harsh or not, a brutal month can make people forget about a surprise (but deserved) Vezina win. Quicker than the Blackhawks giving up a lead.

• Jakob Chychrun

After 11 tries, Jakob Chychrun and the Coyotes finally won a game — and only by the skin of their teeth. Amid that misery, Chychrun’s come crashing to Earth.

During that 11-game losing streak, Chychrun went pointless. The big defenseman fired a ton of shots, but his puck luck reversed from last season.

For traditionalists, his minus-20 rating will tell the story. The drop-off in undelying stats is drastic, too.

Last season, Chychrun was elbowing in on a possible Canadian Olympic team spot:

Olympic Stock Watch: Brutal month for Seth Jones, Fleury Chychrun RAPM 1
via Evolving Hockey

After one month, he might be lucky to even receive more than passing consideration.

Olympic Stock Watch: Brutal month for Seth Jones, Fleury Chychrun 2
via Evolving Hockey

Ultimately, the true Chychrun lies somewhere between those extremes. He might be closer to that quite-good player who nonetheless rode an unsustainably hot 2020-21 season. But as the Coyotes suffer, Chychrun’s Olympic chances fade.

Olympic stock: Up

• Russian goalies

After you consider their options on defense, something becomes clear: whoever tends net for the Russian Olympic team is going to have to be sharp.

If some of those candidates stay as hot as they were through one month, maybe that will be the case.

  • Early on, Igor Shesterkin looks like the goalie of the future for the Rangers — and maybe Russia.
  • After some rough years, Sergei Bobrovsky‘s … actually playing like a $10 million goalie?
  • Yes, you can downplay some if based on the Islanders/Trotz/etc. factor, but Ilya Sorokin‘s off to a strong start.

Frequently, Olympic teams like to bring a mix of veteran and young goalies. Russia might get there quite organically.

• Carter Hart? And Braden Holtby?

Want a lesson in waiting to bring out that “Jump to Conclusions” mat? Carter Hart suffered a pretty brutal start to the season, to the point that he might not make it through an early start. The Flyers stuck with Hart, and while there are valleys to go with the peaks, he’s looking … quite good overall?

Neither Hart (3-2-2) nor Braden Holtby (2-3-1) boast great records. But each goalie has a save percentage above .920 so far this season. Generally, that indicates that Holtby and Hart are giving their teams a chance to win. At least most of the time.

That might not be otherworldly praise. Yet, with Team Canada, you often aren’t asking Dominik Hasek to doctor his passport. Instead, you’re generally hoping for competence.

Now, it’s possible that the U.S. men’s Olympic team or another country might raise the bar and force Canada to lean on elite goaltending. Either way, Canada’s options looked pretty limited heading into the 2021-22 season. Neither Hart nor Holtby inspire the utmost competence, but solid might be good enough for Canada.

(At least if Connor McDavid is healthy enough to be, well, Connor McDavid.)

• Jack Eichel?

If PHT’s Olympic Stock Watch went up last week, Jack Eichel’s stock may have been at an all-time low.

Thanks to a surgical impasse and maybe other factors, the Sabres were really dragging their feet when it came to an Eichel trade. That cost Eichel precious months of recovery from his preferred disc replacement surgery.

Logically, it still feels like Eichel is a longshot to play for the U.S. at the 2022 Winter Olympics even as he preps for a Friday surgery which should require a three-month recovery period.

That said, Eichel expressed doing exactly that. Considering how much pent up hockey Eichel must have in his system, would you really want to count him out? (The Golden Knights might be saying “Uh, yes please.”)

At minimum, Eichel’s chances to participate look much better after that trade, so consider his stock up. It would certainly be welcome news for a U.S. team that’s mostly been rocked by ugly headlines.

• To be determined: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Thanks to a past failed drug test, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s 2022 Olympic participation is uncertain and recent reports send mixed messages.

If you look at on-ice performance alone, though, Kuznetsov is off to a hot start. Through his first 11 games, he’s generated an impressive 13 points. Ultimately, the Russian’s Olympic hopes aren’t totally in his hands.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Eichel ready for surgery, recovery expected to take 3 months

LAS VEGAS (AP) Forward Jack Eichel said Monday he is relieved the blockbuster trade that sent him from the Buffalo Sabres to the Vegas Golden Knights is behind him and he is looking forward to being on the ice with his new team, even though it may take about three months.

Eichel will have his preferred choice of surgery for his neck injury Friday and is thankful the Golden Knights have been supportive of the procedure he feuded with the Sabres over, triggering discontent with the organization.

Eichel said he hopes the NHL and NHL Players’ Association will provide players more rights in determining how to treat injuries, while he acknowledged frustration in the delay in being able to get his procedure. He will have his herniated disk artificially replaced, something the Sabres denied because the procedure had never been performed on an NHL player. He lost nearly an entire season due to the stalemate over the treatment.

“I think my situation shined light on maybe some things that could be changed, and I hope that they are in the future,” Eichel said. “I don’t necessarily agree with the team having the full say in what to do with medical treatment. I think it should be a collaboration.”

Eichel is in the fourth season of an eight-year, $80 million contract. He topped 20 goals in each of his first five seasons and enjoyed a breakout year in 2019-20, when he had a career-best 36 goals in 68 games before the season was abruptly halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Overall, he had 139 goals and 216 assists in 375 career games with Buffalo.

The Golden Knights acquired the 25-year-old Thursday in exchange for forward Alex Tuch, rookie center Peyton Krebs and two draft picks.

Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon made it clear he was in favor of Eichel having his preferred surgery.

“The decision of the surgery is one that we respectfully defer to Jack and his representatives,” McCrimmon said. “Why wouldn’t his people want what’s best for him?”

Eichel, whose recovery is expected to take about three months, said he has thoroughly researched the procedure and doesn’t believe it makes him an expensive or risky investment for a team looking to make a deep playoff run.

“I think there’s been maybe a narrative created that I was going out and doing something that’s never been done to a hockey player, but this is an FDA-approved surgery that’s been around for a long time,” Eichel said. “My surgeon started doing it in the early 2000s, so he’s been doing it for 20 years. I feel very, very confident in what I’m doing.”

“There’s been other players who have dealt with herniated disks in other ways. But from what I’ve gathered, speaking of them, they really were never given the option. And I feel very fortunate that my second opinion gave me this option to look at maybe a superior surgery. And I just went out and did as much research to learn as much as I could about it. And I feel very, very confident that I’m making the right decision, and everyone else that I’ve spoken to feels very good about it,” he said. “So, you know, I know it’s going to work out and I’m going to be back playing. And I can put this all behind us.”

Eichel also expressed his gratitude for Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner, who had previously played with Eichel in Buffalo and was extremely supportive of him.

“He was shining a light on the situation, and I think him doing that, I really think it did help my situation and I appreciated Robin as someone who speaks up when he believes in something and he stands behind it,” Eichel said. “It meant a lot and it meant a lot to my family. He’s a guy that you definitely want on your side, want behind you. He’ll do anything for you.”

Eichel was speaking with reporters for the first time since arriving in Las Vegas on Sunday amid fanfare at the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa, where he was greeted by the organization’s entire entertainment squad, including cheerleaders, the team’s drumline and a pair of mascots.

“As a player, you appreciate that,” Eichel said. “It makes you feel very welcome and makes you feel like you’re wanted. I had seen that some previous guys have been traded here and they’ve done that in the airport. So I thought when I collected my bags, I was clear, but they got me in the hotel.”

AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this report.

NHL Power Rankings: Panthers on top; Maple Leafs improving

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings the Florida Panthers regain the top spot after a convincing win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night, pushing their early season record to an incredible 10-0-1, the best start in franchise history.

They boast a deep, talented team across the board and are getting a huge bounce back performance from Sergei Bobrovsky in goal to really put them over the top.

Elsewhere around the league the Toronto Maple Leafs finally start to look like the team they should be thanks to a five-game winning streak, while Jacob Markstrom keeps the Calgary Flames in the top-five.

On the other end of the spectrum, reality is starting to set in for some teams that had surprising starts.

We take a look at all of that and more.

Where does your team sit?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

1. Florida Panthers (Last week: 2). Sergei Bobrovsky’s bounce back has been one of the more underrated storylines in the league this season. That continues and this team will be a major contender. If it does not continue? Spencer Knight is still there.

2. Carolina Hurricanes (LW: 1). Florida got the best of them in their prime matchup on Saturday, and the upcoming schedule is really tough. Good early season test for the Hurricanes ahead.

3. Edmonton Oilers (LW: 4). Zach Hyman has seven goals in 10 games on a 22 percent shooting percentage. How many goals will he finish the season with?

4. Calgary Flames (LW: 5). Jacob Markstrom has four shutouts in nine games. He is carrying this team right now.

5. St. Louis Blues (LW: 3) Great start to the season, but a tough west coast road trip saw them drop games in Los Angeles and Anaheim.

6. Minnesota Wild (LW: 17). They are making a habit out of come-from-behind wins. It works for now, but not really a habit you want to get into.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning (LW: 9). Even without Nikita Kucherov their lineup is still capable of scoring four or five goals every night. Scary talent here.

8. New York Islanders. (LW: 8). Semyon Varlamov made his first start of the season on Sunday and played okay, but I would not be going away from Ilya Sorokin right now.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs (LW: 19). They have won five in a row after a slow start and starting to finally look like the team they are supposed to be.

10. Philadelphia Flyers (LW:11). They are proving what everybody believed about them in the offseason. If the goaltending is good, they will be good. The goaltending has been very good. From both Carter Hart and, more shockingly, Martin Jones.

11. Winnipeg Jets (LW: 16). The Jets are off to a really good start overall and Connor Hellebucyk has not really played all that great yet this season. When he gets rolling again this could be a sneaky contender.

12. Washington Capitals (LW: 7). The Capitals have an overtime problem, currently sitting 0-4 in games that go beyond regulation this season.

13. Columbus Blue Jackets (LW: 18). Losing Patrik Laine is going to be a problem. Elvis Merzlikins has been fantastic to help bail them out.

[Related: Patrik Laine out 4-6 weeks]

14. New York Rangers (LW: 6). Little inconsistent right now. Igor Shesterkin has masked some flaws so far. A goalie masking flaws on the Rangers? Sounds familiar.

15. Pittsburgh Penguins (LW: 12). They are playing fine given the fact half of their lineup has been out at various times this season. They really need players back, though.

16. Vegas Golden Knights (LW: 15). They will be great when they get Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, and Jack Eichel back in the lineup at the same time. Need to stay competitive until then.

[Related: Golden Knights still have questions to answer after Jack Eichel trade]

17. Boston Bruins (LW: 10). Forget being a one-line offense right now, they are a one player offense (Brad Marchand) right now.

18. Colorado Avalanche (LW: 13) Time to show they are one of the most talented teams in the league and stack some points over the next couple of weeks.

19. Detroit Red Wings (LW: 21). Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider look great, they have salary cap space to play with this offseason, and are starting to make real progress.

20. Anaheim Ducks (LW: 29). They have won four in a row, with the most impressive win coming on Sunday against St. Louis. Troy Terry has an 11-game point streak right now. Bet you did not expect that at any point this season.

21. Los Angeles Kings (LW: 27). Anze Kopitar remains a top-tier player. Hall of Fame resume there? You can make a strong argument based on who is already in there.

22. New Jersey Devils (LW: 14). Being without Jack Hughes and Dougie Hamilton is a lot to overcome when those two players were expected to account for so much of their offense this season.

23. Nashville Predators (LW: 23). Juuse Saros is the key here, but Roman Josi is having a big year offensively and Matt Duchene is off to a surprisingly fast start.

24. Vancouver Canucks (LW: 26). They need Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser to get going offensively a little more. There are signs that is happening.

25. Dallas Stars (LW: 25). Not sure what else to say except this has been one of the more disappointing starts in the league.

26. San Jose Sharks (LW: 22). They are 2-4-1 since that 4-0 start, with the only regulation win during that recent seven-game stretch coming against Buffalo. Reality is setting back in.

27.  Buffalo Sabres (LW: 20). They are 2-4-2 since that 3-0-0 start. Reality is setting back in. The Jack Eichel era is also over, closing the book on another failed rebuild.

[Related: Jack Eichel trade closes book on failed Buffalo Sabres rebuild]

28. Seattle Kraken (LW: 24). Given the initial investment they made in defense and goaltending all of the blown leads are very disappointing.

29. Ottawa Senators (LW: 28). They sent their best goalie so far (Filip Gustavsson) to the minor leagues. Good luck convincing your fan base winning right now is the priority when you make moves like that.

30. Montreal Canadiens (LW: 30). Hopefully Carey Price can return and make a big impact for them. They need something.

31. Chicago Blackhawks (LW: 32). The first game without Jeremy Colliton looked like a different team. Still a disappointing start when you consider the offseason moves.

32. Arizona Coyotes (LW: 31). They finally got a win after an 11-game losing streak to open the season. The schedule over the next couple of weeks is looking tough, though.

After Sabres drama, Eichel excited to be ‘hockey player again’ with Golden Knights

After finally being traded to the Golden Knights, Jack Eichel made the media rounds, discussing his future — but also how things ended with the Sabres.

For the most part, Eichel stuck to the script. Both with Sportsnet and ESPN, Eichel kept things pretty civil. He thanked the Golden Knights for allowing him to go with his preferred neck surgery option (disk replacement instead of fusion). Eichel thanked the city of Buffalo, and Sabres fans, for his time with the team.

But every now and then, you got a hint of the raw, very human feelings involved.

Eichel happy to end Sabres trade drama, play for Golden Knights — and in Olympics?

Some of Eichel’s most animated moments happened in his interview with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. About five minutes into the video above, Eichel said he wasn’t going to get into the Sabres’ opinion about fusion over disk replacement surgery.

The most fun moment, though, came when Eichel could barely contain his excitement about becoming “a hockey player again” with the Golden Knights. Friedman painted a picture of the Golden Knights’ pre-game show. Eichel suiting up for them, and wearing one of those golden helmets.

One interesting idea is that Eichel’s hoping he can recover from neck surgery in time to play for the U.S. team in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

That seems like a bold aim. But maybe Eichel feels the need to make up for lost time.

As Eichel told Friedman and others, he didn’t like the idea of the Sabres following a failed rebuild with another one. When Eichel said that to Sabres management, it didn’t go over well. Interestingly, Eichel wonders if those feelings carried over to his preference for a trade, and route to getting surgery.

[Eichel trade closes chapter of failed Sabres rebuild]

More than once, Eichel spoke about the trade process dragging on. He regrets how much played out in the media, and you get the sense that Twitter trolls and other critics sometimes bothered him.

(Oh, Eichel also interestingly thought he could get traded to the Wild. The Avalanche struck him as a possibility, too. Someone contact Dr. Strange to run down how those scenarios would’ve played out.)

Ultimately, the Eichel trade/surgery process took longer than just about anyone expected. It’s tough to imagine it not costing Eichel an Olympic appearance — though he’s hoping to participate. And it’s true that the process isn’t over. Eichel still needs surgery, and it remains to be seen if he’ll bounce back from that to become the star he’s been even during Buffalo’s lows.

And the Golden Knights likely need to answer some salary cap questions with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Eichel all needing to fit.

All that aside, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t blame Eichel if that light at the end of the tunnel looks, to him, like one of those garish Golden Knights helmets.

Anaheim Ducks v Vegas Golden Knights
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Here’s Eichel with ESPN’s John Buccigross, as well:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres trade for Boychuk’s contract after moving Eichel

After trading Jack Eichel to the Golden Knights, the Buffalo Sabres made another move to make all the money work. The Islanders sent Johnny Boychuk‘s contract to the Sabres for the fabled “future considerations” on Thursday.

There’s no wink-wink here about Boychuk playing for the Sabres. He retired in 2020.

Boychuk trade subtly benefits both Islanders and Sabres

This is ultimately about the Sabres gaining some salary cap flexibility after moving out Eichel ($10M cap hit) for a package that included Alex Tuch ($4.75M). Sabres GM Kevyn Adams admitted as much in the team statement.

“This move is important because it gives us flexibility throughout the season from a roster perspective,” Adams said.

“There are different conversations that we’ve had with many teams. The key for us was to give us flexibility without compromising where our current roster stands.”

Cap Friendly notes that, technically, the Sabres were already at the cap floor after the Eichel trade. It just wasn’t by much, so Boychuk’s cap hit ($6M) does wonders. Buffalo won’t be paying out much in actual money:

The trade helps the Islanders, too — and not just via nebulous “future considerations.”

Cap Friendly notes that the Islanders have about $2M in cap space after trading Boychuk’s contract. By the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, the Islanders could accrue the equivalent of about $10M in cap space. Could come in handy for a team that’s been aggressive during recent trade deadlines.

A sensible trade for both sides. It’s not clear if one can say the same about the Sabres’ takeaway from the Eichel trade. Ultimately, it may boil down to how well the Sabres move on, ideally making this rebuild better than the last one.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Eichel trade closes the book on Sabres’ failed rebuild

When Buffalo Sabres fans were actively cheering against their team during the NHL’s great tank battle of 2014-15, they were doing so with the hope that all of that losing would eventually lead to better days.

They had already missed the playoffs three years in a row, were the NHL’s worst team, and were in desperate need of a franchise-changing player. There was obvious incentive to finish with the league’s worst record that season. It would guarantee them a top-two pick, give them the best odds for Connor McDavid, and assure them of at least walking away with Jack Eichel, a fine consolation prize in the lottery that would have been a slam dunk No. 1 pick in almost any other draft year.

Either way they were going to get their franchise cornerstone, and they were going to spend that offseason adding talent after tearing it all to the ground.

Sam Reinhart, a No. 2 overall pick from the year before, was already in place. They acquired Evander Kane, who was injured at the time and out for the season, during the 2014-15 season from the Winnipeg Jets. They selected Eichel. Then they spent the offseason acquiring starting goalie Robin Lehner from Ottawa, Ryan O’Reilly from Colorado, and hiring a Stanley Cup winning coach in Dan Bylsma.

It was time to stop rebuilding and start winning.

What followed over the next six years was more disappointment, a revolving door of players, coaches, and general managers, and zero playoff appearances.

[Related: Jack Eichel saga ends as Sabres trade forward to Golden Knights]

The Eichel era in Buffalo reached its inevitable conclusion on Thursday with the trade that sent their former captain and franchise cornerstone to the Vegas Golden Knights for Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, and two draft picks. Whatever potential Krebs and Tuch have, there is still a far greater chance of this trade looking like a steal for Vegas in a couple of year than there is of Buffalo getting the better end of it. These trades rarely work out for the team trading the star, and that has especially been the case for the Sabres over the years.

It is a disappointing end to a failed rebuild that produced nothing close to what was hoped.

In the six full seasons of the Eichel era no team in the NHL won fewer games than the Sabres’ 176. That includes the Vegas team Eichel is now a part of, a team that (as of Thursday) has won one more game than Buffalo during that time despite not joining the NHL until 2017-18 and playing in 162 fewer games.

The Sabres were also the only team in the NHL to not make a single playoff appearance in those years (every team excluding New Jersey and Arizona played in at least two playoff series during that stretch), pushing their current playoff drought to 10 years, one of the longest in NHL history. They also picked No. 1 overall two more times (Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power) when that sort of thing was supposed to be behind them.

They literally could not have been worse during the past six years.

Eichel, for his part, was as productive as could have been hoped during his time in Buffalo. He averaged nearly a point per game offensively with a 0.95 mark that was 22nd out of 391 players that appeared in at least 300 games. That number actually increased in recent years, jumping to 1.04 points per game starting with the 2017-18 season. It is low-hanging fruit in hockey (and sports in general) to always point the finger at the top players for not doing enough when teams fail, but it simply does not apply here. The team around him stunk. Consistently. There is only so much one player can do, especially in a sport like hockey where the best players only a play a third of the game (at most) and will not always make an impact every single night.

No other player on the Sabres — current or former — came close to matching that production.

They also never adequately built a roster that was even close to contending. There were always too many holes on defense and with the forward depth no matter what they tried.

All of the veteran players they acquired for the start of the 2015-16 season. Kane? O’Reilly? Lehner? None of them spent more than three seasons in Buffalo. Kane was traded for a first-round pick that was later swapped for Brandon Montour, Lehner left as a free agent, and O’Reilly was sold for pennies on the dollar in a laughably lopsided trade that helped turn the St. Louis Blues into Stanley Cup champions.

Drafted players that were supposed to be a part of the Sabres’ next contending team around Eichel, specifically Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, are also now gone.

Every other major move during those years backfired.

Jeff Skinner was acquired and had a monster year playing next to Eichel during the 2018-19 season and turned it into a massive contract. He has not come close to that production in the years since for a variety of reasons (injury, and also not getting any time next to Eichel in the following seasons).

They tried to sign Taylor Hall to a one-year deal last season, only to have it fail miserably, resulting in Hall being given away to Boston at the trade deadline where he immediately returned to being an impact player.

[Related: Golden Knights have questions to answer before Eichel debut]

It is like everything that has gone through Buffalo over the past decade has just completely fallen apart. Players, coaches, general managers. Does not matter what they did before or after, the time in Buffalo has just been a complete flop.

Go back five years and look at the Sabres’ top-three scorers during the 2017-18 season. It is Eichel, O’Reilly, and Reinhart. All of them in the prime of their careers between the ages of 21 and 25, all of them under team control for years, and all of them top-line players. Today, all the Sabres have to show for them is Krebs, Tuch, a couple of future first-round picks (almost certainly late first-round picks), Tage Thompson, and prospects Devon Levi and Ryan Johnson.

Not how anybody would have expected that to go. Krebs and Tuch are probably the best chance for an impact player out of that group, and it is likely that neither will be as good as the players they traded.

So that leaves the Sabres back where they started seven years ago, with one of the league’s worst rosters, still likely to be on the outside of the playoff picture, and in need of another massive rebuild to fix the mess.

By every objective measure the rebuild was a complete and total failure.

The only constant throughout all of this has been in the owners box the Pegulas have yet to put a Sabres team in the playoffs in a decade, have cycled through three GMs, seven head coaches, and now have one of the league’s lowest payrolls, finding themselves in a position where they have to add contracts like Johnny Boychuk (who will never play again) just to reach the  salary cap floor.

Grim times for a Buffalo fan base that deserves way more than what they are given from a team they have been fiercly loyal to all of these years.

Golden Knights have questions to answer before Eichel debut

The Vegas Golden Knights and Jack Eichel always seemed like a perfect match. It all added up perfectly.

The Golden Knights are the most aggressive team in the league with roster moves, never meeting a blockbuster trade or free agent signing they did not like. They have set the bar at a Stanley Cup and are willing to do whatever they have to do, no matter how cutthroat it is, to get there.

They also needed an impact player at center, probably the one weakness they have had during their first four years in the league.

Eichel, meanwhile, was desperate to get out of Buffalo, get to a contender and a team that would let him have his desired surgery.

On Thursday, after months of rumors and speculation and questions, the Sabres finally moved Eichel to the Golden Knights for Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, and two draft picks.

We still do not know when Eichel will make his debut (he still needs to actually have the disk replacement surgery and recover) but there is hope that it could be sometime later this season. Before that can happen the Golden Knights have a few questions to answer.

What do they do about the salary cap when Eichel does return?

This is the elephant in the room here. The thing about blockbuster trades and free agent signings is that those players tend to make a lot of money, and salary cap space will disappear. Quickly. The Golden Knights are able to manage right now because Eichel ($10M cap hit), Mark Stone ($9.5M cap hit), and Max Pacioretty ($7M cap hit) are all on long-term injured reserve and out of the lineup. William Karlsson ($5M cap hit) is also sidelined for a few weeks.

If and when they all return that will put them well over the league’s $81.5M salary cap ceiling (by about $10M), per Cap Friendly, later this season.

That will not exactly work during the regular season.

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon acknowledged on Thursday after the trade that it is an “ongoing dance” and that sometimes you never return to full health. He added that if the Golden Knights do return to full health they will address it at that time.

[Related: Jack Eichel saga ends as Sabres trade forward to Golden Knights]

So let us be optimistic here and assume Eichel, Stone, Pacioretty, and Karlsson are all back at the same time, and that none of their other big contracts (Alex Pietrangelo, Robin Lehner, Shea Theodore) exit the lineup.

Somebody else is going to have to go.

The obvious candidates for that are forwards Reilly Smith and Evgenii Dadonov, both counting $5M against the cap.

With Eichel in the mix and the return of a healthy Karlsson they would not really have as much of a need for Dadonov, who has not really been the player they hoped yet. He would be expendable.

Smith would be a little more difficult to part with given how big of a role he has played in Vegas from the very beginning, but there are not really any other options that can easily be moved.

That is a lot of moving parts to land one player, but the Golden Knights obviously believe Eichel is the missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle.

One thing is for sure here, and we saw this a year ago with the Tampa Bay Lighting: Never let the salary cap play a role in your hypothetical trade discussions or free agent signings. Teams will always — always — find a way to get the player they want.

How do they stay competitive until Eichel returns?

The other big issue here for Vegas is the fact it has to actually remain competitive and put a team on the ice until Eichel makes his debut.

Right now that is a little problematic.

Not only are the Golden Knights dealing with a growing injury situation with Eichel, Stone, Pacioretty, Karlsson, and Nolan Patrick all sidelined, they are also off to a disappointing 4-5-0 start with some ugly underlying numbers. A significant part of that slow start is definitely a result of the injuries. Stone and Pacioretty have only played in two of the nine games, Tuch had not played in a game this season before he was traded, and now Karlsson and Patrick are sidelined on top of that.

Several those injuries are significant and will still result in a lot more time missed.

The remaining lineup right now is a fraction of what the Golden Knights expect it to be.

Adding somebody via trade is always an option, but it would further complicate that salary cap dance. The best hope might be for the players that are still in the lineup to play to their expected level. Theodore, Pietrangelo, Smith, Lehner, and Jonathan Marchessault are all off to slow starts by their standards. That is going to have to change quite rapidly.

Even though a couple of teams have exceeded expectations so far the Golden Knights are still playing in what is probably the weakest division in the NHL. They will also eventually get players back. They should still be considered a threat in the Western Conference. It is just going to be a bit of a complicated — and maybe more difficult — journey to get there than they expected at the start of the season.