Oh, Buffalo. After yet another disappointing season, many in the hockey world are pondering what major changes the Sabres might make to right the ship, including possibly trading their captain Jack Eichel. Fans and media alike in every NHL market are speculating about whether their team could be a landing spot for the star center. While nearly all the rumors have been centered around the 31 existing teams, what about Seattle? While it would appear to be along shot, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking into. So, could Seattle be Eichel’s eventual landing spot?
First, some background on the Eichel situation: In an interview on May 28th, Eichel voiced his frustration at the Sabres’ results in his tenure with the team, saying that he was “fed up” with losing. His frustration is understandable. In Eichel’s five seasons in Buffalo, the Sabres have never made the playoffs or finished higher than 6th in the 8 team Atlantic Division. Missing the playoffs this season even with the expanded 24-team format must be especially disappointing. The Athletic’s Joe Yerdon tweeted the full quote for context:
Clearly, Eichel’s patience with the Sabres appears to be wearing thin. It seems that the Sabres’ ownership has gotten the message too, as owner Terry Pegula made major changes to the team’s front office just 19 days after Eichel’s comments. Most notably, General Manager Jason Botterill was fired and replaced by Kevyn Adams. The GM change, however, was just the tip of the iceberg.
This has caused some to speculate whether Eichel might request a trade to a team where he feels has a better chance to win. Even if Eichel were to request a trade, the question remains whether Buffalo would honor that request. Eichel currently has six years remaining his contract, so the Sabres are not under any time constraints to move him yet. Trading a player of Eichel’s caliber at such a young age is highly unusual. In fact, there isn’t a single example of a comparable player being traded in the last decade.
However, what if Eichel decides that he has finally had enough and demands a trade, tying the Sabres’ hands? In that case, every NHL GM would surely make a call to Kevyn Adams to find out what it might take to acquire the 23-year-old franchise center. While the favorites to make a trade might be the nearby New York Rangers or Eichel’s hometown Boston Bruins, could Seattle make a play for Eichel?
Obviously Seattle couldn’t make such a trade this offseason, as the team won’t play any games until fall 2021. However, Eichel being traded this offseason is unlikely anyway. With the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals expected to end in early October and next season expected to start December 1st, this offseason will be packed into a very narrow timeline. Adams would have no reason to rush a franchise-altering and career-defining trade in such a short window. Plus, with the Sabres hiring an almost entirely new front office and coach, Eichel is likely going to give them at least one season to try to turn the team around.
What if they can’t though? What if, despite the changes Adams makes in the 2020 offseason, the Sabres fall flat yet again and are essentially out of contention before the trade deadline for the sixth time in as many years? Eichel, visibly frustrated by the failures of another floundering Sabres regime, decides that he’s finally seen enough. In an end of season statement, Eichel makes it known publicly that he wants out and is requesting a trade. Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams decides that the drama of a potential holdout is not worth it and a trade would be the best option for both sides. The Sabres enter the 2021 offseason knowing that they must get what return they can for their captain and start over.
Any Eichel-to-Seattle trade would have to start with a scenario like that. If the Eichel situation were to play out along those lines, the Eichel bidding war would begin, with Seattle as a potential participant. Without a no-trade or no-move clause in his contract yet (NMC kicks in July 2022 according to capfriendly.com), Eichel would have no control over where he would be dealt. Unrestrained by limitations on Eichel’s destination, Adams would be free to choose the trade offer with the best return.
What would the return look like? As mentioned, a player with Eichel’s value hitting the trade market is extremely rare. Given the level of interest and a likely 20+ team bidding war, the return would have to be substantial. While speculated returns vary widely, the most likely framework for a competitive offer includes two 1st round picks plus two to three of the following: top-6 forward, top-4 defenseman, starting goalie.
While most teams could offer the Sabres something along these lines, Seattle would lack the high-end roster players that other teams could offer. Because of this deficiency, Seattle GM Ron Francis would have to get creative with his offer if he hoped to win the Eichel sweepstakes. If he chose to, Francis could offer Buffalo a couple things other teams likely couldn’t: cap space and a top-5 pick. While taking on an undesirable contract and giving up a high draft pick would add considerable value to an Eichel offer, that alone wouldn’t be enough. Some players would have to go back to Buffalo in return.
What players would Seattle be able to offer? Since the expansion draft is about a year away, it’s hard to say exactly. The Athletic recently did a Seattle mock expansion draft, with each team’s beat writer making the protected list and writer Eric Duhatschek selecting a team from the unprotected players. Since this is probably the best early indication of what a Seattle expansion draft roster might look like, I’m going to use it to craft a hypothetical Eichel trade offer.
Using this roster, I’ve created the following offer which I feel would be competitive. Obviously a lot could change in the next year and there’s no guarantee any of these players would be available to Seattle. This offer is simply meant to illustrate the framework of a potential Eichel trade.
The offer starts with an expansion draft side deal, similar to the type Vegas made in 2017. In 2017, other teams often traded assets to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights not picking a certain unprotected player. I have Seattle doing something similar here. In The Athletic’s mock expansion draft above, Seattle selected Brandon Montour from the Sabres. As a top-4 defenseman, Montour is a valuable asset. To get a sense of his value, he was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for a 1st round pick and a prospect in 2019. In this Eichel trade, Seattle will allow Buffalo to keep Montour.
Instead, to further add value for Buffalo, Seattle will select winger Kyle Okposo, who will have two years remaining on his contract which carries a $6 million cap hit (capfriendly.com). Okposo has had a disappointing tenure with the Sabres which hit a low point this season as he scored only 19 points in 52 games. At this point, Okposo’s contract carries negative value. In any other trade, the Sabres would have to give a valuable asset to rid themselves of the last two years of Okposo’s contract. In this trade, Seattle takes care of that problem.
The next piece of the trade is the roster players headed to Buffalo. This is an area where Seattle’s offer will fall short of others. As mentioned earlier, Buffalo will likely seek two to three of: top-6 forward, top-4 defenseman, and starting goalie. With its expansion draft picks, it is unlikely Seattle will have any players who truly fit that description. Instead, the idea is to make up for lack of quality with upside and quantity. All three players offered here are high draft picks who have not yet had the full opportunity to play up to their potential. With this offer, the Sabres get three players who could each contribute right away if given increased roles.
The final part of the trade is the draft picks. In the 2021 NHL Draft Lottery, Seattle will be given the same odds as the 3rd worst team in the league standings. With the NHL’s lottery system, this means the most likely outcome for Seattle’s first round pick is 5th overall. This pick will be the centerpiece of the Eichel trade. With the 5th pick, Buffalo will hope to draft a franchise forward to be Eichel’s successor. While other teams will be able to offer more high-end players in an Eichel trade, it is unlikely that a draft pick this high would be in any other offer.
In this hypothetical scenario, I’ve included the Stars’ 2021 1st round pick going to Buffalo. I anticipate Seattle will add another 1st round pick besides their own in the type of cap-motivated trade I detailed here. For our purposes, Dallas would have traded this pick to Seattle along with Joe Pavelski in order to free up cap space taken up by Pavelski’s contract.
Would this trade be enough to convince Kevyn Adams? It’s unlikely but hard to say for sure. Other teams would probably offer more in the way of talent that could help an impatient Buffalo team win right away. Since the Sabres have had a poor recent record of drafting and developing young players, valuing more established players in a return would make sense. That said, a lot can change in the next year. If the Sabres decide to take a planned step backward, the prospect of netting a top draft pick and getting the Okposo contract off the books might lead them to value Seattle’s offer higher. Like everything with Seattle hockey right now, all we can do is wait and see.