Sabres’ Jack Eichel fails physical, stripped of captaincy

Sports

FILE – In this Feb. 15, 2021, file photo, Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel skates during the second period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Buffalo, N.Y. Eichel will travel to Buffalo for his pre-training camp physical this week amid questions of whether he’ll be cleared to play, and his future with the team in limbo, a person with direct knowledge of the player’s plans told The Associated Press on Saturday, Sept. 18. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jack Eichel was stripped of his captaincy by the Sabres on Thursday, raising further questions about his future in Buffalo due to a widening rift over how to treat a neck injury that has sidelined the center for six months.

With the two sides at a stalemate, general manager Kevyn Adams announced the decision to remove the “C” as the Sabres opened training camp without Eichel, who will be placed on injured reserve after failing his physical.

“I feel the captain is the heartbeat of your team,” Adams said. “And we’re in a situation where we were in the past and where we are now that we felt we needed to address that.”

The Sabres and Eichel remain at odds over how to treat a herniated disk he sustained after being checked into the end boards in a game against the New York Islanders in March.

Eichel favors having artificial disk replacement surgery. The Sabres are against him having the procedure because it has never been performed on an NHL player, and prefer him having the disk fused.

The 24-year-old Eichel has five years left on an eight-year, $80 million contract and features a no-trade clause that kicks in next summer.

In saying the Sabres aren’t budging, Adams had few answers on how the two sides can break the deadlock, declined to speculate on whether Eichel has played his final game in Buffalo and said he isn’t concerned over how the high-profile dispute with the face of the franchise is being viewed around the league.

“We will stick to our plan, and we’re not going to cave or back down because of pressure, or because people are saying, ‘You have to do this,’” Adams said. “My job is is take all the information and do what we believe is right for this franchise.”

Adams didn’t rule out the possibility of suspending Eichel without pay for refusing the Sabres’ recommendation of having fusion surgery.

“That’s not something we take lightly,” he said. “Obviously, there’s rules within the CBA. But we’ll continue to look at everything moving forward.”

Such a move would have league-wide ramifications because of its potential to test the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement. The CBA extension negotiated last year backs the Sabres after players relinquished the right to NHL teams having the final say on how to treat injuries.

Should the Sabres suspend him, Eichel could prove to be a test case of the new deal with his final recourse filing a grievance through the NHL Players’ Association.

Eichel has not commented since revealing the rift with the team and questioning his future in Buffaloduring a Zoom call shortly after Buffalo’s season ended in May. Pat Brisson, who has taken over representing Eichel after the player switched agents last month, did not respond to a request for comment.

Adams said Eichel informed him he will work out on his own away from the team so as not to be a distraction.

There was little expectation Eichel would pass his physical. The option of surgery became necessary once the injury showed little sign of healing after doctors initially recommended Eichel rest it through the start of June.

Despite failing in his bid to trade Eichel this offseason, Adams isn’t lowering his asking price for the five-time 20-goal-scorer.

“The hockey world believes a healthy Jack Eichel is a franchise player and these type of situations don’t come up very often where players are moved,” he said. “We believe there’s value on Jack Eichel and we will do what we need to do as an organization to do the best we can moving forward.”

The dispute has cast a pall over a team seeking to start fresh under first-year coach Don Granato, and following an offseason purge of veterans. Forward Sam Reinhart was traded to Florida and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was shipped to Philadelphia in July.

Both players expressed their frustrations with the Sabres in May after Buffalo finished last in the overall standings for a fourth time in eight years, and matched an NHL record by missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season.

Forward Kyle Okposo made it a point to not take sides in the dispute.

“I love Jack as a friend. It’s unfortunate the situation that’s played out, but it is what it is,” Okposo said. “We’re looking to the group that we have here and I wish Jack nothing but the best, obviously. I want him to get healthy and I want him to get playing because I know that’s what he wants.”

The Sabres are focusing their latest rebuilding plans on developing through youth under Granato, who initially took over as interim coach after Ralph Krueger was fired in March before being hired on a permanent basis in June.

Granato doesn’t believe Eichel’s status will be a distraction, while adding he has compassion for what Eichel is dealing with because he can’t be on the ice.

“It is emotional form me because I do care about him and I know what it’s like to be a hockey player. You just want to play,” Granato said. “In fairness to him, it’s a healthy situation: He (can) just focus on himself. And I think that alleviates the burden (of the captaincy) that he takes very seriously.”

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