By Justin Bourne May 31, 2020
Jack Eichel recently made some relatively benign comments about what he’s feeling after five seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, with the overarching theme being that he still hasn’t dressed for a game in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and he hasn’t found that awesome. Makes sense.
Here’s the nut of those comments, which were made Thursday to Buffalo-area reporters in an end-of-season interview call:
“Listen, I’m fed up with losing, and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated. It’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with where things have went.”
“It’s one thing to be in the tight games. It’s another thing to win them. I’m not getting frustrated with where things are going. But yeah, I’m definitely not in the greatest place where the last little bit went. It’s definitely worn on me.”
It sounds like he’s trying to soften the words a little in the second chunk, but the message is still present. If you’d like to listen to some of those comments:
I called the comments “relatively benign,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. I actually find his open discontent super interesting; it reflects the character of the commonly defined winner despite his team’s on-ice results over the years. He’s not content with just putting up personal numbers. The comments provide a reminder of just how much one player can really do for a team in the NHL, and the answer, as always, remains “not enough to save a below-average team.” The case for Eichel’s performance this season being worthy of the Hart Memorial Trophy is valid (he might end up a finalist), while the Sabres still couldn’t crack the 24-team play-in qualifying round.
Eichel’s been that dominant before, though at a different level and with a different-quality supporting cast. As a reminder, the season before his Sabres tenure, his Boston University team went to the final of the Frozen Four, with his contributions being:
Is that good?
So, in sum, Eichel wasn’t complaining; he was asked a question and stated where he’s at with everything. He’s played well and had success in the past, so playing well and seeing his team spin its tires, well, that has to be exhausting.
This all speaks to a problem the NHL has in general, and it’s a problem there’s no obvious solution to, as far as I can see. Eichel is a guy who had a ton of success young and the bad luck to be drafted into an organization that hasn’t done the right things to be competitive for a long time now. And in the NHL, one player simply can’t do enough to fix a team. Worse, elite players don’t really have enough control to leave the situation for a better one during what are commonly the most productive years of their careers. What the NHL is occasionally left with is a prime-aged star player the league can’t effectively market, or at least can’t market as well, because they don’t play games that matter (or even play with players who can get the most out of their ability).
The Nos. 1 and 2 overall picks from the 2015 NHL Draft were Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. As of today, they’ve finished a combined nine seasons and played in one postseason.
If you’re in the NHL, you’re extremely jealous that in the NBA’s solar system everything properly orbits the biggest stars. Those elite players are guaranteed to be involved in each game’s biggest moments — “LeBron’s definitely getting the ball out of this timeout” — and with the odd exception, the eight teams left standing by the conference semifinals are usually pulled from the league’s best 10 or so teams. A star in the NBA can play every minute of a big game and drag a pretty “meh” group deep into the postseason if they’re singularly dominant enough.
When the game is on the line in the NHL, the Penguins can’t guarantee Sidney Crosby a touch of the puck, nor Evgeni Malkin. Hell, if there are three minutes left, they can barely guarantee their stars will play more than two of them (depending on how the previous minutes played out). Eichel can no more will the Sabres into the postseason single-handedly than McDavid could in previous seasons when the Oilers captain was the best player in the league and the team still couldn’t see the postseason with a telescope. Given that stars sell tickets and merchandise, that remains a major hurdle for the NHL.
So what Eichel and that reality remind me is just how much luck players need to end up in the right circumstances throughout their careers to have the chance to win. In that game of chance, some names — Peter Stastny, Marcel Dionne, Eric Lindros and many others — came up unlucky. It’s likely (and pinch your nose here, hockey fans) we probably over-laud the success of NHLers who’ve had a ton of team success (*ducks flying debris*) and underappreciate a lot of players who commonly had April off.
There are certainly NHL stars who can drag middling teams past their expected success. There are guys who are built for the big moments, who excel when the stakes are high, who’ve consistently pushed their teams to and beyond their potential. There are certainly capital-W Winners, players whose attributes (maybe selflessness, leadership, work ethic and commitment) have allowed their teams to be everything they can possibly be.
But we’ve also seen players with those attributes toil with groups that just can’t do it. Hell, we’ve seen those specific players end up on lesser teams after having won the Cup, then fallen flat. The NHL is not a league in which a LeBron James can pull a below-average supporting cast to the finals.
I don’t see this as something the NHL can do much about. I don’t see the need to clamour for significantly different amounts of player control (as much as I’d enjoy the drama). But I do see the need as a fan of the game (and host of “Hockey Central,” where we host many former players) to do a better job remembering the greats who weren’t fortunate enough to experience team success. Having gone without a Stanley Cup doesn’t mean a player should be excluded from discussions of some of the game’s best to ever do it.
Maybe the Sabres will pull it together and Eichel will win one or three or six Stanley Cups. Maybe he’ll get dealt someday and win a few elsewhere. His career story is still a long, long way from being written. But this five-season prologue to whatever comes next, with his great play amidst his team’s consistent futility, does tell a truth about the life of great players in the NHL. It takes more than just being a winner in the league to win.