Acknowledging the “awkward” circumstances that prompted his departure last fall, Jack Eichel doesn’t expect a warm welcome when he returns to Buffalo Thursday night. “It obviously ended a little bit messy,” the former Sabre expressed to ESPN’s Emily Kaplan. “But I hope [fans] can look past some of the things that happened maybe in the last year and think about the previous five and a half, six years that I was there and everything that I tried to do for the community, everything that I feel like I put forth on the ice as a hockey player, and know I just tried to do as much as I could for the city."
Eichel, now of the Vegas Golden Knights, signed the richest deal in Sabres franchise history back in 2017 (eight years, $80 million), but later had a falling out with the team over how to treat a spinal injury suffered late last season. Buffalo’s medical staff refused to sign off on Eichel’s preferred artificial disc replacement—a procedure that had never been performed on an active NHL player—insisting he undergo fusion surgery instead. With neither side budging, Eichel was eventually stripped of his captaincy, a slight that effectively ended his time in Buffalo with the Sabres trading him two months later.
“I was frustrated,” Eichel admitted. “At that point, it just felt like they were toying with me. I was pretty over it.” After a three-month recovery from surgery (the fusion operation favored by Buffalo would have shelved him six months), Eichel finally debuted for the Knights in February. The 25-year-old has made an immediate impact, showing no signs of rust with seven points (three goals, four assists) in his first 10 games.
“The constant filtering out of coaches and GMs wore me out,” said Eichel, reflecting on what was a turbulent Sabres tenure. “You could feel the pressure there and the pressure to have success. And when you're not able to do that, it definitely takes a toll on you."
Drafted with the second overall pick in 2015, the Chelmsford, Massachusetts native tallied 139 goals in his six seasons with Buffalo, earning All-Star recognition three times in that span (2018-20). Eichel never reached the postseason with Buffalo, though he should conquer that hill soon enough with Vegas making a push for its fifth straight playoff appearance.