Thursday's NHL: Sabres' Jack Eichel fails physical, stripped of captaincy

John Wawrow
Associated Press

Buffalo, N.Y. — 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.”

Sabres star forward Jack Eichel has hinted he wants out of Buffalo.

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.”

More: 'It’s a life choice, a personal choice': Wings' Bertuzzi on not getting COVID-19 vaccine

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 Buffalo during 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.”

More: As Red Wings open training camp, here are 10 story lines to watch

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.”

Toews practices with Blackhawks on 1st day of training camp

Chicago — Jonathan Toews is skating again. He is practicing with the Chicago Blackhawks, just like he did before he missed all of last season. He is smiling and joking around with his teammates again.

Chicago Blackhawks player Jonathan Toews attends an NHL hockey training camp in Chicago, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

The rest of the questions, the ones about opening night and returning to form and his fitness, those are going to have to hang out there for a while. All Toews knows right now is the moment.

And right now, he is playing again.

“It feels really good to be back,” a smiling Toews said.

The new-look Blackhawks opened training camp Thursday with their captain back on the ice, to go along with a 100% vaccination rate against COVID-19. The 33-year-old Toews skated with a group that included longtime teammate Patrick Kane, the last remaining players from a run of three Stanley Cup titles in six seasons.

It was the latest step in a recovery process that has been going on for a while — Toews has been participating in informal sessions at the team's practice facility — but one that meant something to the forward and the players who know what he went through in the past year.

“I think he looks good,” Kane said. “It's great to have him back, obviously. The biggest thing is you want him to be himself, right? He's such a big part of this organization, a big part of this team for such a long time.”

In late December, right before the start of the pandemic-shortened season, the Blackhawks announced Toews would miss the start of training camp because of an illness that included symptoms that left him feeling “drained and lethargic.”

What followed were months of mostly silence on Toews before he announced in June that he had been suffering from what he described as chronic immune response syndrome. He said Thursday he also had an antibody test that showed he had COVID-19 at one point.

More: Niyo: Yzerman not tipping hand on promoting prospects waiting in the Wings

“I think we all have habits and routines in our day that we just kind of rely on to find some sense of normalcy and consistency in our lives and when none of that was there, you kind of feel like you're in outer space a little bit sometimes,” Toews said.

“But I think as hard as that was, that was a good thing to kind of get away and really sort through that and figure out how I was going to get back to being myself and being a hockey player again.”

Toews also pointed to years of wear and tear on his body, through long playoff runs and international play with his native Canada. He returns with a greater appreciation for all the little things he missed while he was away, even the grueling first day of camp.

“As dog-tired as I was out there today, it's a good feeling instead of like, OK, I'm in trouble, I'm going to be up on the couch for two, three days doing nothing after that,” he said, “So I think to me, that's progress.”

The return of Toews could provide a big lift for Chicago after an active offseason that included the acquisitions of defenseman Seth Jones and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The center had 18 goals and 42 assists in 70 games during the 2019-20 season.

But Toews said he is taking it one day at a time. He said his goal is to play on opening night on Oct. 13 at Colorado, but he wants to be patient.

As far as the grind of a long NHL season, no one is certain when it comes to how Toews will hold up. But the Blackhawks are planning to stay flexible.

“Once we ramp it up — the schedule gets progressively more challenging as we move forward,” general manager Stan Bowman said. "Camp, exhibition games, regular-season games with travel and back-to-back, three in four nights. The schedule gets hard. We don’t know how he’ll handle it. He could handle it great. If he does, that’s awesome. If not, we’ll work with him and figure it out.”

NHL training camps open with several big-name stars missing

Arlington, Va. — Sidney Crosby's injured left wrist and Evgeni Malkin's right knee are keeping them off the ice in Pittsburgh. Eichel and Buffalo cannot agree on a course of action for his back problems. Evander Kane and San Jose agreed it's best he stay away.

Training camps got under way around the NHL on Thursday with several big-name stars nowhere to be found. From Washington's Nicklas Backstrom being considered week to week while rehabbing a hip injury to the Vancouver Canucks not knowing how long they'll be without unsigned Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, the absences overshadowed the attendance in many places on the first day of on-ice workouts.

With more than two weeks until the regular season, there's also no reason to rush.

“I think you see with the compressed schedule that we’ve had over the last couple seasons that there’s injuries that need to be maintained,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "Especially if you’re an older player, (it's important) that you take the time to get it healed properly and don’t insert the player into the lineup too early.”

The archrival Penguins will have at least a couple of weeks to see how they play without Malkin and Crosby. Malkin is expected to return in late November at the earliest and Crosby will miss at least the first two weeks of meaningful games.

“They are two generational talents, arguably the best players of their generation, and so those guys aren’t easy to replace,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Having said that, I think whenever players go down from an injury standpoint, it’s going to provide opportunity for others and others need to step up.”

More: Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill excited about level of competition at camp

In San Jose, Kane was cleared of allegations he gambled on his own and other hockey games, but the league is still investigating allegations of sexual and physical abuse made by his estranged wife. The Sharks said a mutual decision was made for him not to attend camp.

“I don’t think it’s any different than guys getting hurt, not being there for lineup,” Sharks defenseman Brent Burns said. “We don’t worry about that stuff. We can’t. There’s too much other stuff.”

Asked if Kane would be welcomed back, captain Logan Couture said, “What happens in the dressing room stays in the room.”

Some returns Thursday were happy ones. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews is practicing with teammates again after missing all of last season and said with a smile, “It feels really good to be back.”

Vladimir Tarasenko is at St. Louis camp despite asking for a trade. Same with Evgeny Kuznetsov in Washington after an offseason of trade rumors.

“As long as I play here I will work 100 percent,” Tarasenko said. “I don't want to be a distraction in the room. I'm here to work, I'm healthy, I'm happy to play hockey again.”

The distraction of unsigned players is not affecting most teams. Only Vancouver with Hughes and Pettersson, and Ottawa with Brady Tkachuk, have restricted free agents without new contracts.

Vaccinations do not appear to be a major distraction, either. The league figures 98% of its players will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the time the season starts, a rate that could be credited to protocols and Canadian federal law that would prevent border-crossing without it.

“Once they said they weren’t going to file for the exemption to go to Canada, it really put a lot of pressure on the people that were holding out because that’s a huge chunk of the season that you’re not going to get paid for,” Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said. “It’s funny what happens when you start to affect people’s wallets.”