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31 Thoughts: What caused the ‘disconnect’ between Eichel, Sabres

• How did Eichel, Sabres get here?
• A look at the NHL coaching carousel
• When will North Division series start?

What we know: Jack Eichel dropped a neutron bomb on the Buffalo Sabres. As the team’s captain revealed Monday, he’s “a bit upset about the way that things have been handled since I’ve been hurt…. There’s been a bit of a disconnect from the organization and myself.

“The most important thing is trying to get healthy and figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year wherever that might be.”

Yiiiiikkkkkesssss.

Sabres GM Kevyn Adams is scheduled to meet with the media on Wednesday.

What we want to know: Why did Eichel do it? Here’s the best Picasso I can paint.

According to multiple sources, Eichel had a contentious exit interview with the organization. No one is commenting, but it’s believed he is exploring — on the advice of his medical team — an artificial disc replacement in his neck.

The Sabres and their captain are believed to have agreed to a month-long “pause” to see how Eichel reacted to rest. The end of that period is approaching, and, from what I understand, he still wants the surgery. The Sabres aren’t thrilled with the idea, and have not indicated they will approve.

I find it hard to believe Eichel isn’t consulting the best of the best, while Buffalo’s reticence comes from artificial disc replacement lacking evidence of its effectiveness on elite-level athletes. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. As far as I could find, there are no examples of NHLers who returned to play after having one.

Mixed martial artist Chris Weidman announced he underwent this procedure in Jan. 2019, and proclaimed it a success. He’s fought three times since then, suffering an unrelated injury three weeks ago. Another fighter, Aljamain Sterling, went through it last month. He’s resumed cardio and sounds optimistic, telling ESPN that doctors informed him, “I will heal in three months.”

The Johns Hopkins Medicine website describes the procedure like this:

Cervical disk replacement surgery involves removing a diseased cervical disk and replacing it with an artificial disk. Before this procedure was available, the affected disk was removed and the vertebrae above and below were fused together to prevent motion. The use of an artificial disk to replace your natural cervical disk is a new type of treatment that has recently been approved by the FDA. Disk replacement surgery may have the advantage of allowing more movement and creating less stress on your remaining vertebrae than traditional cervical disk surgery.

“While any surgery carries some risk, disk replacement surgery is a relatively safe procedure,” the website states, before adding it “is a new type of spine surgery so there is little information on possible long-term risks and outcomes.”

There are recent examples of star players embracing the unconventional. Connor McDavid did it coming back from his severe knee injury. Sidney Crosby with his concussion recovery.

Prior to the 2020 bubble playoffs, the NHL and NHLPA amended the CBA section concerning “Second Opinions” for players. It allows players like Eichel to obtain these insights at their own cost, with full medical information provided by the team. A grievance or appeal of Buffalo’s stance is always possible, but the passage seemingly puts power in an organization’s hands: “The club physician shall determine the diagnosis or course of treatment (including the timing thereof) after considering any report or other records received from the player’s physician and after giving due consideration to their recommendations.”

Undoubtedly, we’re going to hear more and learn more. But it’s hard to see how Eichel plays another game for the home team in Western New York. It’s clear that trust is broken, and arguments about medical care are much harder to fix than debates over franchise direction.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Potential trade partners will need to navigate his treatment, but don’t kid yourself — there will be a ton of interest in Eichel. Teams you initially don’t think of will be there. Think about it: He’s still in his prime, turning 25 in October. He’s signed for five years. Yes, this season was a disaster, but one year ago, he was excellent. He’ll be incredibly motivated.

The obvious suitor is the Rangers, who made a legit pitch one year ago. If they want to do it, they definitely can. They weren’t willing to do a first-rounder last fall — it was No. 1 overall — but unless they win the lottery back-to-back, that’ll be an option this time around. No GM will be more comfortable with Eichel’s representatives, Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli, than Chris Drury, who was their client when he played.

Big question: Will Buffalo want to send him there? Bigger question: If the Rangers make the best offer, can the Sabres afford to say no?

You have to think Boston tries, but do they have the pieces? No one lusts after a centre more than Columbus, but, again, do they have what Buffalo wants? Philadelphia could do it. Anaheim was in on Pierre-Luc Dubois, and they have the pieces. Los Angeles certainly can. It doesn’t make sense for them, but Ottawa could, too. So could Montreal. There’s going to be a serious suitor we don’t think of.

2. Eichel overshadowed everything else from Buffalo, but two other year-end media goodbyes were notable. Sam Reinhart didn’t reveal much and looked like he’d rather be eating lit cigarettes. Asked if he wanted to stay, he replied, “I don’t really have much to say right now. Gonna take some time, that stuff’s going to get figured out when the time comes.”

Rasmus Ristolainen said that if Adams traded him, “I’m fine with that.”

That’s really, really bad. Reinhart was 10th in the league with 25 goals. Ristolainen had every excuse to bail on the year after a rough case of COVID. Both of them played hard, even when there was no playoff spot to play for. Reinhart’s been there six years, Ristolainen eight. Those are two guys the Sabres invested in, and, one year from unrestricted free agency, both can’t wait to leave.

More than one western Canadian team would love to have Reinhart, born and raised in West Vancouver.

3. Coaching vacancies: Arizona, Columbus. Expected to sort themselves out: Carolina. Awaiting clarity: Anaheim, Buffalo, Detroit, Rangers, Vancouver and post-playoff situations like Montreal.

The Coyotes will give someone new a shot. Several sources indicated things were “awkward” this season, simply because it was obvious this would not be a long-term marriage. Rick Tocchet’s greatest strength is his ability to connect with players who are not easy to connect with. That’s very valuable. Phil Kessel is the obvious example, and he scored 20 goals. Tocchet wanted to be able to interview elsewhere right away, and Arizona agreed.

When the organization plucked Cory Stillman from OHL Sudbury, there was a feeling it was with an eye on him eventually being head coach. I don’t think that time is now, and you’re going to hear names like Lane Lambert (Islanders assistant), Nate Leaman (Providence College), Todd Nelson (Dallas assistant), Rocky Thompson (San Jose assistant) and Mike van Ryn — along those lines. Van Ryn used to work in Arizona, and was with current GM Bill Armstrong in St. Louis. Will he be interested, though?

4. “There’s going to be change,” Arizona forward Christian Fischer said Monday. “When you don’t make the playoffs, it’s expected in the NHL.”

Kessel is due a $5-million bonus for next season, and, after that, a $1-million salary. The Coyotes need picks and prospects. He was top 30 in goals. It makes sense.

Crazy rumour that isn’t happening: a Nick Schmaltz buyout. It would be at one-third of his remaining value because he’s 25, but that idea is not being considered.

5. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said he will take his time, which makes sense because his hire might be determined by personnel choices. Seth Jones said Monday, “I really have to take a step back and think about what I want.”

That’s the biggest question facing the franchise. Columbus has let him know a huge payday awaits, and likely the captaincy, too. Opposing players said the strain of the season, both on-ice and off, noticeably weighed on Jones, so taking time away isn’t a bad idea. The Blue Jackets also want clarity on Zach Werenski, eligible for an extension two years from unrestricted free agency. If both commit, the path is clear. If not, do you rebuild or deal for immediate help?

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6. Doesn’t sound like any immediate announcements are expected in Anaheim — GM Bob Murray and head coach Dallas Eakins have one year remaining on their contracts.

Adams certainly will be asked about Don Granato’s fate. The Sabres noticeably improved under him.

The Rangers likely decide on David Quinn sometime this week.

I don’t know what to make of Vancouver. There hasn’t been much in the way of negotiation between the team and Travis Green. When they want to get something done — Thatcher Demko, Tanner Pearson — they get it done. When they’re half-pregnant — Jacob Markstrom, Chis Tanev, Tyler Toffoli — things drag. We’ll see.

There are several veterans available and eager for work. Mike Babcock (700 wins, ninth all-time). John Tortorella (673, 12th) has no interest in retirement. Bruce Boudreau (567, third in all-time winning percentage). Gerard Gallant (270 wins, taking an expansion team to the Stanley Cup Final) is expected to get some traction this week because he’s shortly headed to the World Championships for Team Canada. There’s also Claude Julien (667, 15th all-time), who has been quiet since Montreal.

7. Philadelphia’s season-ending availability was very interesting. One of the biggest challenges teams have is how to accurately grade things that went sideways. How real is this year? If a player trended well before 2020–21 and this season went badly, is it more than just performance?

GM Chuck Fletcher talked about players who went back to Canada last off-season and couldn’t work out as normal because of shutdowns. Head coach Alain Vigneault made a passionate comment about the need for a “normal year,” so players can regain the comfort they are used to.

“If adversity can help Carter Hart get better, then it can help Alain Vigneault get better,” he said. “Adversity can help the Flyers get better.”

They will, as the GM said, address their defence. I didn’t expect a head-coaching change — Vigneault is a good coach and has approximately $15 million to go on his contract — but wondered about what would happen around him. For the second time, Fletcher backed the group. Coaches and players battled there, questioning each other’s preparation, but it appears the Flyers are challenging everyone to be better.

From Vigneault: “I came to Philly to win a Stanley Cup. I told Chuck when we were officially eliminated that I sort of let everyone down here.”

8. Julien’s former assistant, Kirk Muller, said on the 31 Thoughts podcast this week that he will pursue a second shot at being a head coach. Same with Patrick Roy, whose QMJHL Quebec Remparts were eliminated by Chicoutimi on Monday night. At the very least, Roy wants a clear picture of what it will take to get that opportunity.

Bob Hartley, who won the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with Avangard Omsk, said the idea of returning to the NHL is “a hard one” for him to answer and would take the right situation. On the same day last December, Hartley mourned the loss of Pierre Lacroix, Jocelyn Morrissette (one of the brothers who owned the Laval Titan) and the father of one of his current players. That’s a lot to handle, and it made him think. He’s got one year left on his current contract, two granddaughters he wants to see, and a son (Steve) he wants to watch coach QMJHL Drummondville.

“I would need to go to rehab for coaching to stay away from a rink,” he laughed. “I really don’t know. I’m sometimes too honest…. I really didn’t like the way things ended in Calgary, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

9. Speaking of coaches, sounds like there’s a conversation about Jon Cooper and Canada’s Olympic Team.

10. It’s not pressing now that Montreal’s clinched a playoff berth, but Canadiens owner Geoff Molson and GM Marc Bergevin have been discussing the latter’s future. Going into the final year of a contract without certainty is riskier in some markets than others, and in Montreal it qualifies as a daily five-alarm blaze. I think this has gone in both directions: negotiating parameters of an extension, and considering the possibility that, after nine years, it’s time. Not sure how to handicap this one, but those conversations are underway.

11. Chris Drury is pretty popular. Not sure what he’s going to do with his front office, but there’s a lot of interest in working for him, and, by extension, the Rangers.

12. One management hire that’s coming is Ryan Hardy. Hardy ran the U.S. National Development Team program, then became GM of USHL Chicago. The Steel were running away with the league in 2020 before the pandemic changed our lives and are in the final this season. Hardy’s got a close relationship with Toronto GM Kyle Dubas, so there are always Leafs rumblings. But a number of teams are circling him, and his NHL move could be sooner rather than later.

13. The Boston-Washington kicks off the playoffs on Saturday night. Canadian teams are expected to begin next Wednesday. It might just be me, but do the North Division playoff teams need to wait for Calgary and Vancouver? I can see Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg annoyed at waiting and getting a tougher schedule.

It’s going to be weird without many late-night games, as Vegas is only Pacific time-zone team in the post-season.

14. Chris Johnston reported Saturday that Victor Hedman is putting off surgery for an injury suffered March 30, when he went heavily into the boards after falling in a game against Columbus. That would explain why he’s been out of the lineup. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for pointing out Hedman’s health is critical to Tampa’s repeat chances.

15. Anze Kopitar’s 1,000th point went too far under the radar. Here’s what’s really impressive about it: During his career, Los Angeles is 28th in goals scored, with 2,997. That’s 120 more than 30th-place New Jersey. The future Hall of Famer had to squeeze more out of the offensive rock than most. Pittsburgh, by the way, is first with 3,601.

16. I can see Philadelphia trying to lock up Joel Farabee long-term like they did with Travis Konecny. A lot to like there.

17. Edmonton GM Ken Holland will now wait until the end of the season to handle all contract matters, but the Oilers made legit progress with Adam Larsson. Sounds like four years is on the table; there’s optimism it will eventually get done.

18. Alexander Barabanov likely gets a short-term extension in San Jose after seven points in eight games. Keep building on a good thing. The Sharks will search for help in goal and a third-line centre.

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19. No surprise at all that Canadians Connor Bedard and Shane Wright dazzled and impressed at the Under-18s. Wright ignored injury to lead the way, while Bedard put on a show. One NHL GM said he thought this goal looked like it came off the forehand, not the backhand. The surprise of the tournament was Danila Klimovich of Belarus. He came from nowhere to rack up six goals in five games, and became appointment viewing for scouts. He is 2021 draft-eligible.

20. Out of that event, one very interesting prospect to follow: highly regarded 2022 draft-eligible Brad Lambert. He was born in Finland (where his mother is from), and his father, Ross, had a long career in Britain. (Lane Lambert is his uncle.) He proudly represents the Finns, and played in that country last season. Lambert had five assists in five games during the Under-18s, but NHL teams wanted to see more.

WHL Saskatoon — where his father played in the 1980s — took him in last year’s CHL Import Draft, and there’s a hope he chooses the Blades as his best development option for next year. Mitch Love, who coaches Saskatoon, had success with Kirby Dach, who made the transition to the NHL at 18 for Chicago. The WHL would be salivating at the idea of Bedard (Regina), Lambert and Matthew Savoie (Winnipeg) entertaining the masses in 2021-22.

21. I wondered if Bedard or Wright would show up for Team Canada at the Worlds. Would have loved to see it. But that’s not happening.

22. His name gets whispered every year, and once again NHL teams are wooing KHL forward Konstantin Okulov. But a wariness is creeping in.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” one executive said.

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23. Super-emotional week for David Backes, who tried to keep his impending retirement on the down-low, only to have the Blues reject that idea (and good on them). Asked on our podcast for an under-the-radar person who helped him out, he mentioned DJ King, a tough forward from Meadow Lake, Sask., who played with him at AHL Peoria in Backes’s first two pro seasons.

“(I was a) string bean, very soft,” Backes said. “We’d be in line for a drill and he’d cross-check me in the arm where I didn’t have shoulder pads. I hated him. He was my teammate and I hated him. (King was a) big, tough guy. What was I going to do to him? Absolutely nothing. If I could not see this guy again, I would be better for it.”

In 2006–07 Backes was a late cut in St. Louis camp, so it was back to the Rivermen. King was the only player without a roommate. They ended up together.

“He taught me so much that year. Some of it was alcohol-induced, but we’d be out late and he’d rush me or something and I’d shy away. He’s like, ‘Man, are you going to take that all year? … If you don’t stand up for yourself … guys are going to run your show.’ You don’t have to be the toughest guy — you just have to show up and stand up for yourself. All of a sudden, things started to click. He brought out the best in me.”

That’s a good lesson. Polite, but firm.

24. I was surprised he all but admitted it, but Backes did not evade Jeff Marek’s cross-examination of fighting Rick Nash, Corey Perry and Jonathan Toews right before the 2010 Olympics.

“Who’s to say they weren’t all scheming to take me out?” he replied. “(Toews), four or five times I baited him. He finally said yes. (Playing Anaheim back then, you had a choice of) Perry and (Ryan) Getzlaf: If I had to pick one, Ryan’s out. If we are both spending five minutes in the box marinating, plus hopefully there wasn’t a whistle for another five minutes, that’s 10 minutes they’re not scoring. That’s a win for me.”

Backes had some great stories. He joked that he “cringed” at seeing Blackhawks or Kings logos because of the hard playoff losses to them, saying a major career highlight was when the Blues finally beat Chicago in his last season there. That was under Ken Hitchcock. Several teammates said Backes — then the captain — acted as the buffer between the demanding coach and the rest of the Blues.

“You can say, ‘Screw that guy,’ if you’re all in it together, and some times (Hitchcock) was hoping we would all coalesce around — not hatred for him, but disdain for him — just being mad at him.”

He remembered one video meeting in Buffalo.

“(Hitchcock said), ‘Before we get started, everybody together, on three: The coach is an asshole!’ … Eight guys said it. (He said), ‘You can do better than that!’ Everyone together screamed. (And he said), ‘All right, we can get started.’ He just wanted all of us to be together even if it meant he was on island.”

25. Backes’s emotional night in St. Louis concluded about an hour after T.J. Oshie returned to Washington, incredibly scoring a hat trick days after his father, Tim, passed.

“I heard about his father and sent him a message. At the end (I) said, ‘You don’t need to text me back,’ and he texted me right back. He’s one of the best teammates and one of the best real dudes.”

Backes and Oshie were roommates at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. After Oshie put the tournament on its ear by dominating Russia in the shootout, “He comes back an hour and a half later, after doing everything, he’s got makeup on, and he’s like, ‘Don’t you think they’re blowing this a little out of proportion?’ Am I’m like, ‘You have no idea what you just did.’”

Backes said Oshie texted him last Wednesday after seeing the post-game interview with Darren Pang, before Backes could send a note about the hat trick.

“(Oshie wrote), ‘That was awesome to see that tonight — you’re one of the best.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? You went out and got a hat trick after your dad died. Coach Osh was skating along with you tonight.’ Those are the friendships and the connections you make in this game that’ll last forever.”

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26. Kirk Muller spent some time in California, where he and his wife, Stacey, became grandparents for the fourth time. (One son-in-law is Bakersfield captain Brad Malone.) He was disappointed at how it ended in Montreal, but, as is his way, prefers to be upbeat about things.

“I hope those guys do well, because they are good people. I enjoyed coaching and playing there.”

When Wendel Clark captained Toronto, he’d tell newly arrived players, “You’re never as good as they say you are, and you’re never as bad as they say you are.” When Muller arrived as player in Montreal (in 1991), then-captain Guy Carbonneau said something similar: “Just understand, if you’re the goat today, don’t worry about it, because tomorrow, somebody else will be, or it’s a new story. You understand it’s a day-to-day event. What happens today is old news tomorrow. The key is riding the waves. Be consistent and stay the course.”

Muller talked up both Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki.

“They don’t play with a mean streak, but they have a little bit of edge to them. They’re competitors, and you’re not going to be able to get them off their game. They’re going to be focused on the agenda that’s at hand. When you compete and you’re smart, you’re going to become better and better at everything you do.”

27. Muller told two great stories about his playing days. Asked about Peter Stastny, he reminded us about centring Stastny and Claude Lemieux in New Jersey.

“I’ve never battled so hard with two linemates. I think we battled and fought harder against each other — in a good way — than we did against our opponents. Peter was a perfectionist…. Every shift if you didn’t make the right play or find him, you knew when he got to the bench. He was like, ‘Kirk, I was open. You gotta get that puck to me.’ I said, ‘Peter, see that number nine on the back of my jersey? It’s not 99, so you’re not going to get the puck the amount of times you think you are.’ I had Claude on the other side going, ‘Hey, I was open.’ I was like, ‘Listen, you two. I’m in a non-winning situation here.’ It was a fun line to play with.”

When traded to Montreal, then-GM Serge Savard called him, and Muller actually asked, “Is there any chance I could get nine?”

“He said to me, ‘Kirk, do you know the history of the Montreal Canadiens?’ ’Course I do — I’m just kidding.”

Muller wore 11, but switched to nine for the 1993 All-Star Game in Montreal, as Mike Gartner got 11 on the basis of seniority. After the game, he ran into Maurice Richard, whose number nine is in the rafters. Richard said, “Don’t make it habit.” Muller said he asked Steve Shutt if Richard was joking, and the Hall of Famer said, “No way.”

28. Finally, some more on Hartley. The coach gave a glowing scouting report of Yegor Chinakhov, taken 21st overall by Columbus in 2020. (Hartley loved it when we struggled to talk about the young Russian when the Blue Jackets took him out of nowhere.)

“This kid shows up, the first drill I’m watching him and suddenly he takes a shot. My God, I saw a Russian Joe Sakic,” Hartley said. “The kid has Joe Sakic’s wrist shot…. Right now, that’s his main strength for the NHL — his shot.”

Hartley is very positive about Chinakhov’s future, praising his progress and confidence. He did admit that two months ago, he advised the forward to stay in the KHL for another couple of years, like Kirill Kaprizov and Ilya Mikheyev did.

“I’m not saying he’s not ready for the NHL, but I could get him even more ready, more reliable. He’s very mature, an unbelievable young man. Surprise pick, but a great pick.”

Chinakhov signed with Columbus after winning the Gagarin Cup.

29. Hartley also talked up defenceman Semyon Chistyakov, taken 117th in 2019 by Nashville.

“A small Darius Kasparaitis. He hits. He means business. He has a shot because he’s fearless.”

Hartley had to tell him to stop hitting his teammates in practice — save it for opponents.

30. I wrote it last week, but Hartley is a huge fan of Ilya Kovalchuk (“my Russian boy”) and says Kovalchuk badly wants back into the NHL for a shot at the Stanley Cup. The 20-year pro is the one who talked Hartley out of all his fears about coaching in Russia and convinced him to go there.

When Hartley got the call that Dan Snyder had died in 2003, Hartley told Kovalchuk he needed to go to the hospital with him, because “I don’t know if I can do this by myself.” Snyder’s mother, LuAnn, gave Kovalchuk a small piece of her son’s watch bracelet and the rest to Hartley.

“You always keep the bracelet because every piece of the bracelet is a player on the team,” she told the coach.

He kept that promise.

“To this day, I’ve always coached every game — in Switzerland, in Calgary, in Russia — with the bracelet in my pocket.”

It’s very powerful.

31. Back in 2000, while working at The Score, we covered the 2000 American League Championship Series between the Mariners and Yankees. Our crew sat in crowd seats for a couple of the games, and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne parked next to us for one of them. We didn’t say anything — our group of small-timers next to this big star — but he engaged us, asked who we were and carried on a conversation. One of the nicest people I’ve met, and I don’t think I’ve come across him since.

Budget cuts are a sad reality, especially at a time we are celebrating good people getting new broadcasting opportunities. But I never forgot how Mayne treated a group of nobodies and am sorry to see him go.

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