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Eichel: ‘Disconnect’ with Sabres over neck injury

Star center Jack Eichel said there’s a disconnect between himself and the Buffalo Sabres over how his neck injury was handled this season, leaving his future with the franchise very much unsettled.

Eichel missed the Sabres’ final 33 games of the season due to a herniated disk in his neck, an injury he suffered in a game against the New York Islanders. At the time, the Sabres announced that their captain was “expected to be healthy and ready to play at the beginning of the 2021-22 season.”

But in Monday’s postseason media availability, the injured Sabres captain wouldn’t say if his next NHL season would be in Buffalo, citing the way the team handled his injury.

“I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt. I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times. Right now, for me, the most important thing now is to try to get healthy, figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be,” he said.

Eichel is signed through the 2025-26 season, with an average annual value of $10 million. He has a full no-movement clause that kicks in after next season.

Eichel said he struggled with a handful of injuries this season, from a cracked rib suffered in training camp to an abdominal injury from last year that still bothered him. But it was the way the Sabres handled his neck injury that caused the schism between the team and its franchise player. When asked why he didn’t simply get the surgery or treatment he felt he needed, Eichel responded, “It doesn’t work like that. I wish. I’m under contract with this team, and they hold a lot of cards on what I can and can’t do.”

That left him frustrated.

“Listen, my No. 1 interest is Jack Eichel, you know what I mean? You gotta look after yourself. You gotta look after what’s best for yourself. The organization has a similar job to do, which is to look out for what’s best for the Buffalo Sabres. It’s tough. Things haven’t been, I guess, really black and white. We’re all trying to educate ourselves in this situation and what would be best moving forward. There’s been some tough conversations,” he said. “But I have to do what’s best for me. I’m only going to play hockey for so long. I’m 24 years old. Hopefully I have many years in this amazing game left. But I have to take care of myself. It’s been tough at times. But I’ll come out on the other this.”

The rough times for Eichel in Buffalo have been on the ice, too. Since he entered the NHL in 2015-16 through this season, Buffalo has the lowest regular-season points percentage of any NHL team (.444). They’ve failed to qualify for the postseason in every year of Eichel’s career — including last season, when the field was expanded to 24 teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic pause. Every other player selected in the top 10 of his 2015 draft class has appeared in at least one playoff game.

Eichel has played for four different head coaches and three different general managers in six seasons.

His last game of the season was March 7. He had two goals and 16 assists in 21 games for Buffalo this season, which he said was not up to his standards. For his six-year NHL career, Eichel has 355 points in 375 regular-season games.

Eichel wouldn’t confirm or deny that he’s made a trade request to Sabres management, only to say that he “has a lot of thinking to do” this offseason about his future. “There’s a lot I have to consider. But for now, I’m here. I’m the captain of this hockey team. My goal is to be available and to try to help this organization to win hockey games. I’ll do that as long as I’m here.”

But if he did want out, is Eichel confident that Sabres management and ownership will grant that request?

“I gotta do what’s best for me, but they gotta do what’s best for them. It’s like any other business. And I understand that,” he said. “If you asked any NHL player, they’d be on the same page: You have to do what’s best for the organization, but you also have to do what’s best for you.”

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