Jack Eichel returned to Buffalo last night, his first game in America’s basement refrigerator since his trade to Vegas. It did not go well, much like pretty much anything in Eichel’s career hasn’t. The Knights lost 3-1 to the Sabres, and losing is something they’ve been doing a fair bit of since Eichel arrived. Their record since he actually stepped on the ice is 4-6-1. Sure, Mark Stone hasn’t played, and Vegas has had its share of other injuries. But they didn’t trade for Eichel — and have to lose yet another good player in the future due to the cap complications his presence causes — to be below .500 and barely holding off the consistently woebegone Oilers for a playoff spot. Oh, one can’t help but see the symbolism that it’s Eichel and McDavid scrapping it out for the last playoff spot, either. Remember all the hope and buzz of that 2015 draft? Bird and Magic on ice it was. Except both teams turned into the Clippers.
Anyway, as you might imagine, after Eichel demanded his way out of town after last season (and justifiably so), Sabres fans were not exactly welcoming to him. He was booed every time he touched the puck. The atmosphere was lively for once at the KeyBank Center, because there was something at stake.
Eichel’s got jokes though:
Let’s review Eichel’s career in Buffalo. The closest they ever came to the playoffs? 12 points, which might as well be 50 miles. The last time Sabres fans were allowed to see Eichel, he played just 21 games. There were a handful of games that mattered at all in Eichel’s six seasons there.
So you could probably understand why Eichel didn’t get to play in front of a vibrant crowd all that often when he was in Western New York. After all, when the team has been farmland runoff for over a decade, generally the fans don’t provide ravenous support for 41 games.
Is that Eichel’s fault? Not really. He did what he could, averaging nearly a point per game over 375 games. And the Sabres didn’t handle his health properly, which the Knights were willing to do. Fuck with an athlete’s physical well-being and things will detoriate in a hurry. And yet when you’re the savior, you can’t duck blame totally.
Still, Eichel was the symbol of hope for Sabres fans when he was picked No. 2 overall in 2015. Buffalo had already missed the playoffs four straight years at that point, which they’ve added seven more to since. It’s now 15 years since their last playoff series win. And whether Eichel likes it or not, whether he deserves it or not, he’s going to wear the team’s inability to improve at all during his time there.
That’s the deal when you’re not just the No. 1 center, but the franchise cornerstone. It gets pinned on you. And as unfair as it may be, when you ask out, fans will turn on you because they don’t get to ask out. They’re stuck in Buffalo, staring at their Miroslav Satan posters and Michael Peca shrines wondering if things will ever be different. They’re going to be mad that someone else got out for greener pastures yet again.
Eichel will eventually have the last laugh, because the Knights can’t continue to be this middling, one would hope. Eichel will get to play in all the big games he didn’t get to in Buffalo, while the Sabres continue to have mud in their tires. At least, that is if Eichel isn’t a human curse, which we don’t know he isn’t.
Perhaps a little more understanding from Eichel is in order. He knows what Sabres fans have dealt with and are up against. He was supposed to lead them out of it. He didn’t, his own responsibility or not. And now Buffalo is even worse than when it started. Sabres fans have to do it all again. Eichel doesn’t. So shut up and take your medicine, Jack.