For different reasons, the names of Buffalo Sabres star center Jack Eichel and St. Louis Blues elite winger Vladimir Tarasenko were front and center amid the trade rumor mill. Both Eichel and Tarasenko expressed the wish they be dealt as soon as possible, but here we are, with NHL training camps well underway, and yet each of the two remain untraded.
Does that mean they’re going to have to play this regular season out and try to pressure a deal in the summer of 2022?
In fact, I expect both of them to be moved before this coming season’s trade deadline. But fans of theirs who believe they’re going to be traded in the next few weeks should think twice. The NHL is not a reactionary league, and it’s entirely possible the Blues and Sabres hang onto their disgruntled employees until well into the 2021-22 schedule.
Why the wait? Well, for one thing, according to CapFriendly.com, virtually half the league’s teams (15 out of 32, in this case) have less than $1 million in salary cap space. Granted, most, if not all of those 15 teams are projected to be playoff teams, but they would likely be the ones most interested in a Tarasenko trade. He’s got one year left on his contract after this season, but the 29-year-old winger could be seen as a longer-term rental for a Cup contender – kind of like what Jeff Carter was to the Pittsburgh Penguins when they landed him last year, only Tarasenko will carry a hefty $7.5 million cap hit through 2022-23.
If Blues GM Doug Armstrong is going to ship Tarasenko out, he may choose to bring in prospects and/or draft picks, and give his franchise a little breathing room on the cap front. But the likelihood of Tarasenko waiving his no-trade clause to go to a rebuilding team is slim. And the regular season is going to need to shake out a little bit, and the standings are going to need some clear separation between buyers and sellers before Armstrong chooses to move him out.
On the other hand, when it comes to Eichel, the market is bound to include the NHL’s have-not teams. Playoff contenders aren’t likely to have enough cap space for Eichel’s $10-million-per-season salary, but a franchise such as the Anaheim Ducks will happily send Buffalo some of its prospects in return for a bona fide No. 1 center.
It’s much easier to ask your fans to tolerate one more year of losing if it means having a healthy (and that’s another story altogether) Eichel on the roster come next season. However, the Sabres currently have the second-most cap space in the league, with more than $17.5 million available. So they don’t need anyone else’s cap space. For Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams, this deal has to be a can’t-miss for the future. And if the regular season opens up a couple of Eichel trade possibilities for teams disappointed in their 2021-22 play, Adams should be able to leverage his side into getting what it wants.
Like the Blues and Tarasenko, though, the Sabres know they’re not up against the clock on Eichel. He is under contract for the next five years. And his change in agents shouldn’t be seen as a sign he no longer wants out of Buffalo.
Despite their fan support, the Sabres are not even close to being the type of playoff squad Eichel wants to spend his peak years playing for. He wants to be either on a current contender, or on a team on the cusp of being one.
Both Tarasenko and Eichel will be seen as balms wherever they wind up going to, but it’s going to take a couple of months, at least, for interested teams to lose their opening-of-the-season optimism and begin looking to fill a specific need – for Tarasenko, that probably means being a puzzle piece that can push a team to playoff success; and for Eichel, that means serving as a cornerstone on a team looking to just get to the playoffs and building from there.
Even if they’re not moved in the next few weeks, don’t take that to mean Eichel and Tarasenko will remain with their longtime employers. The NHL is an elephantine league in that it never forgets. And Eichel and Tarasenko’s displeasure with their current situation hasn’t dissipated. It’ll just take some time for it all to play out.