With another last place finish in the National Hockey League, the Buffalo Sabres held their usual end of the season press conferences with a few select players on Monday, with a few more made available on Tuesday. Headlining day one of conferences were Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Jack McCabe, Linus Ullmark, Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Riistolainen, and Kyle Okposo. I broke it down player by player to give my thoughts on what was shared with the media. And yes, Eichel’s will be long.
We’ll start with the elephant in the room, Sabres captain Jack Eichel. We knew he was disappointed and upset with the direction this team was heading in, but after Tuesday’s conference press conference, it appears that this team and Jack Eichel are further apart than we originally thought. Eichel was asked if he requested a trade and if he was open to the possibility of a trade, and for the first time, we saw him answer in a way where we now question whether or not he will be a Sabre next year. “I have a lot of thinking to do. I have a lot to consider, but for now, I’m here.” His response was the fear that Buffalo fans have been hoping not to hear.
Eichel mentions that there was a clear disconnect between him and management when it came to his injury. “Things haven’t been very black and white,” Eichel said. How could your franchise player, your captain, the player the fans come to see, have a disconnect with management? Eichel went on to say that his contract was the reason he has not had surgery yet, and while the Sabres have the right to say “No” to it because of the CBA, I do not understand why they would nullify that option. And on top of that, Eichel said it would be a quick recovery if he were to have operation. This is heading towards a monumental collapse between the Sabres and Jack Eichel.
The disconnect between Eichel and management, his unhappiness with where the team is headed, and him saying he wants to be ready for next year “wherever that may be”, is a stab in the heart for Sabres fans. The no-movement clause in Eichel’s contract kicks in after next season, so Buffalo could deal him to any team that presents the best offer. But trading away your captain, your franchise player, the reason the fans go to games, would cause an uproar for Sabres fans. The Pegula’s need to step in and make this right between Eichel and management. Kevyn Adams needs to step in. Everyone in this organization knows you cannot lose this player, because if they do, a multi-year rebuild with the fans anger towards the team is going to cause this franchise to be in shambles.
Sam Reinhart, just like Jack Eichel, expressed his frustration with the season and where things were. “It’s hard to be positive when there’s another year of not playing meaningful games”, Reinhart said. After coming off a 25 goal season and being Buffalo’s most consistent player, Reinhart expressed he doesn’t want to go through another rebuild, he wants to be in the postseason and play on a winning team. To be honest, this was the most dejected I have seen Sam Reinhart in a while. Reinhart is a restricted free agent and said he has to take time to ponder his future before committing long-term with the organization.
Ristolainen had a bit of an unusual season. To me, Ristolainen played his best season as a Buffalo Sabre along with Jack McCabe, who he worked with as his defensive partner. Then it all changed when McCabe got hurt and Ristolainen got infected with COVID-19. When he came back, he described how challenging it has been to get his conditioning back to where it was and how, when he had COVID-19, he felt some nights like he wasn’t going to wake up. Coming back from that alone is challenging, then to add on top of it the team going through one of the worst winless stretches in NHL history (18). Ristolainen told GM Kevyn Adams that he is “open for all the ideas” in regards to a trade to a different team. Ristolainen said, “Staying, or if he trades me, I’m fine with that.” He is entering the final year of his contract, which carries a cap hit of $5.4 million. If Ristolainen is not traded in the offseason and the Sabres start sinking into another downward spiral, there is no question Ristolainen will be dealt.
The Buffalo Sabres $9 million goal scorer was held to just six goals this season and was even a healthy scratch in three straight games under former bench boss Ralph Krueger. When Don Granato took over, Skinner started seeing more ice time while playing more with Sam Reinhart on the team’s top line. Skinner said he still feels like an impact player and will take the summer to train and improve to get back to where he knows he can be. Not having Jack Eichel certainly doesn’t help matters, but Skinner started to find his game late in the year when given more chances and opportunities. When asked about the Seattle expansion draft, Skinner said he didn’t really think about it and that it’s not something he is has any concerns about. I can’t imagine the Buffalo Sabres would leave him unprotected. That being said, Skinner looks to bounce back next year to the goal scorer he once was and is capable of being.
One thing I’ve admired about Okposo is his honesty when it comes to the Sabres. Okposo was injured when Matt Irwin shot a puck and hit him in the face, breaking his cheek bone, forcing him out for the rest of the season. Before that, he was playing some pretty decent hockey, forechecking hard and was on a decent point streak after Krueger was fired. We saw more life in his game and showed flashes of the Okposo he said he wants to be again. Okposo has two years left on his contract with Buffalo and will most likely play on the third or fourth line next year.
When Ullmark was healthy, he was the best Sabres player on the ice. But, along with a lot of other players, injuries took its toll on Ullmark. In the games he played, Ullmark went 9-6-0-3 with a 2.63 GAA and .917 save percentage. Pretty respectable for the last place team in the league. Ullmark said he is not thinking about his contract or free agency yet, as he has his sights set on returning home to see his family. Once he does that, he will be able to meet with his agent to discuss his options moving forward. The Sabres would like to retain him and make him their No. 1 goalie next season, but he will for sure demand an increase in pay. At this point, Ullmark has been the most consistent goalie for Buffalo the last couple of years and losing him to free agency would decimate an already depleted Sabres goalie roster.