The waiting game

August 18, 2017
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Jack Eichel is entering the final year of his entry-level contract that he signed shortly after being drafted by the Buffalo Sabres with the second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. In his first two seasons in the National Hockey League, Eichel has put up 48 goals and 113 points in 142 games. Just last year alone, he finished 11th in the league for points per-game production (0.93) after missing the first 21 games with a high ankle sprain.

Starting July 1, Eichel was eligible to start negotiations with the Sabres on a new contract extension that would kick in at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. 49 days later, we continue to wait on an announcement of a new deal.

It is no secret that both general manager Jason Botterill and the Sabres have been in plenty of contact with Eichel and his agent, Peter Fish. When we last heard from Botterill in mid-July it seemed like a deal could get done this summer.

“Our conversations with Jack and the group have gone extremely well," Botterill said at development camp on July 11. "We’ll continue those throughout the summer here and see if we can find a common ground. From our standpoint, we certainly want to get something done. From everything that we’ve heard from Jack and his agents, they want to get something done too.”

There was some hope that a deal was drawing nearly two and a half weeks ago when a report from the Associated Press surfaced that Eichel and the Sabres were discussing a max-term, eight-year contract. However, there were no talks of what kind of money he was looking to garner for a new deal.

Now, we sit around waiting for the Sabres or any of hockey's well-respected analysts to break the news on Twitter of Eichel signing a new contract extension. But how much longer are we going to have to wait?

Clearly, the term of the deal makes the most sense for both sides. The Sabres get to keep their franchise center for the long-term, while Eichel gets to stay and continue to push for success with the team that had originally drafted him.

The money is where things get a bit messy.

Eichel is quickly establishing himself as one of the perennial young talents in the NHL at the age of 20. His style of play, the production he puts up, and the role he has for the Sabres is making him a household name around the NHL. Not to mention, he is one of the faces of USA Hockey and likely will be for years to come. Even some people have considered Eichel to be one of the most overlooked, underrated young players in the league looking for a breakout 2017-18 season.

If it was not for the high ankle sprain he suffered the day before the season opened last October, Eichel may have been due for that breakout season last year. Eichel was on pace for 32 goals and 76 points if he had played a full 82-game schedule, probably give or take a point or two. If he had played a full season, it may be easier to say that he would be worth the price of admission.

"It was frustrating. I wanted to be off and running," Eichel said in an article in the Lowell Sun out of Massachusetts. "It was a bad bounce. But injuries happen. It wasn't the easiest injury to deal with. I started to play much better the second half of the season. But for me the most frustrating part was the underachieving of the team. I thought we had a pretty good team."

To even attempt at guessing what Eichel is going to cost the Sabres, let's look at some of the most recent “comparable contracts” signed around the NHL.

Edmonton Oilers franchise center, and first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor McDavid made history on July 5 when he signed an eight-year contract extension worth an average annual value of $12.5 million. As of July 1, 2018, McDavid will be the highest paid player in the NHL and for good reason. In his two seasons in the NHL, McDavid has put up 46 goals and 148 points in 127 games played. Last year, he led the league with 100 points in 82 games, and was awarded the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player at age 20.

McDavid's impact on the ice is far above most players currently in the NHL. He creates more chances for his team when he is on the ice than off, and he can change the course of the game when the puck gets on his stick by using his speed and skill. There is a good argument brewing that McDavid is possibly the most gifted offensive, playmaking forward in the entire league. Don't tell Sidney Crosby though.

Eichel is not going to earn as much as McDavid got in his new deal unless he holds off on signing until next offseason and puts up a similar year of production that McDavid did in 2016-17. Plus, he will probably have to lead the Sabres to the playoffs along with beating out McDavid in scoring and win the Hart Trophy. That won't be an easy feat to accomplish.

One player that has been compared to Eichel with money talk is McDavid's teammate, Leon Draisaitl. The 21-year old forward finished the 2016-17 season with 29 goals and 77 points in 82 games. Draisaitl actually bumped Eichel out of the top-10 in points per-game production late last season, which cost Eichel a $2 million bonus in his contract by a 0.005 margin.

Leon Draisaitl's 2 pts last night knocked #Sabres Jack Eichel out of the top 10 in league Pts/Gm. Eichel misses out on a $2M bonus by 0.01 pic.twitter.com/5ZLqxtHwdO

— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) April 10, 2017

Draisaitl led the Oilers in the playoffs with six goals and 16 points in 13 games, including a hat-trick in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against Anaheim to force a deciding Game 7.

On Wednesday, the Oilers locked up Draisaitl to a new eight-year, $68 million deal with an average annual value of $8.5 million. When looking at the stats and production from this past season, $8.5 million seems like a reasonable cap hit for Eichel when talking a long-term deal.

It is highly unlikely, however, that Eichel is going to be getting paid the same $8.5 million cap-hit that Draisaitl was given.

"It's wishful thinking for Jason Botterill and the Buffalo Sabres to believe that they're going to get Jack Eichel around $8.5 million. And when I say 'around,' it's certainly not going to be $8.5 [million>, and it won't be less than $8.5 [million> on an annual average salary," said TSN's Darren Dreger with Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet on The Instigators Friday morning. "I still think that the more reasonable [comparable>, believe it or not, is McDavid. Now Eichel is not getting $12.5 million, so the gap is somewhere between McDavid and Draisaitl. That's a pretty big gap. It's likely in that middle."

That point in the middle that Dreger is referencing is $10.5 million on an annual average salary. There are only four players in the NHL that will be getting paid $10.5 million or more beginning next season: McDavid ($12.5 million), Jonathan Toews ($10.5 million). Patrick Kane ($10.5 million), and Carey Price ($10.5 million). Is it realistic to think that Eichel could become the fifth player to make $10.5 million or more in his next deal? With the changing times of the NHL, it is very possible - but are the Sabres willing to pay Eichel that kind of money after just two seasons?

"I don't think Buffalo is willing just yet to pay $10.5 million," Dreger said. "I'm taking an educated guess here that that's closer to the number that the agent and Jack Eichel are looking at."

"I'm told that the discussions are ongoing, and they're amicable, there's no hard feelings here. Both sides can recognize that there's a level of having to dig in to balance the negotiation. The Sabres recognize that he's an iconic player; he's a cornerstone piece for the Buffalo organization. Maybe that number creeps up closer to $10 [million> or just over $10 [million>, but I think it's going to be potentially closer to McDavid than it would be Draisaitl."

Eichel confirmed that the Sabres and his camp are in current negotiations on a new deal in the Lowell Sun article. He also stated his desire to stay with the Sabres, and did go on to say that it is more than just about the money.

"We're in the midst of it. It's between my agent and Mr. Botterill," Eichel said. "I'm just going to work hard this summer. All of that tends to take care of itself. Obviously the contract is important. But for me it's all about the play."

"I've made it clear that I want to be a Sabre. I want to be in Buffalo when we start winning. I want to reward the city. It's been two great years. I don't want to go anywhere else."

Looking around the league, at least the Sabres are in a better state with Eichel now than his hometown team is with one of their young star forwards. Buffalo could be the Boston Bruins with forward David Pastrnak, where both sides are at a stand still in contract talks. Reports indicate that the Bruins had offered a six-year contract to Pastrnak worth $36 million, but the 21-year old may now be looking at Draisaitl's deal thinking he could get something similar.

Last season, Pastrnak was second on the team in scoring with 34 goals and 70 points in 75 games. He's also one of the younger players on a team that only seems to be getting older. Wouldn't it be something if the Bruins actually pulled off a trade like NHL Network's Brian Lawton had reported on Twitter earlier this week?

With what I am hearing I would not be surprised if David Pasternak @NHLBruins is traded. #contractproblems @NHLNetwork

— Brian Lawton (@brianlawton9) August 14, 2017

It wouldn't make sense for the Bruins to trade such an offensively gifted, young forward just over some contract disputes unless he really wants out of Boston. But then again, the Bruins did trade another young, talented forward back in 2013 when Tyler Seguin was shipped to Dallas in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. Take a watch to find out why:

Circling back to Eichel, it is puzzling to really figure out why it is taking so long to get a contract extension done. It is hard to come up with numbers based on just potential, but Eichel has shown both the skill and type of production that he can put up night in and night out. Also, with Dan Bylsma out of the picture and Eichel not being handcuffed due to the system, there's a chance we could see his production and responsibilities go up even more.

At this point, if it takes $10.5 million per-year to get Eichel signed to a new deal, pay the man. Don’t get yourself backed into a corner, like it appears the Bruins have done with Pastrnak. If it takes up to $11 million per-year to get Eichel signed on for eight more years, then pay the man. It would be astonishing if Botterill was able to get Eichel under contract for anything less than $10 million, but for what Eichel has produced and what is still to come as a 20-year old, get a deal done before training camp starts in a few weeks.

"I think the goal from both sides, from the Sabres' perspective and from Jack Eichel's standpoint, is to get something done before the start of the season," Dreger said. "He doesn't want to have to deal with this in training camp and prior to every game, and it's not just in Buffalo. On the road, the same interest lies because of social media and how well the National Hockey League is covered from other league reporters. Eichel is going to have to answer this question over and over and over again in every city that he visits throughout the NHL regular season. I think that's a part of it. It can be a distraction, and I don't think Eichel wants any part of that."

You can hear Dreger's entire interview with The Instigators below: