Could Sabres dumpster fire turn into a Jack Eichel opportunity for Bruins?

Could Sabres dumpster fire turn into a Jack Eichel opportunity for Bruins?

Here’s a hockey news flash for you.

The Buffalo Sabres are a flaming dumpster fire of an NHL organization that hasn’t qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in a decade and hasn’t won a playoff series since Daniel Briere was a 95-point scorer in the NHL.

That was a long, long, long time ago.

They even screwed up tanking for the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft when they missed out on Connor McDavid, but they didn’t exactly do badly for themselves by selecting current captain Jack Eichel with the second overall pick.

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The Sabres were in the news this week when owners Terry and Kim Pegula completely cleaned house by firing GM Jason Botterill and assistant GMs Steve Greeley and Randy Sexton among more than 20 people given their pink slips in management and scouting. During the Pegula run as Sabres owners, Buffalo has now gone through a head-shaking six head coaches, four team presidents, three GMs and they haven’t made the playoffs even a single time during that fallow hockey period in Buff.

With the hiring of a new GM and plenty of current vacancies in the management and scouting departments, it feels once again like the Sabres are massively rebuilding after they were one of only seven to not qualify for the 24-team tournament scheduled this summer when the NHL returns to play.

So if you’re the Boston Bruins, now might be the best opportunity you’d ever have to bring the Chelmsford-born Eichel to Boston.

The Bruins already have on their roster one of Eichel’s teammates from his Boston University days in Charlestown native Matt Grzelcyk and one from his US National Development Team days in Anders Bjork. And the Bruins have made a concerted effort in recent years to load up on local NHL talent with Grzelcyk, Charlie Coyle and Chris Wagner among others, so there would be some familiar Boston accents in the B’s dressing room to make Eichel feel at home.

The one thing the B’s don’t have with their contingent of Massachusetts players, though, is a local kid with superstar potential. That would be Eichel, who finished eighth in the NHL with 38 goals and 10th in the league with 78 points in 68 games. The 6-foot-2, 196-pound Eichel is already a game-breaking force with long, powerful hockey strides, a frame that’s become Superman-strong on the puck at 23 years old and the goal-scoring instincts that make him an elite player in his early 20s.

It’s clear, though, that Eichel hasn’t reached his full potential in Buffalo, where he’s expected to lead and change the Sabres losing culture while knowing nothing but losing and frustration in his young NHL career. Certainly, Eichel sounded exasperated and ready for something to change when he spoke to reporters after the 24-team playoff format made it clear last month that Buffalo’s season was over.

"Listen, I'm fed up with losing and I'm fed up and I'm frustrated," said Eichel, who has missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of his five NHL seasons since jumping into the NHL as an 18-year-old kid. "It's definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It's been a tough couple of months, it's been a tough five years with where things have [gone].

"I'm a competitor. I want to win every time I go out on the ice. I want to win the Stanley Cup every time I start a season. I'd be lying if I said that I'm not getting frustrated with where things are going. it's been a pleasure working with (Sabres coach) Ralph (Krueger) and he does so much for our group every day. There are tough times and he does an amazing job of bringing us back in and narrowing our focus and getting us back to where we need to be mentally. But yeah, I'm definitely not in the greatest place with where the last little bit went and it's definitely worn on me."

It sure sounds like an exasperated player in Eichel that’s tacitly pining for a change of scenery rather than spending more fruitless seasons waiting around for another organizational rebuild in Buffalo.

If you’re Don Sweeney, why not pick up the phone and see if the latest Sabres GM is looking to clean house with the roster as well?

Certainly, the Bruins would need to pull off some seismic moves to accommodate a move for Eichel. It would start with trading high-grade, young assets like promising young Michigan center and former first round pick John Beecher and restricted free agent winger Jake DeBrusk, along with a robust high draft pick package. Perhaps you don’t get out of an earth-shattering Eichel deal without including a young D-man like Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo, and that’s where the decision could get awfully difficult were it to ever get to that point.  

The Bruins would also need to find a taker for David Krejci and the final year of his $7.25 million contract, which could offset much of the $10 million per season that Eichel will be making for the next six seasons. Given his youth, his upward trajectory and the salary cap space the Bruins will have when Krejci is gone, an opportunity like Eichel would be the best way to spend admittedly big money in a post-COVID-19 world where economics are uncertain.

But a trade for Eichel would give the Bruins the dominant, young center they absolutely need in their organization with Patrice Bergeron and Krejci both well into NHL middle age, and Charlie Coyle best suited for a third line center slot after signing a long contract extension with the Black and Gold this season. It would also give the Bruins the exact kind of deep scoring talent among their top-6 forward group that they have been actively seeking out while loading up the top Perfection Line for the last few seasons of success.  

Certainly, this isn’t something that would happen anytime soon as the Bruins are focused on this summer’s return to play for the NHL, and it’s something that isn’t likely to happen at all given the sheer magnitude of the move.

But wouldn’t it be great if this week’s Buffalo Sabres massacre someday turned into a door opening for Eichel to come home to Boston?

Interesting details why NHL reportedly chose Edmonton as hub city

Interesting details why NHL reportedly chose Edmonton as hub city

It’s pretty much official at this point as countless reports have the NHL settled on Edmonton and Toronto as the two hub cities when teams return to play at the end of the month.

TSN Insider Bob McKenzie revealed on Thursday afternoon that Edmonton will also end up being the site for the conference finals as well as the Stanley Cup Final given how well the city has contained the COVID-19 virus over the last three months.

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Edmonton Oilers radio analyst Bob Stauffer confirmed that it indeed is looking good for Edmonton and outlined some of the finer points to the Edmonton plan that attracted the NHL once they decided to avoid Las Vegas despite its glamorous appeal.

“Edmonton is in a unique situation. It’s low-population density and the majority of the international travel went through Calgary, so if you compare [Alberta] to the U.S. there’s only four U.S. states that have fewer cases per million [people] than Alberta. And Edmonton only has 13 percent of the cases for the entire [Alberta] province despite the fact that Edmonton has 37 or 38 percent of the population. We only had 15 deaths total [from COVID-19] in the last 15 weeks and just three deaths over the last two months. The caseload has been light.

“That’s a major reason why Edmonton got this [hub city designation]. Make no mistake, the Edmonton Oilers Entertainment Group was really aggressive to get the bid. The province really wanted it. Edmonton has a brand new JW Marriott hotel that’s adjacent to Rogers Place and, if we’re able to push the ball over the goal line here, all 12 teams’ players will stay there. There are a couple of supporting hotels that will house the executives and the rest of that 50-man group as well the television crews that will be in to work it. I would call this more of an Olympic-style hub city bid. That was the key.

"They’ll work out an arrangement with 5-8 restaurants, they’ve got the hotel they want to use and they’re just going to cordon everything off. There’s lot of green space for the players and there’s a golf course five minutes away right in the downtown. The average temperature is 68-76 degrees during the day, so it’s not like the 110 degrees that it would be in Vegas. I get it that Vegas was super-sexy [as an option]. I think Gary [Bettman] wanted Vegas. I think the players wanted Vegas. But it seems that the COVID situation really knocked [Vegas] out. At this stage of the game it really looks like Edmonton and they’ve been working on it for a while.”

TSN Insider Darren Dreger had mentioned Edmonton as the biggest and best option for the NHL when he spoke to NBC Sports Boston about a month ago as well.

“Edmonton is on a full-out campaign. They’ve talked about having a million square feet inside their facility. They’ve got a practice rink there. They can literally put 12 dining areas and separate sanitization stations for all 12 teams inside that building,” said Dreger. “And then they’ve got the ice district and they’ve got the JW Marriott, which is a brand-spanking new, world class hotel. Everybody can be housed in that.

"You want to watch a movie outside on a big screen, or you want to watch some of the other games that are being played in the other hub city? You can do that in the ice district. You can watch multiple games if you’re not playing. They were heavily investigating a private golf course and renting it out, so that on their off days the players could go and play golf as a leisure activity as well.”

At that time, it seemed that Vegas, Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton were the lead candidates with other U.S. locales in the mix as well, but Edmonton became a no-brainer once it turned to an all-Canada setting for the NHL games. It also seems clear that the NHL is going to keep the Eastern Conference teams in Toronto and the Western Conference teams in Edmonton for the first couple of playoff rounds following the qualifying round/round-robin games.

But then it will be the many amenities being offered in Edmonton that are going to create a safe, remote environment for the NHL to pull off a Return to Play when so many areas in North America would not be right for it at this point.

Retirement or extension? Looking at Bruins' options for Tuukka Rask

Retirement or extension? Looking at Bruins' options for Tuukka Rask

The clock is ticking for Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins.

The 33-year-old Finnish netminder will be headed into the final year of his contract with the Bruins following this summer’s Return to Play playoffs, and he’ll be coming off a season that should make him a Vezina Trophy finalist for the second time in his career.

Rask, of course, won the award in the 2013-14 NHL season and is in a bit of a two-man race with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck for the honors as the NHL’s top goalie this time around.

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But it’s all proof that he’s essentially lived up to a contract that paid him $7 million a season as one of the highest paid goaltenders in the NHL. Rask is also the second-highest paid player on the Black and Gold behind center David Krejci, but he’s dropped to fifth in salary among NHL goalies with Carey Price, Sergei Bobrovsky, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury all equal or greater in annual salary.

All of that makes it all the more fascinating what’s going to happen following this summer when Rask will enter the last year of his deal as a 34-year-old goalie with a 36-year-old backup in Jaroslav Halak. Rask and Halak won the Jennings Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltending duo this season and could very well be in line for those honors again next year.

Next year may be the last season that the Bruins can afford that partnership for a number of different reasons, but that doesn’t mean that Rask won’t continue as the No. 1 guy in Boston.  

Meanwhile, the regular season accolades go on and on for Rask. He’s the all-time winningest goalie in Bruins history with 291 wins, and has the most games played (536), the most saves (13,711) and the best save percentage (.922) in the B’s nearly 100-year franchise history. Rask ranks seventh all-time in NHL history with a .9268 save percentage in the playoffs and is the active leader among all NHL goalies with a .9218 career save percentage over his 13-year career.

He ranks third all-time in career save percentage behind Dominik Hasek and Johnny Bower, both Hall of Famers. All that and he showed this season that he’s still got it as one of the NHL leaders in goals against average (2.12) and save percentage (.929) while largely splitting time with Halak. The reduced workload has been a big deal to Rask in the last couple of seasons and it allowed him to carry the Bruins with a .934 save percentage during last spring’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Still, Rask has yet to get the B’s over the top in two tries at the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and 2019 and the contract negotiations are going to be fascinating given that the NHL is looking at a largely flat salary cap for the next three seasons.

According to Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Freidman, the cap is going to go up a million to $82.5 million in 2022-23, but that’s essentially a flat cap for three years considering that the salary cap ceiling had been going up $3-6 million pretty much every season like clockwork.

The good news for the Bruins: They are going to presumably have some salary cap space to work with following next season as they are currently committed to just $35.7 million in salaries for the 2021-22 season, and aren’t going to be on the hook for much more than $52 million when they’ve finally dealt with open contracts for Torey Krug, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, Zdeno Chara and Matt Grzelcyk following this summer’s run of playoff hockey.

A big factor is the $7.25 million cap hit for Krejci that will be coming off the books at the same time as Rask following the 2020-21 NHL season. The expiration of the Krejci contract is going to open up considerable cap space for a strapped front office, and taking both Krejci and Rask deals off the books at the same time lops off a whopping 17 percent of their cap. It will be fascinating to see how the Bruins utilize that space with the expectation a 36-year-old Krejci will either be done playing by then, or will be playing at a greatly reduced rate moving forward.

The real question will be exactly what kind of salary an aging Rask will command at 35 years old?

He’s flirted with the notion of retirement several times over the last couple of years and it seems clear he won’t be the type to keep hanging on when it’s clear he’s at the end of his career.

But he also reiterated his desire to keep playing when he spoke with reporters about it a couple of months ago on a Zoom call.

“I haven’t thought about retirement at all,” Rask said. “I know that this [offseason], I can start talking to the Bruins about a possible extension. When that day comes, we’ll see what happens. But definitely I haven’t put any thought into retirement, nothing like that. We’ll see how this season plays out, and then we’ll see if there’s extension talks.”

He also needs a particular situation to be successful and that means the B’s employing a backup who's good enough to help keep Rask to a modest 50-55 game workload.

The need for a quality backup in Halak has meant that the B’s have shelled out well north of $9 million per year for goaltenders in their three seasons (counting next year) together. That’s a big chunk of salary cap space devoted to the guys who stop the pucks.

Given that Rask isn’t a workhorse type goalie at this point in his career, perhaps that means the Bruins could get him back for a slightly reduced rate in the twilight of his career. At a similar stage in his career, Pekka Rinne signed a two-year, $10 million contract extension with the Nashville Predators in 2018 that should pave the way for exactly what Rask could be looking at following next season.

The $5 million cap hit would take $2 million off Rask’s current cap hit and hand the Bruins extra room to improve their roster while staring down a pretty bleak financial picture over the next three seasons, if not longer than that.

A two-year deal in the $5 million AAV range would still put Rask in the middle of the pack for NHL goaltender salaries, but it would also be the same kind of reasonable deal other core Bruins players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and David Pastrnak have taken to keep the band together over the years. All in all, not a bad solution to the Tuukka contract dilemma.

As dire as things seem fiscally for the NHL and especially this coming offseason for the Bruins with limited funds to sign a handful of key players, it actually doesn’t seem like a new contract for Rask will be all that tricky as long as all parties involved want to keep Tuukka Time going for a while longer.