Just how big is the rift between Eichel, Bylsma?
First, the major news out of Buffalo this morning -- per WGR 550 radio, sophomore sensation Jack Eichel reportedly isn’t interested in signing an extension if Dan Bylsma remains head coach.
Eichel’s agent, Peter Fish, shot the rumor down, saying his client is “100 percent” on board with an extension, adding the decision has nothing to do with Bylsma’s status.
“I don’t know where anyone is getting these reports,” Fish said, per the Buffalo News. “But they are ridiculous.”
Fish’s remarks may snuff out reports about an extension, but questions remain about the coach-player dynamic.
Eichel, the team’s best player and face of the franchise, just wrapped year two of his three-year, entry-level deal and is eligible to sign on July 1.
In his end-of-year media address last week, Sabres GM Tim Murray said extending Eichel was a massive priority, adding that if he didn’t hear by Fish on July 1, he’d be calling him the very next day.
But now it appears Murray’s in quite the bind.
Bylsma has three years left on his contract at $3 million per, according to CapFriendly. He was hand-picked by Murray as head coach just weeks before Buffalo selected Eichel second overall in 2015 and, at the time, people were already connecting the dots: Bylsma’s experience coaching superstars, like Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, made him uniquely qualified to coach Eichel.
“You understand immediately the spotlight that is on those types of players, the star quality players,” Bylsma said of his experience coaching elite talent. “I think you understand the pressure they’ll be going through, the analysis and the little eyes on them from just about everybody.”
Two years in, there are obvious problems with the Bylsma-Eichel dynamic.
This latest report comes after widespread speculation the 20-year-old was both displeased and frustrated with his head coach throughout the season. Eichel seemed to be at odds with how Bylsma conducted things, right down to player discipline. When teammate Sam Reinhart was benched for an entire game after showing up five minutes late to a team stretch, Eichel suggested the punishment didn’t necessarily fit the crime.
“We’re obviously not going to hold it over his head here,” he said. "[Reinhart] really didn’t do too much wrong.”
Which brings us back to the headline. How big is this rift? And can Murray fix it?
He has several reasons to do so. The first, as mentioned above, is that Bylsma is his guy. The hire was a signature moves of Murray’s GM tenure and, in order to get Bylsma, he had to dismiss Ted Nolan -- with Nolan still owed two years on his contract.
Which brings us to another reason Murray needs to make this work.
Bylsma’s five-year, $15 million deal made him one of the NHL’s richest coaches. Paying him not to work for the club could be a large request -- especially, as many have pointed out, since Murray would have to ask owner Terry Pegula for permission. Pegula, remember, is already shelling out substantial bucks for Rex Ryan not to coach the Bills.
This could be why Murray’s putting the heat on Bylsma. There were some telling comments at the GM’s end-of-year presser, especially when he said players had “legitimate gripes” about the coaching, before dropping his now-infamous ‘coffee’ line.
“The video that they do and the preparation is exhausting,” Murray explained. “I do have an opinion, and think that sometimes maybe they’re stuck in that room preparing and working hard, but maybe they can put a coffee in their hand once in a while and do two hours of video instead of three, and get out and get to know our players and talk to our players.
“It’s about coaching individuals a little more and coaching system a little less. That’s my opinion and I believe that’s the right way.”
Reading between the lines, it sure sounds like Murray was telling Bylsma he needed to change -- and, in doing so, told Eichel he’s confronted the coach about adjusting his style.
This might help in repairing the Eichel-Bylsma relationship.
Unless it’s past the point of repair.