SGV Tribune

Whicker: Jack Eichel’s unhappiness could become the Kings’ delight

The Buffalo star isn’t happy with his club and the Kings have the resources to get him. They could accelerate their return to the top by packaging some of their young assets for Eichel or another available veteran such as Seth Jones.

The idea of Jack Eichel coming to the Los Angeles Kings would be the very definition of a cheap thrill, if it were cheap.

Eichel had 137 goals and 200 assists in his first five seasons. In 2021 he only had two goals, thanks to a neck injury.

He also is dealing with a sprained disposition and a dislocated mood. The Buffalo Sabres have not made the playoffs in 10 years. Now they seem farther away than Pluto is from Jeff Bezos.

Eichel missed the meeting in which hockey players are taught to smother their feelings. After the 2020 season, he announced he was “fed up” and said, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated with the way things are going.”

After the 2021 season he said there was a “disconnect” over the best way to handle the neck problem.

“I have to figure out the best way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be,” Eichel said.

Might it be L.A.?

Chris Drury, one of his hockey mentors, is now the general manager of the New York Rangers, who have a nice load of prospects to ship to Buffalo. But so do the Kings, and the Sabres are solidly opposed to trading Eichel within the Eastern Conference.

By the end of 2021, Anze Kopitar will be 34, Drew Doughty 32 and Dustin Brown 37. Eichel turns 25 in October. He could bridge the Kings’ generation gap, bring back customers, and become a rallying point for the kids on the verge. It also would cheer up Doughty, who has made it clear that he’s tired of waiting for tomorrow.

The Kings haven’t won a playoff series since the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. It’s not a bad time for a headline move. The Pacific Division is not Murderers’ Row. There’s a chance the new Seattle Kraken will be the third most credible team, behind Vegas and Edmonton. Eichel could reshuffle that equation.

So what’s the drawback?

Well, Eichel wants surgery for the herniated disk in his neck. It would require an artificial disk and an operation that no NHL player ever has had. The Sabres opposed it.

He makes $10 million per year through 2024-25. The Kings can fit him in, but the bigger question is Buffalo’s asking price. The Sabres might also trade Sam Reinhart, their leading scorer, but Eichel is the most powerful face card in the hand of GM Kevyn Adams.

At one point Buffalo was demanding a six-pack of assets for Eichel. That would include three first-round picks and three bodies.

It is hard to imagine Buffalo wouldn’t ask for Quenton Byfield, who, like Eichel, was a No. 2 overall pick and is a 6-foot-4 center with a capacity for dominance.

If Eichel were healthy and if everyone was sure that his unhappiness came solely from his thirst for winning, it would be tempting to deal Byfield. If the Kings are still determined to conduct their comeback within the 55 mph speed limit, it probably isn’t. Byfield turns 19 next month and is worth the wait.

But Eichel’s narrative has become so uncomfortable that Buffalo might be losing leverage.

What if the Kings spread out a prospect smorgasbord of Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari, Tobias Bjornfot, Tyler Madden and Arthur Kaliyev and told the Sabres to pick three? Or two, plus established winger Alex Iafallo, who grew up just south of Buffalo?

This does not even count the Kings’ eighth overall pick on Friday, which could become Luke Hughes, the right-handed defenseman and the third Hughes brother to go high in the draft.

Eichel is not the only franchise-changer out there. Deluxe defenseman Seth Jones has asked Columbus to trade him. The son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones turns 27 in October and has averaged at least 25 minutes in each of the past three seasons.

The Blue Jackets are just beginning their bottoming-out process and have three first-round picks on Friday, and the Kings could give them a fourth, plus two or three credible kids. The Kings could also be stubborn with Columbus because Jones can become an unrestricted free agent next summer and leave the Blue Jackets with nothing.

Such a deal would enable the Kings to play very few minutes without Doughty or Jones on the back line.

It is not easy to roll such momentous dice. It gets easier when you know more rolls are coming. Eichel’s flaws are known. So is his impact.

If the Kings can get Eichel and somehow keep Byfield, they should. Rebuilds are fine until they get in the way of winning.