There have been two franchise altering moves made in the NHL this morning. The biggest and most important was clearly the recall of Kristians Rubins from the Toronto Marlies, and Nick Richard already has you covered on the analysis of that move.
The second significant transaction was the inevitable moving of Jack Eichel from the Sabres to the Vegas Golden Knights, for the underwhelming package that seems to have existed since day one, Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, a 1st (likely a late one and one that is top 10 pick protected) and a 3rd round pick. For one of the best players in the world, that’s not a huge payment.
What we’ll see in the short term is Jack Eichel going for the surgery he requires to get back on the ice, in the long term, well… those Golden Knights continue to look better and better. But even more than this, we need to ask the most important question of all, “How does this affect the Leafs?”
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Since the majority of the relevance to the Leafs will be on the Sabres side of things I’ll naturally start with the Golden Knights side of things. The biggest impact for the Leafs is that at a time when Toronto is desperately trying to be one of the top teams in the league, we get a glimpse of the Golden Knights who are running a better version of their game plan. The Knights continue to improve on a roster that has two Conference Final, and one Stanley Cup Final trips in it’s four year playoff history. In fact the Knights worst results, losing in the first round, matches the Leafs best outcome. And now they’ve added Jack Eichel. When you consider the league already has powerhouse contending teams like the Lightning, Hurricanes, Avalanche, and the Knights, and others rising like the Oilers, Panthers, and Wild, it is starting to look like the Leafs are being left in the dust by staying loyal to a group instead of trying to improve on it.
Of course this acquisition isn’t without challenges for the Knights. Eventually they’ll need to start pulling players off the LTIR, or at least next season they’ll have to put together a lineup that is remotely cap compliant, and that means tough choices and making good players available. And while the Leafs don’t have the cap space to really be players on acquiring some of the pieces that Vegas will shop, it is something to keep an eye on.
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As for the Sabres, well, this is where it affects the Leafs a lot more.
Having a player of Jack Eichel’s abilities leave the division and spare Toronto from having to face him four or five times a season is a nice situation to be in. The fact that the Sabres are committed to spending a decade at step one of a rebuild is pretty remarkable, but getting those Buffalo wins in a division that includes Boston, Florida, and Tampa is pretty important. It certainly takes some of the excitement out of the Heritage Classic though knowing that Buffalo really lacks a marketable star for the matchup, unless you really want to believe that Dahlin is it.
There is also the fact that Buffalo is very much putting themselves at the front of the Shane Wright derby, and having Wright be drafted by the Sabres and playing in the Atlantic Division is something that we should be a bit more concerned about. Although they still have the Coyotes and Blackhawks to be concerned about, and hilariously, the Sabres have a better win percentage than the Leafs so far this year, so maybe I should count on them playing their way out of the top of the draft.
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Still, this is a very good draft, and the Sabres owning 3 picks already in the first round could mean they turn things around. Of course they’ve had good picks in other drafts and fucked up and picked Casey Mittlestadt, so maybe it is best to count on the Sabres continuing to be the Sabres and not pose any real threat to their Atlantic Division rivals.
The other thing that is hard to ignore when it comes to the Sabres is the amount of cap space they have. They have a ton of it, and the Leafs have none of it. And while it’s hard to imagine the Sabres will be interested in doing Toronto any favours, their $20M of space is something they’ll want to use and Toronto might want to tap into that between now and the trade deadline.
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So there is your Leafs centric view of one of the bigger in season trades we’ve seen in recent NHL history. While it is in season, it does largely amount to LTIR for LTIR and futures, so the rosters of both teams are largely unchanged, so calling this a hockey deal or seeing immediate impacts on either of these teams or the Leafs will be something we have to wait for.