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The Rangers have displayed increased interest in scoping out Jack Eichel’s medical condition and have had preliminary talks with the Sabres regarding his availability, The Post has been told by several sources – but it is unclear whether general manager Chris Drury is simply performing due diligence or is seriously interested in dealing for the Sabres’ disenchanted center.
The Blueshirts have been linked to Eichel since last summer, when then-GM Jeff Gorton had pre-draft discussions with his Buffalo counterpart Kevyn Adams. The talks are believed to have broken down when Gorton refused to part with the first-overall selection that became Alexis Lafreniere.
Eichel, who has been diagnosed with a herniated disk in his neck, is just coming off 12 weeks of rest and rehab as prescribed by the Sabres team physicians. The next step is unclear, but the 24-year-old center may be in line for surgery to replace the disk with an artificial one. That type of surgery is typically followed by a recovery period of up to three months.
We’re told that the Sabres have not yet granted permission for inquiring clubs to gain access to Eichel’s medical records. That would be expected to accompany latter-stage trade discussions.
Per sources, the Sabres are asking for at least four pieces that would be equivalent of first-rounders in exchange for Eichel, who left the lineup for good following his 21st game of the season on March 7, and has five years remaining on his contract that comes with an annual $10 million cap charge.
The Wild, Ducks, Kings and Blue Jackets are believed to have indicated interest in Eichel. They won’t be alone as the summer progresses. It does not, however, seem realistic for the Sabres to acquire that kind of bounty unless they are willing to take significant money back in the deal from the acquiring team that will bear all of the risk relating to Eichel’s health.
The Rangers probably have the cap space to accommodate Eichel for this season without being forced into major reconstruction. But acquiring Eichel would almost certainly mean an exit following the season by incumbent first-line center Mika Zibanejad, who has a full no-move clause and is one year away from unrestricted free agency.
Drury can officially begin negotiations on an extension with Zibanejad on July 28, this year’s equivalent of the traditional July 1 free-agent date. If talks go nowhere, perhaps Zibanejad would be amenable to accepting a trade to a club that would be willing to grant him a long-term extension at his price and term. But perhaps not.
Fact is, Zibanejad, who probably will be able to command a longer, more lucrative deal on the open market than by remaining in New York, is in complete control of this process.
If Drury knows he won’t be able to retain Zibanejad, then the GM will be in need of a first-line center beginning with 2022-23. The likelihood of Florida’s Aleksandar Barkov hitting the open market next summer seems slim. So acquiring Eichel might represent a proactive strike to fill the vacancy that would be created by an eventual Zibanejad defection.
Prior to last year’s ruined season in which he had 18 points (2-16) in 21 games, Eichel recorded 137 goals, 200 assists and 337 points in 354 games through his first five years, averaging .39 goals per game, .56 assists per and .95 points per. Over the last three years, including his COVID-impacted 2020-21, Zibanejad has registered 95 goals, 104 assists and 199 points in 195 games, averaging .49 GPG, .53 APG and 1.02 PPG.
Character and leadership issues have been raised around Eichel, who has spent his career following his 2015 door-prize, second-overall selection behind Connor McDavid with the most dysfunctional franchise in the league. Drury is certainly examining those issues.
If the Rangers were to formally enter the Eichel Derby, one would presume that Ryan Strome, with one year left on his deal at a $4.5 million cap hit prior to unrestricted free agency, would be part of the mix going the other way.
Then figure a mix of prospects that would likely come from a pool featuring, but not necessarily limited to, Vitali Kravtsov, Zac Jones and Nils Lundkvist, plus at least one upcoming first-rounder. The Sabres might demand/ask for Kaapo Kakko and/or K’Andre Miller, but that would seem to represent a non-starter.
Again, it is unclear whether and to what degree Drury and the Rangers are invested in Eichel. But they are asking questions.
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