Updated: Mar 20
Since being drafted 2nd overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Jack Eichel has become a star. He was named to the All-Rookie Team in 2015-16, has been to 3 all-star games in 5 seasons, and has the 22nd highest points per game total (0.947 PPG) out of all players since he entered the league. Since Eichel’s arrival, Buffalo has never finished the season ranked higher than 6th in their division. Frankly, management seems to be content with finishing at the bottom of the league every year. In most professional sports leagues, a star like Eichel could (and should) tell the Sabres’ front office to build around him or trade him elsewhere. But, thanks to the NHL’s free agency rules that give the players almost no leverage until late in their careers, there isn’t much Eichel can do to free himself. Or at least, there wasn’t.
This past offseason, Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets asked to be traded. Both players were unhappy with their situation and thought that a change of scenery would be beneficial. The issue for both players is that they were both just 22 years old and would not be unrestricted free agents (UFA) for at least two more years. During past contract negotiations, Laine and Dubois were restricted free agents (RFAs). While RFAs are technically allowed to sign with any team, general managers around the NHL have unofficially agreed to avoid offering contracts to other teams’ RFAs. This agreement essentially forced the two players to resign with their old teams. It seemed as though Dubois and Laine had no leverage. Columbus and Winnipeg easily could have played the long game, waiting for Laine and Dubois to come around, knowing that no other team would sign them when their contracts expire next (both players will still be RFAs).
As the season drew near, Dubois made it clear that he would play for Columbus as long as he was on their team but would do what it took for him to leave when he could. As the saga drew out, the situation’s optics continued to worsen for the teams (especially Columbus, as Dubois was more vocal about a trade). Was it worth the PR nightmare to hold onto the players if they would leave as soon as they could anyway? In the end, Columbus sent Dubois to Winnipeg (along with a third-round pick) for Laine and forward Jack Roslovic about two weeks into the 2021 season. For the first time, hockey players had created leverage to force their way out of a bad situation. Hopefully, this trade sets a precedent. If the NHL wants to gain popularity, they need to make their stars marketable. In particular, players like Jack Eichel shouldn’t have to play for teams that are more interested in keeping costs down than building a legitimate contender. When talent is wasted on bad teams, it makes the league as a whole look bad. The fans don’t like it, and the players don’t like it. This kind of discontent seems destined to lead to labor disputes and lockouts. Thanks to Laine and Dubois, however, it looks the players are getting some leverage. This change should make the on-ice product better and hopefully help the NHL avoid a lockout at the end of the current CBA.
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