There were no “We Don’t Want You!” chants from the Garden crowd aimed at Jack Eichel on Tuesday night, the way that Rick Nash was once serenaded when he came to town with the Blue Jackets a week ahead of the 2012 trade deadline.
In fact, there was the occasional if somewhat faint, “We Want Eichel” chant out of the audience, which was 1,800 strong for the Rangers’ match against the Sabres, not that the Blueshirts’ hierarchy was conducting a referendum throughout their 3-2 victory.
Not that anything that transpired in this one, which opened with a bang and then crawled to an extended finish wherein the Blueshirts sent three shots on net over the final 30:28, would alter the dynamic of a possible Eichel megatrade to New York.
Because, yes, the Rangers want him, too.
For a few moments, though, it appeared as if the sight of Eichel, the unhappy 24-year-old center who wants out of Buffalo as he works on a sixth year without a playoff performance since his second-overall selection in the 2015 draft, served as motivation for Mika Zibanejad, whose Rangers tenure would be in serious jeopardy should Eichel make it to Manhattan.
Zibanejad, who entered the game with one five-on-five point to rank 166th and last among NHL forwards with at least 235:00 of play, sprang Pavel Buchnevich for a semi-break on which the winger converted just 28 seconds into the match for a 1-0 lead.
Then, after the Sabres struck to tie 27 seconds later on a play on which Eichel picked up the secondary assist, Zibanejad’s forecheck created a turnover that triggered a sequence on which Alexis Lafreniere got credit for the 2-1 goal at 2:36.
Two shifts for the Zibanejad line and two goals. Can’t do better than that. Unfortunately, that was pretty much it for the unit from an offensive standpoint, not that the rest of the team was able to do much either, aside from Chris Kreider’s left wing dart at 9:32 of the second period for a 3-1 lead.
Indeed, Zibanejad finished with just 16:36 of time, his smallest complement of ice in a full game since Jan. 4, 2019. Gone, at least for now, are the days when coach David Quinn leans on Zibanejad for 23 minutes a night.
Here is the thing. Given cap constraints, it is essentially an impossibility for the Rangers to accommodate both Eichel, the shiny new apple for which they are at least semi-lusting, and Zibanejad. It will be either/or … or, maybe neither in the not so distant future if the first 20 games are an accurate depiction of what the Swede has become.
If Kevyn Adams, Buffalo’s first-year general manager, looks to move his team captain before the April 12 deadline rather than waiting until the offseason, it would be well nigh impossible for the Blueshirts to get in on the action unless they could somehow deal Zibanejad, who owns a full no-move clause.
The 24-year-old Eichel, whose season has hardly been a smashing success while surrounded by dysfunction that has been a permanent companion since the Sabres last qualified for the postseason in 2011, has five years left on a contract with a fixed cost of $10 million per. It’s a pricey one, all right, but at least the Rangers — or any acquiring team — won’t have to deal with arbitration or potential free agency for the next half-decade.
Cost will be determinative as the Blueshirts ponder just how much they are willing to send Buffalo’s way in exchange for a no-doubt stud in the middle. The Rangers thought they had their stud in Zibanejad, but this season’s demise has made it essentially impossible for the club to extend his contract this summer a year ahead of free agency. In other words, there is a need for a long-term, first-line center.
There aren’t many franchise-type players traded at such a young age. Tyler Seguin was just 21 when he (and Rich Peverley) went from the Bruins to the Stars after his third year in return for veteran Louie Eriksson and a handful of pieces, but he had not established himself at that point. Nash was 28 when he came to the Rangers (with a third-rounder who became Buchnevich) in exchange for Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-rounder.
Indeed, the last franchise-type player traded away at such a young age was Joe Thornton, who went from the Bruins to the Sharks at age 26 in exchange for one of the most meh packages of all time, with Boston getting Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau.
Where do the Rangers sign up for the equivalent of that one? Oh, got it: Fantasyland.
The Blueshirts, so thin organizationally down the middle, are in desperate need of a first-unit headliner. Eichel, who played his one season at Boston University with Quinn as his coach, checks all the boxes. The Sabres recognize how badly the Rangers want him.
But Rangers GM Jeff Gorton won’t be extorted. The fans once didn’t want Nash and got him. Nine years later, the fans want Eichel. We’ll see.