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Dec 16, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9) skates with the puck during the first period against the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

By Ty Anderson,

This is a completely unfounded belief on my part, but I’ve always thought Jack Eichel would eventually find his way to the Bruins.

A North Chelmsford, Mass. kid who played his college hockey at Boston University, the idea of Eichel coming to Boston to play for his hometown team always made sense. Even after Eichel signed that mammoth eight-year, $80 million extension in 2017. Especially after that he signed that deal, I thought. I mean, that was the perfect deal to fast track Eichel back home; he’d spend another eight years in Buffalo, realize there’s no saving that nightmare franchise from its ineptitude, and pop on over to Boston.

This 2026 jump into the open market would have been around the same time that Patrice Bergeron was exiting the organization (this may be generous to Bergeron’s groin), and without any high-end franchise centers blocking his path, Eichel just made sense. Factor in a reunion with his college teammates Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy (by then the face of the franchise if the Bruins project his ascension correctly), and it felt like a total lock. Lock it in, Bankroll Boyz, ’cause ‘ya boy wants a Twilight Zone pinball machine.

To me, Eichel has/had a legitimate chance to be the B’s version of the Islanders’ John Tavares signing with his hometown Maple Leafs.

But the truth is that we are talking about this entirely too early for it to feel realistic. The timeline’s arrival is almost half a decade early, and that’s not necessarily what those hoping for an Eichel homecoming should want to hear.

Let’s be clear: Eichel needs rescuing from the Sabres. There is zero reason to believe the Sabres will be able to turn things around in a year’s time, and a failure to do that might honestly break Eichel to the point of no return. This may feel hyperbolic, but listen to Eichel’s exit interview and tell me that this dude isn’t another DNQ away from demanding a trade or rage-quitting sports entirely.

“Listen, I’m fed up with the losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated,” Eichel, whose 78 points were the 10th-most in the NHL in the regular season and 28 more than the Sabres’ second-highest scorer and 36 more than their third-best skater, admitted. “It’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with where things have gone.”

Read between the lines: He’s miserable at best. He’s in hell. Behind him, the Sabres have just three forwards signed for 2020-21. That group — made up of Marcus Johansson, Kyle Okposo, and Jeff Skinner — accounts for $19.5 million of Buffalo’s cap and scored a combined 32 goals in 2019-20. Eichel has also been coached by three different coaches and is now on his third different general manager in five years. Like I said: Hell. H-E-L-L.

The entire league knows it, too.

“I know that it’s a tough situation, especially for Jack,” Grzelcyk said of his former Terrier teammate. “He’s one of my good friends, and I know firsthand how competitive he is and how much that he just wants to win more than anything. He’s not really concerned with individual accolades or anything like that. He’s aware that you have the most fun at the rink when you’re winning.

“I’m sure he’s getting texts left and right about the situation. I know that Jack is quite antsy to get into the playoff picture and play in those important games and really shine in those big moments. I hope he can reach that goal soon and we can see his full potential.”

BOSTON, MA – APRIL 09: Matt Grzelcyk #5 and Evan Rodrigues #17 celebrate with Jack Eichel #9 of the Boston Terriers after he scored a goal against North Dakota during the first period of the 2015 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Championship semifinals at TD Garden on April 9, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Friends or not, you have a player essentially advocating for a top-tier talent within his division to make the postseason. It’s reached that point for Eichel: Everybody feels straight-up bad that this dude hasn’t been played in meaningful NHL games. And to be honest, they’re not wrong: Eichel is the kind of player that’d explode in the right market and on an even somewhat functional franchise. Someone’s gotta rescue this guy. ASAP.

But 2021 and 2026 are drastically different situations for the Bruins. It’s comparing apples to solar systems.

The biggest obstacle, of course, is that bringing Eichel to Boston in this instance would require an in-division trade. (The Bruins and Sabres haven’t made a deal together since 2009’s Danny Paille trade.) The Sabres would also ask for an absolute haul to send their best player to one of their rivals, and that sorta defeats the whole point of this idea. If Eichel’s coming to Boston via trade, you’re not getting away with sending some assortment of Jack Studnicka, Anders Bjork, Jakub Zboril and some assorted picks. You’re talking about potential foundational pieces going Buffalo’s way; McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk, John Beecher, etc. If I’m the Bruins, I want to add Eichel to join those guys, not in exchange for them.

There’s also the salary issue, as Eichel is on the books through 2025-26 at $10 million per year (13th-highest cap hit in hockey).

That’s a nearly impossible number for the Bruins to manage in the now, even with David Krejci’s $7.25 million and Tuukka Rask’s $7 million set to come off the books next summer. There’s just too many other potentially big paydays due between now and then, and adding that kind of salary to your books without significant money going the other way isn’t plausible. And while Krejci’s salary could make him a viable option in a hypothetical Eichel trade, I’d bet anything he still has Buffalo protection even on a loosened no-trade.

This is why that 2026 always seemed like the way to get Eichel to Boston. Barring something completely insane (we are taking about the Sabres), it still is the way.

The problem, of course, is that there’s no way Eichel willingly suffers in Buffalo until 2026. If the Sabres turn it around and become a playoff-caliber team next season, the idea of Eichel in black and gold fades and/or becomes a long game. If they don’t and they continue to be what they have been for a decade now, some of these other teams that are in better positions to strike via trade in 2021, ’22, and beyond can seemingly cut the B’s in line and make their pitch.

Until then, however, happily cling to the unfounded feeling that he’ll eventually come home. But maybe do it on a timeline that inspires actual hope.

Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.