When the Tampa Bay Lightning gave Vincent Lecavalier the captaincy in March of 2000, the 19-year-old center was (at the time) the youngest captain in NHL history.
As most hockey fans know, that reign didn’t last long. Lecavalier clashed constantly with head coach John Tortorella the following two seasons. At that point, Tortorella had no skins on the wall. It would be another year or two before he led the Lightning to a 2004 Stanley Cup win.
First, he needed his players to buy in. Lecavalier, especially. It wasn’t happening. The feud was leaking into the public sphere. Surely one of them would have to go, right?
It got to a point last season where it was widely assumed that either Lecavalier would be traded or Tortorella would be fired. Neither happened. And while Tortorella admits they are not exactly golfing buddies, he and his brightest star have come to an understanding and working relationship that was at the center of the Lightning's glittering 6-1-2 start. (NY Daily News)
Given the choice between siding with his head coach or his youthful star captain, GM Jay Feaster chose neither. In fact, he stripped the captaincy from Lecavalier instead. He let things sort out, and the Lightning got their first Stanley Cup because of it.
Today’s Buffalo Sabres faced a similar situation, and we’ll never know if it would’ve played out the same way. On Thursday, owner Terry Pegula fired both GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma. This, just a day after reports leaked star center Jack Eichel wouldn’t sign an extension if Bylsma remained in place.
To his great credit, Eichel spoke at length with a Buffalo reporter to dispute those reports personally. He made it clear he has no interest in undermining the coach or making management decisions. Big, responsible stuff from a 20-year-old clearly frustrated by how the year went but invested in the team’s success. Good on him.
But, frankly, it’s too late. Eichel is now inextricably linked to the dismissal of his head coach and general manager and burdened with the future success of the Sabres.
Even if that report hadn’t come out, Eichel has been more outspoken about his teammates and franchise than most 20-year-olds. Here’s what he said on Jan. 1 to The Buffalo News:
“As a whole team, everyone needs to look in the mirror and we all need to get a lot better,” he said. “I think I speak for the team in saying that we’re all frustrated with where we’re at, and I don’t think I’m the only person in the locker room that’s not satisfied.”
“I think guys want to win,” Eichel said Monday, “but there’s a difference between saying you want to win and actually wanting to win and putting the work in and dedicating your life to it.”
“Yeah,” he said in KeyBank Center. “That’s what a winning culture is, not being satisfied with yourself, not being satisfied with the fact that you’re losing. It’s important to realize that you can’t be satisfied with the fact you’re in the NHL.
“I’m here to win.”
None of that was directly aimed at management. But those kinds of comments from your star player have a particular effect: Players, media, and fans take notice and consider you a key part of the leadership group.
So when the other two heads of that hydra get lopped off, you better be ready for the spotlight.
Eichel had no control over those reports about his Bylsma ultimatum. But they happened, and they sealed the perception that this is now Jack Eichel’s team through and through.
Congrats to new Sabres coach and general manager Jack Eichel. https://t.co/ZaehYq0jbR— Travis Hughes (@TravisSBN) April 20, 2017
Is he ready for that pressure?
He’s had a terrific two seasons. But the team’s struggles weren’t his to answer for. He answered for them anyway (or, at least, demanded answers). Now the Face of the Franchise tag, and all the blame that comes with it, rests on his shoulders.
Eichel grabbed for the microphone in the midst of a bad season. As Vinny Lecavalier once learned, that microphone turns into a harpoon gun pretty quickly. At least Lecavalier had Tortorella to work with or hide behind when things got tough.
Eichel is on his own now, facing a future underneath the sweltering spotlight of expectations and responsibility. It’s not what he intended, but as the designated survivor of a front-office purge, it’s the pressure Eichel must now contend with. We’ll see how he fares.