Jack Eichel is settling in with his new team, the Vegas Golden Knights and the rest of the league is starting to take notice. I say “new” but in just two days, we will hit the one-year anniversary of perhaps the biggest trade in Golden Knights history.
Last season was more of an adjustment period for Eichel than a full season. He only played in 34 games, was traded from the Buffalo Sabres, had artificial disk replacement surgery on his neck, and joined the Golden Knights in mid-Feburary. He played through a hand injury the last four weeks of the season too.
Now rejuvenated, relaxed, and in a brand new season, Eichel is back to the dominant form he was a few season ago with the Sabres. He has five goals and seven assists for twelve points in eleven games. That’s on pace for 90 points in a full 82-game season, which would be a career high for him if it happens.
In the Golden Knights last two games, Eichel has created the overtime winning goal. He made a beautiful power move to the net to score against the Winnipeg Jets, and most recently, he fed Shea Theodore for the OT winner in Washington D.C. Eichel has five multi-points games in his last nine games.
“That’s two nights in a row. Pretty special player. When there is time and space for Jack, he’s one of those dynamic players that people pay money to see,” said Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy.
For many people, it’s hard to remember a time where Eichel was as dominant as he is now. The neck injury was a major setback in his career as it happened in the 2020-21 season. With COVID-shortened seasons and an extensive neck injury, Eichel has not put up high numbers since 2019-20.
“He had a three-month surgery when he got traded to us… I don’t think it was easy. Then when he came back everybody else went out. There were 7-8 guys out of the lineup when he came back so a lot was on his shoulders,” said Golden Knights captain Mark Stone on Eichel’s Las Vegas arrival.
Typically an overtime hero, his overtime winner against the Jets Sunday was his first OT winner since Feb. 2020. “It’s been a while since I had a game-winner in OT,” Eichel said. “So it’s always a nice feeling.”
Confidence seems to be the difference between the Jack Eichel we saw last year and this year. We all know about Eichel’s puck handling skills, shot, hockey sense, effortless skating, and heads up passing. But the difference this season seems to be how he is utilizing his skill. He’s been willing to take risks.
“I think Jack is starting to feel comfortable being the guy. He’s one of our best players, if not our best player. You can see from some of the games he has been stepping up with some big goals and some big plays at big times,” said Stone.
Hitting the Jack-pot
I know there’s the talk about the Golden Knights always being in on the hot new item on the NHL trade or free agency market. After all they have brought in guys like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Robin Lehner, and Alex Pietrangelo. But none of these players, while great, are on the same level as Eichel.
As the second overall draft pick in 2015, Eichel was looked at as a potential franchise centerman. He didn’t have the players to turn things around in Buffalo, and after some injury disputes, left the organization. GM Kelly McCrimmon jumped on the opportunity and made him a Golden Knight.
A franchise centerman on the NHL trade market doesn’t happen often. Looking at the last decade of Stanley Cup Champions none of them, outside of the St. Louis Blues with Ryan O’Reilly, had their top-line center traded to them. Nathan Mackinnon, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, etc. were all drafted.
And it’s not just the fact the Golden Knights have a guy like Eichel on their team. It’s also how this team is just six years old and acquired a 25-year old superstar and plopped him into an already solid lineup.
The Seattle Kraken may have to wait years for a chance that Matty Beniers and Shane Wright develop into top-line generational talents in the NHL. Other expansion teams like the Minnesota Wild, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets are arguably still waiting for a player like this.
Yes, the Golden Knights did give up some big pieces in the trade to get Eichel. Roster players Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs were sent to the Sabres as well as first and second round picks. So far this season Ruch has nine points in nine games and Krebs two in seven. But who says both teams can’t win a deal?
The Future For Eichel
So now the Golden Knights have a 26-year old superstar first line center on their team. One can make the argument that Eichel might be the best player the Golden Knights have ever had in franchise history. If he keeps his confidence up, he could easily hit 90 points if not 100 this season for the Golden Knights.
But there are a few question marks I have for his future.
It’s crazy to think that eight years into his NHL career Eichel has never made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Golden Knights make it to the dance after missing last season, which it already looks like they will, how will Eichel’s playoff performance be?
Another question mark is who his linemates will be. He’s currently playing with arguably the two best options the VGK have right now in Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone. But if depth issues arise, could either one of them be moved to other lines to pad out the lineup?
Looking way ahead, it looks like the Golden Knights will need a winger or two at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline. The losses of Max Pacioretty, Evgenii Dadonov, and Mattias Janmark have not been replaces singlehandedly by Phil Kessel, who didn’t work out on the first line with Eichel.
Looking even further down the road, Eichel has just three years left on his $10 million AAV contract which he signed with the Sabres. Not getting Eichel through the draft means the Golden Knight’s don’t get the privilege of having a generaitonal player on an entry-level contract. With Nathan Mackinnon’s new contract adding up to $12.6 million, the Golden Knights will have to pay up come 2026.