The shiny new centerman acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in November is set to return Wednesday night for the Golden Knights following neck surgery in late 2021.
Jack Eichel was a highly sought after player when news broke of his frustration with the Sabres organization due to the disagreement between both parties on Eichel’s surgery.
The saga began in the early stages of the 2021 season, where Eichel was sidelined after a Mar. 7 game against the New York Islanders where he took a hit from Isles forward Casey Cizikas, and was expected to be out for 7-10 days according to the team.
Former Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger announced six days later the star center would be out long term.
The two parties started optimistic, but the relationship grew sour over the course of the season.
Eichel revealed in May that he felt a “disconnect” between him and the organization, as the Sabres wanted the 25-year-old to undergo anterior cervical discectomy with fusion (ACDF), while the center wanted an artificial disk replacement surgery.
Eichel’s desired surgery has never been performed on any NHL player before, however Eichel’s doctor Dr. Chad Prusmack stated the surgery would be better for the young star to get back on the ice and would be more beneficial later in life.
The Sabres we’re still hesitant.
“This is not an experimental surgery…” Dr. Prusmack said on Sportsnet’s 32 Thoughts podcast last year. “This is established in the literature as being superior to ACDF… It is exactly what I would give my kid and it would be exactly what I would get if I was in Jack Eichel’s shoes.”
The stalemate continued, and Eichel failed a pre-training camp physical in September, was placed on injured reserve and stripped of his captaincy.
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams tried to trade Eichel multiple times during the previous season, and stated the team was not backing down during training camp.
“We’re not going to cave or back down due to pressure,” Adams told the Associated Press. “If we had an easy solution, we would’ve acted on it.”
Buffalo did indeed have a leg to stand on in this scenario, per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, as it states teams are required to provide “serious consideration” of a players choice to a second opinion in medical matters, but the organization has the final say.
Flash forward to Nov. 4, Eichel was traded to Vegas, and underwent a successful surgery eight days later.
“I think if everyone was to do as much research and learn as much about this as I have, you would come to terms with it’s a lot less risky than you think,” Eichel told the media in November. “I just went out, did as much research, learned as much as I can about it, and I feel very very confident I made the right decision.”
Eichel hit the ice again in December, just about three weeks after his surgery, and was cleared for contact Feb. 7.
Now, he is making his debut nine days later.
His debut game in gunmetal gray and gold is not without sacrifice, as captain Mark Stone was placed on long term injured reserve (LTIR) Monday.
“We’re excited,” Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said Monday. “There’s 34 games in the regular season that still remain, this gives Jack a great opportunity to integrate with our hockey team, it [also] gives our team access to a great player.”
Eichel is a five-time 20 goal scorer as he enters his seventh season in the NHL, with his only season with sub-20 goals coming last season where he only appeared in two contests.
Now attention turns to where he will fit in the lineup.
“It looks like he’s going to be on the top line between [Max] Pacioretty and [Evgenii] Dadonov,” Las Vegas Sun Golden Knights writer Danny Webster said. “I think that’s a good place for him to start.”
“He gets two guys who can score on his wing, and when you look at the crux of the lineup that’s where you want to start him off with… it’s a good chance to see where Eichel is in terms of his conditioning and how he looks playing a game for the first time in a year.”
The man that has the power over the lineup is keeping his options open, despite Eichel skating with Vegas’ top line in practice this week.
“I think we're gonna look at everything,” head coach Pete DeBoer said Monday. “I think what we don't want to do is we don't want to get to the playoffs or late in the season and start experimenting.”
“We're gonna look at some different combinations and see. I think what Jack- really gives us some center depth… I don't know what will stick and what won’t but we’re gonna try some things.”
Eichel and fans alike are excited for his debut, which couldn't be more fitting than at the Fortress.
“I’m at that point where I’m ready to play,” Eichel told the media Monday. “Obviously the game is different and I just want to get back in there and start getting my confidence back playing a game.”
The version of the former Sabres captain fans will see is yet to be seen, however expectations can range from the elite, score at will center or a rusted form of him.
“I think it's fair to say after the first five or 10 games it's gonna look a little rusty,” Webster said. “I don't think we're gonna be seeing the near point per game guy that Eichel has been to this point. When you factor in that he hasn't played in almost a year, and he’s coming off of a procedure that's never been done on an NHL player before... Pete DeBoer put it best ‘They kinda need to temper expectations.”
“For as much as people wanna see the Eichel that put up 36 goals in his last full season, I don’t think they are gonna get that. If they get even remotely half of that in the first 10 games I think they'll be pleased.”
Puck drop for Eichel’s return comes at 7 p.m. Wednesday night. The game can be found on TNT.
“When you make a trade, you’re usually anxious for that next game that you play to see what that new player looks like in your lineup. In this case, it’s been a long wait but well worth it and we’re excited to bring Jack back on Wednesday night,” McCrimmon added.