The Vegas Golden Knights sent shockwaves through the NHL earlier this season when they acquired star center Jack Eichel in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres. The only problem was that Eichel still had to have surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck and would be out of the lineup for several months.
On Wednesday, the wait ended as the Golden Knights finally had a chance to see their prized acquisition on the ice for the first time. Eichel had an average debut: he logged 17:32 of ice time, registered one shot, won 8-of-11 face-offs and received two minor penalties against the Colorado Avalanche. He took the opening face-off and centered the Golden Knights’ top line alongside Max Pacioretty and Evgeni Dadonov. Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the Avalanche were able to keep the Golden Knights at bay in a 2-0 win behind a 29-save effort from goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
But while it wasn’t the result that Vegas was hoping for, Eichel’s return signifies a very bright future for the team, including the remainder of the 2021-22 season.
“You don’t want to take two penalties and be on the ice for [a goal], but there’s some things to build on,” Eichel said following the game. “They’re a really good team, and you get matched up against a pretty good line for part of the game. First game in 11 months, good to get back doing what (you’re doing). There’s some stuff to build on, but it’s a process I know it’s going to get better. I didn’t expect it to be perfect tonight.”
The Golden Knights didn’t waste any time making it clear that Eichel is going to be a huge part of the team’s offensive attack. Early on in Wednesday’s contest, Eichel was a fixture on Vegas’ power-play unit, which certainly could use a shot in the arm. That unit is currently converting just 19.2 percent of its opportunities, which is good for 20th in the league.
And why wouldn’t Eichel be a headliner on the offensive attack? In his six NHL seasons, Eichel has racked up 355 points (139 goals and 216 assists) and appeared in three All-Star Games. He also produced a staggering 25 game-winning goals during his time with the Sabres. Aside from the 2020-21 campaign in which he was limited to 21 games due to the neck injury, Eichel has registered at least 56 points in every season he’s played.
At this point, the ceiling is extremely high when it comes to how far Eichel can potentially take the Golden Knights. His acquisition was just that latest splash the Golden Knights have made in recent years. Since 2018, the team has added the likes of Pacioretty, winger Mark Stone, and winger Tomas Tatar in midseason trades in the hopes of winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Vegas currently sits in second place in the Pacific Division with 59 points and are just three points behind the division-leading Calgary Flames. The Golden Knights have enjoyed quite a turnaround with a 23-13-3 mark since the front office made the move to acquire Eichel. On top of having to wait for Eichel to be at 100 percent, the Golden Knights dealt with large amount of injuries to star players like Pacioretty, Stone, and William Karlsson.
Eichel’s dynamic playmaking has the potential to be a game-changer for the Golden Knights. Vegas currently averages 3.2 goals-per-game (12th in the NHL) and does possess a stable of goal-scoring threats before Eichel even enters the equation. However, there’s very few players that are more dangerous in the open ice than Eichel.
It’s hard to argue that the Golden Knights already had a loaded roster entering the 2021-22 season. Now with Eichel in the fold — and only getting healthier — a Stanley Cup is well within the realm of possibilities. The Golden Knights have reached the Conference Finals in three of their first four seasons. However, they’ve never quite been able to get over the hump, which is why the acquisition of Eichel was so paramount.
If Eichel gets back to the form that he previously played at before the injury, it’s not going to surprise anyone to see the Golden Knights hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup this summer.