LAS VEGAS (AP) — Until now, Jack Eichel has only watched the NHL playoffs, which has given him some idea of the intensity that comes once the 16-team tournament begins.
But the eight-year veteran who has played in 476 regular-season games won’t really know what it will feel like until he skates onto the T-Mobile Arena ice Tuesday night.
That’s when the Vegas Golden Knights, who own the home ice advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, open their seven-game, first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets.
“He’s waited a long time for this,” Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said.
Eichel played his first six seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, who drafted him second overall in 2015. He scored at least 24 goals in each of his first five seasons, signed an eight-year, $80 million contract in October 2017 and, exactly a year later, was named team captain.
But Eichel’s time in Buffalo ended on a sour note after he and the club disagreed on how to treat his neck injury. Eichel insisted on artificial herniated disk replacement, a type of surgery that had never been performed on an NHL player, which was why the Sabres didn’t green-light the procedure.
With both sides dug in and Eichel sidelined, the Sabres stripped him of his captaincy in September 2021 after he failed a physical. They finally granted his wish to leave, trading him to the Golden Knights that November. Vegas promised Eichel he would have his desired procedure.
Now after two seasons, the Knights are in the playoffs and Eichel was first on the team with 66 points and second with 27 goals. His former team missed the postseason for the 12th season in a row, the NHL’s longest current dry spell.
A measure of vindication for Eichel?
“I think everyone can probably look at it and say it was a good decision to do what I did,” Eichel said. “Having other players get (the procedure), people feel more confident in it. I’m thrilled to be a part of this organization. Looking back at when they first traded for me, it says a lot about the way that they went about things in giving me the freedom to pursue what I wanted to do medically.
“I feel really good about that, but it seems like a long time ago. I’ve kind of put it in the rear-view mirror and tried to focus on the present.”
Cassidy has put Eichel in a little bit of a different role, asking him to focus more on defense and play fewer minutes because of the talent around him.
Eichel had a plus-26 rating this season, second-best on the Knights and easily a career high.
“He’s one of our best defensive centers,” Cassidy said. “He closes as quick as any center on our team. Whether you’re a plus-minus guy or not, his metrics have to back all that up. He cares about defense. That part of the challenge was accepted easily for Jack. I think the biggest challenge for him was the minutes. He probably wanted more, which I don’t blame him.
“We’ll see how that translates in the playoffs. His minutes may go up. Things are magnified. You may have to move people around more. I hope not. It means our team’s functioning if they’re all playing similar amounts.”
The Knights brought Eichel to Las Vegas because they believed he had the ability to help them win their first Stanley Cup title.
Eichel wanted to play for the Knights because he knew he likely wouldn’t be sitting around watching other teams compete for the championship, like he did in Buffalo.
“It’s a great organization to be in because their expectations are so high,” Eichel said. “As I’ve said before, that’s the type of place you ought to be. You expect the very best out of the guys every night and every year, and I think that’s a great culture to have.”