I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think most people are pulling for Jack Eichel. He was drafted into the Buffalo Sabres in 2015, which just in itself should win some sympathy. But he also suffered serious issues around a herniated disc in his neck starting in March of last year, which created a rift between him and the franchise he was supposed to save. A disagreement between the Sabres and Eichel about what kind of treatment he should get for his injury eventually led to the team stripping him of his captaincy in September and trading him in November to the Vegas Golden Knights, where he could finally get the surgery he wanted.
The stage is perfectly set for a dramatic comeback arc—one in which the 25-year-old, former No. 2 overall pick finally fulfills all the potential that was wasted on Buffalo. Eichel stepped back onto NHL ice for the first time in nearly a year on Feb. 16, and with the Knights, Eichel will likely play in the very first postseason of his seven-year career. In his second game back, Eichel helped set up a goal that gave the Knights a point against the Kings, and then on Sunday night, in a 4-1 win over the Sharks, the moment everyone had been waiting for since last year’s trade finally arrived.
Eichel took advantage of the space provided by a 4-on-4 to zoom around the perimeter of the offensive zone with the puck. As he got backed up against the camera-side boards, Chandler Stephenson seemingly turned invisible to the Sharks defense and entered a hilariously sized plot of open ice right in the slot. Eichel saw the breakdown and passed to his teammate, but instead of taking the point-blank shot, Stephenson wrapped around the net as Eichel rushed toward the crease. Stephenson passed from behind the red line to Eichel, who finished with just enough juice to get the puck by James Reimer for the goal. He’d later earn a secondary assist on a weird Max Pacioretty goal, and Vegas would go on to improve their record to 29-18-4 with a 4-1 win.
“There was a little bit of relief,” Eichel said after the game. “You get the first one out of the way, and just keep playing hockey.”
Following a couple of games spent getting his sea legs back, this felt like a real breakthrough for Eichel, who skated for over 18 minutes and put five shots on net after getting just one in each of his previous two appearances. On a line with the unselfish Stephenson and the high-scoring Pacioretty, Eichel once again showed himself to be a confident creator from the opening minutes, when he nearly scored on a smooth, quick breakaway attempt. Even with a lackluster, often unhappy supporting cast in Buffalo, Eichel always had a gravity to his game that forced the other nine skaters to revolve around whatever he wanted to do with the puck. On a far, far more talented Vegas roster, with better weapons on his wings, his ability to be an ice general should pay off more often, and any line he slots into can become the go-to line for when the Knights need a goal.
That makes him a major addition for a Knights team that’s been fine but not spectacular, shouldering the burden of high preseason expectations as they’ve battled through too many injuries and the departure of reigning Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury. But even if things in Vegas haven’t gone entirely according to plan, it’s still so much more inviting than the one Eichel just left, with strong, optimistic crowds and an ambitiously constructed roster set up with an eye on the postseason. It must be a relief not only for Eichel to step on the ice and finally score, but to do so knowing he’s just one piece of a proven winner. Eichel doesn’t have to be anything resembling a savior here. He finally gets to be just a good hockey player on a good team.