Jack Eichel got the familiar welcome that most coming to the Golden Knights have experienced: cheerleaders, a drumline, an excited Gila monster; the whole nine yards.
Typical Vegas stuff, outsiders would say.
Those mini celebrations usually come from McCarran Airport. Imagine his shock when he pulled up to Red Rock Resort on Sunday, what’s likely to be his home for the foreseeable future, and be paraded with slot machines in the near vicinity.
“I had seen some previous guys been traded here and they got that at the airport. When I got my bags, I thought I was clear,” Eichel said with a laugh.
It’s not the first time the Golden Knights have made a franchise-altering trade. The moves to bring in Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Robin Lehner have surely brought about a sense of importance to this young team.
None like the palpable buzz that Eichel, traded from the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster move on Thursday, brings from an immediate standpoint and what could become of it when the calendar turns to 2022.
Acquired in a deal involving Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and conditional draft picks, Eichel met with the Las Vegas media for the first time Monday as a member of the Golden Knights.
“The first 24 hours was pretty overwhelming,” Eichel said. “A lot of things going on internally, a lot of emotions. It’s nice to get out to Vegas. It’s nice to be here. Things are starting to settle a little more.”
Eichel has had many media sit-downs over the past 72 hours to talk about the trade, but it felt official on Monday. Standing at the podium in City National Arena with a Golden Knights backdrop behind him, Eichel is the latest in the collection of big names Vegas has either signed or traded for to push it to a Stanley Cup. Him, Stone, Pacioretty, Lehner and Alex Pietrangelo are now the core brought to Vegas with hopes of hoisting that giant silver Cup.
Of course, Eichel’s time to show that worth will have to wait.
Eichel will have his long-awaited artificial disk replacement surgery on Friday in Denver with Dr. Chad Prusmack. Eichel’s surgeon has performed the procedure numerous times over the past 20 years. It’s an approach the Sabres did not want Eichel to go through with, preferring a fusion surgery instead. That disconnect started the beginning of the end of the partnership between the Sabres and the man they took No. 2 overall in the 2015 NHL Draft.
From the moment the Golden Knights acquired Eichel, general manager Kelly McCrimmon made it clear: you’ve done the research, you’re getting the surgery you want.
“The team’s been so supportive. I feel very fortunate to be in a situation like that,” Eichel said. “I’ve been pretty outspoken standing for what I believe in. Having their support makes the process that much better.
“I think maybe there’s been a narrative created that I was going out doing something never done as a hockey player, but it’s an FDA-approved surgery that’s been around for a long time. I feel very confident that I’m making the right decision. Everyone else I’ve spoke to feels confident. I know it’s going to work out and I know I’ll be back playing, and we can put this all behind us.”
The center remains adamant that the recovery time will be three months. Given that timeframe, Eichel could be ready for contact during the NHL’s Olympic Break and open the door for a potential Vegas debut in late February or early March.
Right on pace for a certain mid-March trip to Buffalo? That might be stretching it, but narrative has never been one to shy away.
“A lot of great memories,” Eichel said of his time with Buffalo. “Success wise we didn’t achieve what we wanted to. That’s frustrating because the fans were so good to us. You feel like you wanted to give them more, but we weren’t able to. I’m grateful for everything that happened in Buffalo.”
The hope for the Golden Knights, as well as Eichel, is a return with enough time to help facilitate a playoff push for Vegas. Eichel never made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his time with Buffalo, but should everything bounce the right way, he’ll get to experience that with a franchise that’s made the playoffs in all four years of its existence.
Eichel comes into a locker room that has a captain in Stone; former captains Pacioretty and Pietrangelo; veteran leaders like Alec Martinez and Reilly Smith; but still with a plethora of experience to share.
“I think it takes a lot of pressure off you,” he said. “It feels like you bring a little less of the extra stuff and just worry about playing. I think that’ll be good for me.”
And if Eichel can come close to what he did two years ago, that’s more than the Golden Knights could ever ask for. Before the season paused due to COVID, Eichel was on a blistering run of 78 points (36 goals, 42 assists) in 68 games. Only one other player on that team reached 50 points, and he’s no longer in Buffalo, either — Sam Reinhart.
“This is about as motivated as I’ve been,” Eichel said. “I think there’s a lot of people out there maybe doubting me or don’t think I’m going to get back to the form I was in. I look forward to putting all those doubts to rest and getting back to the level that I believe I can play.”
What’s to come with Eichel when he eventually wears that Golden Knights sweater for the first time is much like his upcoming surgery — a great unknown with no idea of what’s to come. The Golden Knights, much like those waiting to watch him, will have to bide their time.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Eichel said. “I couldn’t be happier to be here. Who knows if I’d be standing here in front of you if I got the surgery in May? Feel very fortunate to be a part of this organization. I don’t think there’s a place I’d rather be.”