In the 2021-22 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2021-22 performances of each key member of the Golden Knights. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in the regular season with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role.
The Vegas Golden Knights had high hopes when they completed a blockbuster deal to acquire Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres back in early November. They paid a hefty price in the form of Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs along with two draft picks, one of which turned out to be this year’s No. 16 overall selection. It was yet another bold move made by Vegas’ aggressive front office, especially given Eichel’s $10 million cap hit and injury status. But landing a true No. 1 center had the potential to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Golden Knights. Instead, an injury-riddled season of inconsistent play and a progressive collapse in the second half resulted in the Golden Knights failing to qualify for the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
Season in review
Eichel was acquired on Nov. 4, had artificial disk replacement surgery on Nov. 12 and made his Golden Knights debut on Feb. 16 in a 2-0 loss in Colorado. Despite suffering a broken thumb one month later in Florida, Eichel didn’t miss a game and ultimately finished the season with 14 goals and 25 points in 34 games. His 14 goals led the Golden Knights following his debut.
The first of those came 14:34 into his third game with the Golden Knights, a 4-1 win against San Jose.
But perhaps his most memorable goal was a third-period dagger against the Senators with just over five seconds remaining in regulation.
What turned out to be a not-so-memorable performance was his highly-anticipated return to Buffalo, as it was Tuch who ended up playing the hero in the 3-1 Sabres win. Eichel made some controversial comments following the game but quickly rebounded with goals in back-to-back contests against Pittsburgh and Columbus.
On the whole, his possession metrics were good but not special, as he finished in the bottom half of the roster in most categories, including Corsi For percentage (51.17) and expected goal share (50.58 percent). However, his 1.16 goals per 60 at 5-on-5 ranked second on the team behind only Max Pacioretty, and he ranked third among regular skaters with an individual-Corsi-per-60 rate of 16.3.
Twenty-five points in 34 games — including a six-game point streak at the beginning of April in which he recorded five goals and seven points — is nothing to scoff at, especially given the circumstances. His 0.74 points per game was the second lowest of his career but ranked fifth overall on the Golden Knights.
However, along with most of his teammates, Eichel’s production disappeared in a crucial six-game stretch at the end of the season that saw the Golden Knights fall out of playoff contention. Eichel recorded just one assist in that time, and he went 0-for-3 in the Golden Knights’ three consecutive shootout losses that officially put the playoffs out of reach. He finished the season with two goals and three points against St. Louis in a meaningless season finale.
Eichel may not have returned to All-Star form in his first run with the Golden Knights, but he showed flashes of the brilliant game-breaking play he demonstrated in his six seasons in Buffalo. Playing with a broken thumb for the final six weeks of the season and skating in Pete DeBoer’s defensive-minded system certainly contributed to Eichel’s inability to hit his stride.
After being named Sabres captain at 21 and having the weight of a struggling franchise on his shoulders, Eichel was not supposed to have to put this team on his back. But due to widespread injuries, a lot was expected of him immediately after returning from a surgery that had never been performed on an NHL player.
At 25, he is the youngest member of the club’s offensive core. If the Golden Knights can stay healthy, he could benefit from shouldering a lighter load and focusing more on production; after all, he scored 139 goals and 355 points in 375 games with the Sabres. He may not be a point-per-game player in 2022-23, especially since Vegas has significantly more depth than Buffalo, but he is capable of much more than he showed this year.
That’s especially true considering he is meant to thrive on the power play. Assuming the new coaching staff addresses this critical flaw in Vegas’ game, Eichel will be in a much better position to be the difference-maker he’s been throughout his career.
Significantly, a full offseason in which he can fully recover and reset will do wonders for the Massachusetts native, who spent last offseason locked in a public stalemate with Sabres management regarding his surgical options and future in upstate New York.
As for 2022-23, a fresh start, a new system and an opportunity to build chemistry with his new teammates in training camp should go a long way. He is capable of being one of the most dynamic players in the game, he just didn’t quite get there on a consistent basis in 2021-22. For now, it’s safe to say Vegas has yet to see what a healthy Jack Eichel can bring to the table.
Knights On Ice grade: B-
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