Superstar center Jack Eichel could be nearing his Vegas Golden Knights debut.
Speaking Friday at the NHL All-Star media day, Pete DeBoer said that Eichel could be cleared for contact following the All-Star break.
Eichel has been skating with the team for weeks but has sported a red or light blue non-contact jersey since joining practice on Jan. 11.
The 25-year-old is progressing well, according to DeBoer, who went so far as to say that Eichel has been the best player on the ice in a few recent practices.
“Everything changes once we get into full contact, but from a sheer practice and skill point of view, he’s elite,” DeBoer said. “Every day we’re out with him I think the group gets more excited.”
That doesn’t mean Eichel will be ready to take the ice for one of Vegas’ upcoming games, though.
Even after being cleared, it will take time for Eichel to get back into game shape and for the medical staff to evaluate his readiness to return to game action.
“The doctor was adamant that three months from surgery, there be absolutely no contact,” DeBoer said.
Eichel underwent artificial disk replacement surgery on Nov. 12, which means the three-month threshold will pass late next week. The Knights are sure to be cautious with their star player, especially since he was the first NHL player to undergo that procedure, a major point of contention between Eichel and the Sabres organization.
But DeBoer said that clearing Eichel for contact will “be on the table” coming out of the All-Star break.
Eichel, the former second overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, hasn’t played since March 7, 2021.
He was acquired by Vegas in a Nov. 4 trade that sent Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, a top-10 protected first-round pick and a second-round selection to Buffalo in exchange for Eichel and a third-round pick.
When Eichel does return, he will be joining a team in the midst of a run to make its fifth straight postseason appearance, which is significant considering Eichel has yet to play a single playoff game since joining the league for the 2015-16 campaign.
“[Playoff hockey is] a whole different level of hockey when you get to that time of year,” DeBoer said. “I’m excited for him because I think he’s going to excel in that type of game, and I know he’s excited about the opportunity to play playoff hockey.”
The Knights currently sit atop the Pacific Division standings with a two-point edge and one game in hand over the second-place Anaheim Ducks. The team won its last two games and went 4-1-1 over its last six.
However, Eichel’s addition to Vegas’ active roster won’t be the only change to the lineup.
Since Buffalo did not retain any of Eichel’s $10 million cap hit, taking him off long-term injured reserve will necessitate at least one trade.
Whether that will involve breaking up the Misfit Line or moving a combination of other assets remains to be seen. But the Knights will need to shed quite a bit of cap space to accommodate Eichel’s hefty contract, not to mention Alec Martinez’s $5.25 million cap hit once he’s ready to return.
The Knights have never shied away from aggressive moves, regardless of salary cap consequences, but Vegas is banking on Eichel being the missing piece to the puzzle for a team that has had great success but has been unable to claim the ultimate prize.
Vegas has never had an elite first-line center before; when healthy, Eichel is not only elite but one of the most dynamic players in the game. He has 139 goals and 355 points in 375 career games, all with Buffalo.
Adding Eichel to the mix will give DeBoer plenty of options, but the most obvious is to put him with Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. That would give the Knights one of the most lethal lines in the NHL, and certainly the most skilled line this franchise has ever iced.
It’s just a matter of what this roster looks like once the organization makes its moves. But all signs point towards Eichel donning a Golden Knights sweater sooner rather than later.