Jack Eichel feels “no bitterness” ahead of return to Buffalo

The former Sabres captain played 375 games in Buffalo before Nov. 4 trade.

Four words.

That’s all it took to change the life of a teenager from North Chelmsford, Massachusetts back on June 26, 2015.

Then-general manager of the Buffalo Sabres Tim Murray, known for his brevity, got the go-ahead from commissioner Gary Bettman, stepped up to the podium and immediately made a proclamation:

“Buffalo selects Jack Eichel.”

Much had been made of the Sabres’ public expression of disappointment over not winning the draft lottery and missing out on Connor McDavid.

But Eichel took it in stride.

The team had a promising Sam Reinhart waiting in the wings, had traded for Robin Lehner a few days earlier and acquired Ryan O’Reilly the day of the draft. Eichel was a future star in his own right, and his selection was supposed to be the final piece to lift the Sabres franchise out of a period of turmoil.

That did not happen, though the consensus is that Eichel was not to blame.

Spanning six seasons, Eichel scored 139 goals, 216 assists and 355 points in 375 games with the Sabres. He was given an $80 million contract at the start of the 2017-18 season and named team captain at 21 the following year.

His first career goal came on his 23rd shift in his first career game.

He potted a career-best four goals for his second career hat trick on Nov. 16, 2019.

The 2015 Hobey Baker Award winner found the scoresheet in 17 consecutive games in 2019-20; the streak came to an end due to injury in a season in which he finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting with 36 goals and 78 points in 68 games.

He exhibited tremendous skill and scored countless highlight-reel goals, many of the clutch variety, throughout his time in Buffalo; his curl-and-drag deke against Tampa Bay was particularly memorable.

As was his game-winning penalty-shot goal in overtime against Edmonton in January 2020, a prime example of his game-breaking ability.

But a neck injury sustained against the Islanders in March of last year derailed an already-disappointing season (2-18—21) and, ultimately, Eichel’s future in Buffalo.

A disagreement, or “disconnect” as Eichel put it, regarding how the injury should be treated played out in a months-long drama and led to the final rift; Eichel was stripped of the captaincy in September and traded less than two months later.

Enter the Vegas Golden Knights.

On the morning of Nov. 4, 2021, the Golden Knights landed Eichel along with a third-round draft pick in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and first- and second-round selections.

Eichel proceeded with his preferred artificial disk replacement surgery, was on the ice within weeks, recovered on schedule and made his Golden Knights debut Feb. 16.

He has since played a total of 10 games with his new club, scoring three goals and seven points in that stretch. Two of his three goals have been game-winners, including the power-play strike scored with 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation Sunday against Ottawa.

That’s business as usual for Jack Eichel.

Though he has yet to regain top speed or reach his previous ceiling, Eichel has made his presence felt as a difference-maker with an impressive display of elite skill and poise.

It’s only a taste of what’s to come.

But since his debut, the Knights have faltered, going 4-5-1.

To be fair, his first game came after Mark Stone was placed on long-term injured reserve, and the Knights have been struggling since the start of the new year.

Eichel is doing his part to help the Knights make the postseason, which would give him his first dose of playoff hockey.

But Vegas is merely treading water instead of making a push.

Tonight’s matchup at Keybank Center is the club’s latest opportunity to turn things around; while it may be “awkward,” as Eichel described it, it is sure to be emotional for the 25-year-old.

Eichel’s childhood dream came true when he first put on the Sabres sweater back at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

He was confident and eager to prove to the Sabres that he was no consolation prize.

In fact, a famous exchange from his team interview with the Sabres was celebrated at the time. After the Sabres found out they were drafting second, an executive said, “Maybe we won the lottery.”

Eichel’s response?

“I think you did.”

Now Eichel returns to his old stomping ground as a member of a different team.

But when asked about his mindset heading into tonight’s game, Eichel was very direct and stated multiple times that he has “no hard feelings” and feels “no bitterness” towards the Sabres.

“I had a phenomenal time here in Buffalo, lived out a childhood dream playing my first NHL game,” he said. “The organization and city [were] nothing but great to me and my family, so there’s no bitterness in me whatsoever.”

It has been more than a year since Eichel played his final game with Buffalo on March 7, 2021.

The last game he played at Keybank Center was Feb. 28, 2021.

The last game he played in front of Sabres fans was March 9, 2020, shortly before the shutdown. That also was the last time he scored a goal in front of the Sabres faithful, and it was a dandy on the power play.

The Sabres reportedly have an in-arena tribute video prepared for Eichel.

How fans will react could go either way; it’s likely to be a mixed bag.

“You think about what sort of reception you’re going to get, but I can’t control that,” Eichel admitted yesterday.

There will be boos, but there will be Sabres fans who use the moment to thank Eichel rather than condemn him.

After all, Buffalo management had a lot to do with Eichel’s departure. Plus, the Sabres have two exciting players in Tuch and Krebs — who have combined for 33 points in Buffalo — as well as two high draft picks to help build for the future.

Eichel isn’t concerned, though.

“I feel like I gave everything I had while I was here...to the organization and to the community. ... Whatever the reception is, I’ll be able to handle it.”

Eventually, Eichel will be ready to get down to business and focus on getting Vegas back in the win column.

“It’s hockey, and when the puck drops, you get a shift under your belt, I think it just becomes a game,” he said.

The revenge narrative is a common one in Vegas, and Eichel won’t be the only one seeking it. There are plenty of players facing their former team (i.e., Tuch, Krebs, Lehner, Cody Eakin, William Carrier and possibly Colin Miller, with Brayden McNabb on injured reserve).

Both teams are coming off frustrating losses, so both teams will be hungry.

But for Eichel, tonight’s game holds deeper meaning as a significant moment in his career, one he will never forget.

“This is a place I spent a lot of time,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of great memories in this building. Whenever you come into a place like that, you automatically start trickling down memory lane.”

Despite never reaching the postseason, Eichel was at the center of countless thrilling moments in this building, making jaw-dropping plays and scoring electrifying goals.

He’ll look to do the same tonight.

You know, for old times’ sake.