Jack Eichel thriving one year after being dealt to Golden Knights

Eichel was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres one year ago today.

On Nov. 4, 2021 — exactly one year ago today — the Vegas Golden Knights pulled off a blockbuster trade to acquire Buffalo Sabres center and superstar forward Jack Eichel.

It was the type of move this franchise has been unafraid to target, and it was a statement by an organization already on the brink of a cap nightmare.

But the Golden Knights had yet to ice an elite No. 1 center through the first four-plus seasons in franchise history.

Eichel changed that.

The former No. 2 overall pick carried a $10 million cap hit but had 355 points in 375 career games and offered game-breaking ability.

He didn’t come cheap.

In fact, the Golden Knights had to part with Alex Tuch and first-round pick Peyton Krebs as well as first- and second-round selections.

At this point, the trade appears to have helped both clubs.

Eight days after the deal, Eichel proceeded with his preferred artificial disk replacement surgery, which the Sabres prohibited him from having. The procedure had never been performed on an NHL player, and it was the primary point of contention that led to Eichel’s departure from the only NHL home he had ever known.

But the surgery was a success; he was back on the ice three weeks later, and his recovery took just three months. Many players around the league have since followed in his footsteps, including Chicago’s Tyler Johnson and Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee.

Three and a half months after the trade, Eichel made his Golden Knights debut on Feb. 16 against Colorado.

He scored his first goal with Vegas on Feb. 20 in San Jose.

He scored his first goal in front of the Vegas faithful on March 3 against Boston (despite losing the puck on the breakaway).

In his first 10 games with Vegas, Eichel scored three goals and seven points. Two of the three goals were game-winners, including a power-play goal scored with just 5.2 seconds remaining in regulation against Ottawa.

However, Vegas went 4-5-1 in that stretch.

Eichel spent the rest of his first season in Vegas trying to rediscover his game, though an undisclosed broken thumb likely contributed. He showed flashes of the brilliance he had demonstrated throughout his career, but he was unable to return to form.

Ultimately, the Golden Knights failed to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

In the end, Eichel finished the 2021-22 campaign with 14 goals and 25 points in 34 games. He did not score another game-winning goal in the final 24 games of the year and noticeably failed to come through when Vegas lost three consecutive shootouts to end the season. In the final six games before Vegas was eliminated from playoff contention, Eichel recorded just one assist.

He was not alone, however; it was a team-wide collapse that had been weeks in the making. Additionally, an overpowering sweep of persistent injuries and a lack of system adjustments — including on the power play — were contributing factors to Vegas’ demise.

But the result was one Eichel knew all too well.

At 26, he has yet to experience playoff hockey.

That left him — and the Golden Knights — with a lot to prove coming into this season.

It’s safe to say things are off to a good start for both.

In fact, the Golden Knights are off to their best start in six seasons.

Through 12 games, Vegas is 10-2-0 and has won six in a row. Vegas became the first team to reach 10 wins in 2022-23 with a 5-4 victory in Ottawa last night, and the Golden Knights sit atop the Western Conference and have the second-best points percentage (.833) in the league, trailing only Boston (.909).

Eichel is tied for the team lead with five goals and has a team-high 13 points in 12 games; he has recorded five multi-point games.

He leads the team in assists per 60 (2.21) as well as points per 60 (3.58) at all strengths. He’s the only player on the team operating at more than a point-per-game pace (1.08), and he leads the way in even-strength points (nine) as well as shots (42).

His elite talent was on full display in Vegas’ recent back-to-back overtime wins.

First, he scored an absolute dandy with just seven seconds remaining in extra time against the Winnipeg Jets.

It was one of the nicest goals in six seasons of Golden Knights hockey, and it could mark the moment when Eichel truly returned to form.

He followed that up with a masterful shift that set up Shea Theodore for the game-winner in overtime against Washington the very next game.

Prior to the goal on Connor Hellebuyck, who had been lights-out all night, Eichel had played well but hadn’t taken over games.

Since that shift, he has been significantly more noticeable and is a threat every time he’s on the ice, taking full advantage of the time and space he’s afforded. He has been making a concerted effort to shoot more on the power play, which has yielded positive results.

It is evident that his confidence has been restored.

Last year was more of an adjustment period for the Massachusetts native. This year could mark the revitalization of his career.

The Golden Knights’ offense has been balanced, and Eichel has been a key part of that. Since Bruce Cassidy shuffled the lines in the third period against Colorado, Eichel and linemates Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson have combined for 19 points.

In fact, the trio scored almost immediately after Cassidy made the change.

In the six games since, the Golden Knights are undefeated. The top line has not given up a goal and has owned a 61.08 percent Corsi share (102-65), 73.49 percent shot share (61-22), 68.27 percent expected goal share, 62.79 percent scoring chance share (54-32) and 71.79 percent high-danger Corsi share (28-11) in 78:37 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Three of the line’s five goals have been high-danger tallies.

Eichel may not always stand out the way he did in Buffalo, but that’s primarily because he’s surrounded by a lot more talent than he was earlier in his career.

He has been much more of a factor for Vegas this year, especially in recent games, and is currently on pace for 88 points, which would top his career high of 82 from 2018-19.

Eichel seems to have hit his stride in his second season in Vegas, and he will continue to be a vital piece of Vegas’ core as the Golden Knights look to return to the postseason and capture the ultimate prize.

It’s fair to say Eichel is highly motivated to help them get there.