HENDERSON, NV - Jack Eichel is still relatively new in town, coming over to the Vegas Golden Knights during the 2021-22 season in a blockbuster trade with Buffalo. Now recovered from the neck injury that caused his divorce with the Sabres, he's looking forward to contributing full-time with the Golden Knights - but he isn't here to bury the good city of Buffalo, either.
Eichel has spent a lot of time in Nevada since the season ended - the first ever for Vegas without a playoff berth. The gifted center stuck around until the middle of June and has popped in here and there while also going back East. This week, he was at the AHL Henderson Silver Knights' new arena as part of the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour, where he sat down with a table-full of us reporters and reflected on his pro career.
Priority No. 1 of course, is getting Vegas back to the post-season. Expectations have been high for the franchise since its incredible rookie run to the Stanley Cup final in 2018 and that's just fine with him.
"That's what you want as a player, to be on a team that wants to win every year and has the highest of expectations," Eichel said. "That's obviously how it is here so I feel very fortunate to be a part of that."
Eichel has already spent a bit of time with new signing Phil Kessel and is very enthusiastic about the great blend of experience, skill and personality Kessel brings to the team. He's also excited about playing for new coach Bruce Cassidy, whose reputation as a smart coach with a great feel for the game was universal amongst those Eichel spoke to about him.
For fans in both Vegas and just hockey in general, the real fun will come in seeing Eichel, Kessel, Mark Stone and the other Golden Knights stars all in the same lineup together. Lengthy injuries were one reason Vegas fell out of the post-season field last year and getting less than 40 games out of big-time forwards such as Stone and the since-departed Max Pacioretty didn't exactly make Eichel's own return from injury a cushy one.
"It was tough for Jack," Stone said. "He came into the lineup and four or five us left the lineup. In Buffalo all the pressure was on him, he came here and it wasn't supposed to be all on him, then it was all on him. But we're excited to have the whole group together. We feel we're in a place where we can be competitive every night."
While Eichel is looking forward to making his mark with the Golden Knights this season, he was also adamant that he holds no ill will towards the city and fans of Buffalo, nor his time with the Sabres.
"I met some incredible people in that town, some that work for the organization and some outside of it," he said. "There were so many great things I could take out of it. It's a great town to play for. We didn't have the greatest separation and rightfully so - the fans are very passionate about their teams, whether it's the Bills or the Sabres and they want a team that is going to win. Unfortunately, we weren't able to give that to them. I learned a lot there as a player and a person.
"You can say, 'Oh you guys didn't have any success on the ice and never made the playoffs' but there are so many other things you can hang your hat on and be proud about. I took a lot of positives out of it."
As for the local culinary scene, Eichel has found a lot of great spots in both Las Vegas proper and the Summerlin area (where many of the players live). But he hasn't found an equivalent for Chef's, the legendary Buffalo Italian restaurant that I also happen to love.
"There are a lot of great restaurants here but I don't know if anything compares to Chef's," he said. "Chef's is a special, unique place and I miss it. But you have world-class restaurants on the Strip and so many great places out in Summerlin and so many great people who work at those restaurants that I've been able to get to know."
Stone admitted that Eichel's reputation wasn't great before he met him, but as soon as he did, he found a hard-worker who is the exact opposite of a bad teammate. And once Vegas fans get to know Eichel at full speed on the ice - with healthy teammates that can match his talents - they're going to be big fans as well.