For the past seven years, Jack Eichel has struggled to be part of an NHL playoff team.
In his first six NHL seasons, Eichel played on a woeful Buffalo Sabres squad, and he was heralded as its savior for most of that span. Unfortunately for him and Buffalo fans, he was unable to carry them on his shoulders into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Given the sorry state of the Sabres’ roster year-in and year-out for more than the past decade, that was an unfair ask of him. But when you’re drafted at or near the very top of your entry draft, as Eichel was in 2015 when Buffalo took him second overall, the expectations on you ratchet up significantly.
Eichel got a new start when the Sabres dealt him to the Vegas Golden Knights almost exactly one year ago, but his frustrations with not being on a playoff team continued when the Golden Knights failed to make the post-season last year, for the first time in their brief history as an NHL franchise.
Eichel also didn’t exactly light things up once he arrived in Las Vegas: in 34 games, and after returning from a serious spinal disc herniation – and as he dealt with a hand injury late in the year – he generated only 14 goals and 25 points. Those aren’t terrible numbers for most players in the league, but when you’re the highest-paid player on your team – as Eichel is, at a $10-million salary cap hit for this season and the next three seasons – people want more. People want at least a point-per-game pace, if not more, for that type of money.
For that reason, the pressure was on Eichel to step up his game this season. And he’s responded extremely well, amassing five goals and 12 points in Vegas’ first 11 games this year while the Golden Knights surged to the top of the Pacific Division and Western Conference with a 9-2-0 record. That’s more like it. That’s what people expect out of Eichel. The team needs to win, and Eichel needs to lead the way. That’s what Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon envisioned when he made the trade with Buffalo. That’s why McCrimmon gave up forward Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and a first-and-second-round draft pick.
Eichel is 26 years old now. You’d better believe he knows how distant the playoffs can feel like on a team not equipped to get there. He knows how much it stinks to stop playing in mid-April and be forced to watch your friends and colleagues get to make playoff memories to last a lifetime. He desperately wants to get his first taste of post-season hockey. And he’s playing like a man singularly driven to end his streak of playoff misses.
As is true for all teams, the Golden Knights will not make the playoffs if their goaltenders struggle. Eichel can’t do anything about that. But he can be Vegas’ first-line center. He can work alongside linemates Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson and maintain his current 90-point pace. Eichel’s present-day career-high in points is 82, but again, this came on a terrible Sabres team. He’s now playing together with much better players. A 100-point season isn’t out of the question for him.
Regardless of the particulars, Eichel is now in a spot he hoped Buffalo would eventually get to – a team challenging for the top spot in the NHL, and a team that has the potential to do real damage come playoff time. There’s still a way for him to go, but the way he’s begun the year, he’s put himself, and the Golden Knights, in a position to do great things. Vegas fans should be encouraged that the best is yet to come for Eichel & Co.