This is the newest edition of the THN Hot Seat, an ongoing series of THN.com columns in which we identify one member of each NHL franchise who’ll be facing major pressure in the 2022-23 season. Our choice for the Hot Seat can be an NHL player, head coach, GM, or team owner.
In this file, we’re focusing on the Vegas Golden Knights.
GOLDEN KNIGHTS HOT SEAT: JACK EICHEL, CENTER
WHY: Since he came into the NHL in 2015, Eichel has been heralded as one of the game’s best up-and-coming players. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, he hasn’t been able to convert his skills into even a single playoff appearance. That’s not entirely his fault, of course; the team he was drafted second overall by – the hapless Buffalo Sabres – squandered his first six seasons, before trading him to the Golden Knights last November. It took Eichel another three months before he’d fully recovered from a serious neck injury and was able to play, but despite Eichel suiting up for 34 games with Vegas (and generating 14 goals and 25 points in that span), the Golden Knights failed to qualify for the post-season, and Eichel again was left in the frustrating position of being on the outside looking into the Stanley Cup tournament.
Combine that past history as a non-playoff entity with the fact he’s Vegas’ highest-paid player at $10 million per season (for this coming year and three years after that), and you have a situation where the intense heat of the spotlight is now firmly on Eichel. Again, this is a team sport, and Vegas is going to be seriously challenged by the season-ending injury to starting goaltender Robin Lehner, but Eichel is now tasked with (a) staying healthy and playing at least 81 games for the first time since his rookie season; and (b) leading the way for the Golden Knights’ offense.
That is not going to be easy, and there’s the potential for more team turmoil in the Nevada desert. Eichel is going to need help from fellow forwards Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, but when you’re at the top of the payroll list the way Eichel is, the bulk of the pressure is going to fall on him. There can be no more excuses, and no more disappointment for him. He has to demonstrate he can be the leader of the pack, and get the Golden Knights back into the playoff mix.
The other issue compounding the pressure on Eichel is Vegas’ complete lack of salary cap flexibility. Right now, the Golden Knights are (according to CapFriendly.com) $10.2 million over the cap ceiling, but putting Lehner on the Long-Term Injured Reserve will cut that number approximately in half. Still, they’ve got restricted free agent defenseman Nicolas Hague to sign, and that means Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon will have to dump more salary to get the team cap-compliant. And that will only make life tougher for Eichel.
It will be unfair if Eichel receives all the blame if Vegas fails to make the playoffs this season, but it is undeniable he will share in it. This is still a young franchise, and while it’s great for Golden Knights fans to have an owner (Bill Foley) committed enough to win to spend to the absolute limit. However, sometimes that motivation can lead to sticky situations, and that’s what Eichel and Vegas find themselves in at the moment. If Eichel thrives this season, the Golden Knights likely will as well, and all this anxiety will disappear.
If not, by this time next summer, the franchise may be at a crossroads with their core. Either way, Eichel will be prominent in their future.