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The Eichel Trade: Vegas' Cup-clincher, or Vegas' Icarus Moment?

The Golden Knights have defined their short NHL existence by mortgaging futures in risky moves to load up on star power. Will Jack Eichel be the final piece of a championship puzzle, or is this deal one gamble too many?
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It was fall 2020, and Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley was a guest on The Hockey News Podcast. We were discussing the seven-year, $61-million contract he’d approved to sign UFA defenseman Alex Pietrangelo that off-season and why the team had justified sacrificing a top-six forward in Paul Statsny and a top-four defenseman in Nate Schmidt to clear salary-cap space for Pietrangelo.

Foley used the term “pulling out all the stops.” He remained devoted as ever to “the six-year plan,” the promise he made to bring a Stanley Cup to Vegas within its first six seasons. The philosophy meant doing everything, truly everything, in the name of winning a championship in the present.

We had no idea how far the team would take its mantra back then. Months later, the Golden Knights had the conviction to throw a reigning Vezina Trophy winner overboard, trading beloved goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to the Chicago Blackhawks for next to nothing in the name of excising his $7-million AAV from the payroll.

That move was perceived as preparation for pursuit of the one piece the Golden Knights desperately needed: a true, alpha-dog No. 1 center, whether it turned out to be Jack Eichel or Evgeny Kuznetsov or someone else. The correlation between Stanley Cups and having one or more horses up the middle has been undeniable throughout NHL history. The Golden Knights, knocking on the door of realizing Foley’s championship dream, knew they had to pay up for an elite pivot. With all due respect to the likes of William Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson, who profile more like rock-solid middle-six talents, Vegas had no bona fide first-liner, the type who could regularly crack the league's stop 10 in scoring.

Thursday’s announcement, then, that the Golden Knights had acquired Eichel and a 2023-third round pick from the Buffalo Sabres for center Peyton Krebs, right winger Alex Tuch, a 2022 first-round pick and a 2023 third-round pick wasn’t one we’d file under shocking. Sure, the Calgary Flames reportedly pursued Eichel hard with a series of offers that may or may or may not have been fictional, and the Carolina Hurricanes kicked the tires, but Vegas was always the logical landing spot. It had all the components necessary, the perfect synthesis of (a) desperate positional need, (b) available player-and-prospect capital and (c) an unrivalled willingness to gamble.

Category (c) is what makes this franchise so interesting. The Golden Knights sure have injected the NHL with fun when it comes to player transactions. They behave like an NBA team. In Max Pacioretty, Eichel and Mark Stone, they will have crafted a fantasy-hockey first line exclusively via first-round-pick trades. How many more times can the Golden Knights scrape their future-assets barrel before there’s nothing left? Will we eventually start to see some diminishing returns on their gambles?

Let’s review their use of high-pedigree prospect capital. The Golden Knights have existed in the NHL for a little more than four years, and they’ve now traded six of the eight first-round picks in their history, including next summer's (conditional) pick:

2017 – Cody Glass, 6th overall (traded for Nolan Patrick)
2017 – Nick Suzuki, 13th overall (traded in Max Pacioretty deal)
2017 – Erik Brannstrom, 15th overall (traded in Mark Stone deal)
2018 – pick traded in Tomas Tatar deal
2019 – Peyton Krebs, 17th overall (traded in Jack Eichel deal)
2020 – Brendan Brisson, 29th overall
2021 – Zachary Dean, 30th overall
2022 – pick traded in Jack Eichel deal (top-10 protected)

In The Hockey News' Future Watch 2021 issue, our scouting panel of active NHL scouts and team executives graded the Golden Knights’ farm system 16th-best in the league, and that was with Kreb and Glass still on the team representing their 21-and-younger crop. The panel rated Krebs as the No. 18 team-affiliated prospect on the planet. Vegas’ next-highest player at the time, left winger Jack Dugan, ranked 76th.

So Vegas has mortgaged a lot here. That’s not a criticism. This team understands the stakes and the payoffs of taking risks. Trading away so many futures has helped shape the franchise into a powerhouse. A top line of Pacioretty-Eichel-Stone would immediately be a top-five trio in the league at worst. The first line in Vegas’ 2018 Cup final run, consisting of Jonathan Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith, now looks great as a projected long-term second line. Pietrangelo is off to a rocky start in 2021-22 but was outstanding in his first season with the team and might simply be trying to do too much with the Golden Knights absolutely ravaged by injuries this season.

The risk taking really gets compounded, though, when we consider not just the futures but also the veteran NHL players Vegas has sacrificed directly in its pursuit of glory. Schmidt and Stastny were important contributors on the ice and in the dressing room. There isn’t a more revered teammate in the league than Fleury. And now, in Tuch, Vegas punts another original Golden Knight, a budding power forward who has been with the team since that magical first run. Is it possible Vegas and GM Kelly McCrimmon have finally made one gamble too many?

The good news: Eichel, if healthy, remains an elite talent. At 25, he’s still in his prime. He scored at a 94-point pace in 2019-20, his last healthy season. From 2017-18 through 2019-20, among 393 forwards who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, he graded out in the 87th percentile in points per 60 and 90th percentile in shots per 60. He rates as a star-caliber No. 1 center who does most of his damage off the rush, according to micro stats published by Hockey Twitter statistician Jack ‘JFresh’ Fraser.

Whether Vegas does the obvious and tries Eichel on the top line or uses him to drive a separate line and balance the lineup, his impact will be significant. He’ll be a welcome addition to Vegas’ power play, which – not a misprint – hasn’t scored a goal yet this season. He’s the exact piece Vegas needs and, with four seasons left on his contract after this year, he’s not a rental, which is crucial because, with Pacioretty and Stone sitting on LTIR with Eichel, it’s not inconceivable that 2021-22 ends up a lost season.

On the other hand? We know any Eichel trade was contingent on his new team being OK with his experimental disk-replacement surgery. While it’s nice to see a team honor a player’s right to make a choice for his own body, there’s also a reason why the Sabres were hesitant to let him have the procedure in the first place: it’s unprecedented for an NHL player, meaning we can’t say for certain how Eichel's body will respond to it. While Vegas doesn’t really need Eichel to return this season for the trade to be worthwhile – especially since Tuch was already on LTIR after shoulder surgery – it does need Eichel to return to his peak form at some point.

What if he doesn’t? That would be a scary scenario for a franchise that has torn pieces off itself to get where it is today. After adding Eichel's $10-million AAV, the Golden Knights have never been this financially top-heavy in their history. They won’t be remotely close to salary-cap compliant if Eichel, Stone and Pacioretty all return this season, so what happens then? Will the Golden Knights be forced to jettison yet another prominent player? Two? When fantasizing about how the roster looks with Eichel in it, we can’t necessarily picture all the rest of the current Golden Knights. Some may have to go.

It’s possible, then, that we have an Icarus situation on our hands. The Golden Knights have thrilled us during their short existence thanks to their willingness to load up in the name of winning a Cup. It’s understandable why they went all-in for Eichel, a player who, at full health, possesses the exact traits they need. But the cost was great, and it remains to be seen how many more gambles Vegas can make before it starts to harm itself.

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