Few players heading into the 2022-23 season have more riding on their performance than Jack Eichel.
You'd be forgiven for not thinking that initially, though. On paper, Eichel has it made from a hockey perspective. The guy is in the prime of his career, under contract for the next four seasons, set to pull down a cool $40 million from the team that moved heaven and earth to acquire him, and will then hit the open market for his first time as an NHLer at the age of 29.
What more could you want?
Well, if you're the Vegas Golden Knights, you want Eichel to be the superstar you envisioned he'd be.
That isn't to chastize Eichel for his performance last season, of course. The 25-year-old underwent an extremely risky procedure to fix a long-standing neck issue that had hampered him for quite some time and then miraculously returned to the ice ahead of schedule. Even after making it back, Eichel was a perfectly fine contributor. In 34 games, the former second-overall pick racked up a thoroughly respectable 14 goals and 11 assists for 25 points while logging nearly 20 minutes in average nightly ice time and anchoring the club's power play. Eichel even posted positive results at even-strength in both expected goals and scoring chance generation along with 11 of his 14 tallies coming at five-on-five.
Those are the numbers of very good NHL forward. But for Vegas, a repeat performance would be nothing short of a disaster.
That's not Eichel's fault, though.
Vegas chose to pay a sizable package to free Eichel from the Sabres last season. They chose to drop his $10 million paycheck into an already chaotic cap situation that has now forced the club to sell off useful players for, quite literally, zero return in an effort to merely stay compliant. They knew that the lack of wiggle room brought on by his cap hit would prevent them from bringing in impact players to build the margins of their roster.
These are choices the Golden Knights front office made themselves. No one forced their hand. But the consequences of those decisions are now squarely on Eichel's shoulders -- whether he likes it or not. If Eichel can't get back to his prior level and Vegas, therefore, misses the playoffs once again, it's hard not to see ownership cleaning house.
So, the million-dollar question remains: Can Jack Eichel be a superstar again? Frankly, it's hard not to think yes.
There are a few things working in Eichel's favor this season -- the most pressing of which being his health.
Given that he's never made the playoffs during his six-year career, Eichel has always had the benefit of a long offseason. But this year's layoff was undoubtedly the most crucial of all, affording his body the chance to rest and recuperate from the, to be frank, trauma it's endured over the past 24 months. Eichel can start to once again build up its strength rather than regaining it. Prior to surgery, Eichel's training focus was likely geared more towards recovery than improvement. I'm no doctor, but I do know that a catastrophic neck injury tends to thrust your body out of its usual alignment. And when it came to the offseason grind, Eichel was probably fighting to simply maintain a condition that allowed him to play.
Eventually, he no longer could, and surgery followed.
If everything went according to plan -- and there have been no indications that it hasn't thus far -- this summer likely offered something different for Eichel. He can now focus on pushing his body to another level rather than simply clawing back to the one it was at before.
A clean bill of health does wonders for one's physical and, just as importantly, mental well-being. Entering a new season without the lingering uncertainty of something as crucial as your neck's ability to function will be a breath of fresh air.
Then there's the fact that the Golden Knights are positioned to ice the best roster Eichel has ever been surrounded by.
That's a low bar to clear, of course. But Eichel has previously managed to somehow ride a nearly point-per-game pace in the NHL without ever having the benefit of playing alongside the likes of Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, and, even, Phil Kessel for a full season.
Heck, Stone, Smith, and Karlsson were injured for most of Eichel's tenure in 2021-22, and were each almost certainly less than 100 percent upon return.
Now, the whole gang is back.
Offensively, Eichel is the best of the bunch -- just as he was in Buffalo. Only, this time, he's surrounded by viable talent that can make him better. Eichel has the skill, the ice time, the power play role, and the above-60-percent offensive zone start share to support a breakthrough year. Everything is falling into place.
Now, for the sake of the franchise, the rest is up to him.