The Jack Eichel era in Las Vegas is officially set to begin. Coming alongside Monday’s sobering — and, due to the salary cap, necessary — announcement that Mark Stone is being placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) with a recurring back injury, the Vegas Golden Knights also announced Eichel’s long-awaited return to the ice and debut with his new team. The former Buffalo Sabre will step into the lineup on Wednesday night in front of home fans at T-Mobile Arena against the league-leading Colorado Avalanche.
The Eichel factor adds a major layer to what was already going to be a buzz-worthy contest, with TNT already set to broadcast the game. But considering we’ve got a superstar-caliber player playing his first game in 345 days in a battle of division leaders, there is so much more meaning at hand here. Let’s go inside some of the significant questions tied to what will be a pretty important Wednesday night in Vegas.
Eichel In, Stone Out
It certainly seems more than a little fishy that the Golden Knights just so happened to have a player on a $9.5 million contract need to go on LTIR at the same time that a $10 million just so happened to be available to come off an injury reserve where salaries don’t count against the cap. Yes, eyebrows will raise across the entire league if Stone manages to miraculously return to health in time for the playoffs, at which point the salary cap is no longer enforced.
To be clear, though, Stone isn’t merely some bloated salary to cast off to the side. The team’s captain and last season’s leading scorer is a critical component to Vegas’ success and his absence creates as many challenges on the ice as it resolves in the front office.
Eichel might offset some of that lost production, but it’s important not to expect the 36-goal, 78-point star scorer from two years ago to show up right away. Head coach Pete DeBoer has had months now to devise a plan for easing his new No. 1 center back into game action, as well as helping him gel with new linemates while adjusting to a different structure. The 25-year-old has 32 pre-playoff games to get acclimated, but it may not come right away.
How Does Eichel Fit?
There has been so much talk of all the other aspects of Eichel — the bitter exit from Buffalo, the controversial neck surgery, the trade, the salary — that it’s easy to lose sight of how good he can be. His first five full seasons in the NHL produced an average 27.4 goals and 67.4 points, all from a player who hadn’t yet even turned 24. There’s a reason, after all, that he’s one of just 19 players earning an eight-figure pay day this season.
Big questions loom — both in terms of the level of play he can return to post-surgery and how he’ll fit in with Vegas. Eichel’s performance after unprecedented surgery can’t be anticipated, so let’s focus on the fit. Based on line combinations at practice, Vegas is expected to debut their big-ticket November acquisition between Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov on the top line, with the same group likely anchoring the first power-play unit.
Speaking of Stephenson, Eichel’s arrival obviously has ramifications that extend beyond the top line. Dropping Stephenson down to the third line is a vote of confidence for William Karlsson, who had back-to-back multi-point games before the Calgary shutout. But its also an effort to give the third line a shot in the arm, as Stephenson is expected to be joined by Nicolas Roy and an also-dropped Jonathan Marchessault to create a unit with some offensive potential.
What Happens Next?
For as high stakes as Wednesday night’s tilt against Colorado at T-Mobile Arena seems, the Golden Knights organization is likely to view it as just another step forward. The club has 34 games left before the playoffs and it remains to be seen if any will happen with anything close to resembling a full roster, or if that’s even possible.
The remainder of the season will be about fine-tuning the lineup, but there remains plenty on the line with the Flames sitting one point back in the Pacific Division with games in hand. Interestingly, finishing atop the division may not be wholly desired this season, as the division winner could be in for a first-round matchup against a wild card team in the stronger Central such as the St. Louis Blues.
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In terms of other players set to follow Eichel back off the sidelines and onto the ice, former Sabres teammate Robin Lehner (upper-body injury) remains sidelined but isn’t expected to be out long-term, Alec Martinez (unknown) continues to sit with a mysterious ailment amidst trade talk and Stone will be out until at least mid-March. The ensuing LTIR space afforded by the Martinez and Stone injuries actually frees up room for Vegas to add salary ahead of the March 21 trade deadline.
In a way, Wednesday night marks a season reset for the Golden Knights after a bumpy, injury-marred first 48 games. The division is up for grabs, DeBoer has a lineup to sort out and a potential difference-maker is set to be unleashed. Now, it’s time to see what this club’s ceiling might be and what the Eichel blockbuster was all about.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.