Jack Eichel is back in action.
The center made his Vegas debut on Wednesday night, in a 2-0 Golden Knights’ loss to the Colorado Avalanche. It was Eichel’s first NHL game in nearly a year, following surgery on a herniated disk in his neck last November.
He finished minus-one with one shot on goal and 8-for-11 in the face-off dot through 17:32 ice time, while also taking two minor penalties.
There was plenty of pageantry for Eichel’s first effort though. The atmosphere around the home team’s newest star was palpable, and Eichel was tapped to take the game’s opening face-off as the Golden Knights’ top-line center, against the NHL’s top team in Colorado no less.
The defeat marked Vegas’ second consecutive shutout loss, as Avalanche netminder Darcy Kuemper stole the show with a 29-save performance.
Despite the result, Eichel still felt the love in his all-important first outing.
“There was a lot of energy in the building, and I thought I fed off that and played pretty well in the first period,” he said. “You don’t want to take two penalties and be on the ice for [a goal], but there’s some things to build on. They’re a really good team, and you get matched up against a pretty good line for part of the game. First game in 11 months, good to get back doing what [you’re doing].”
The 25-year-old hadn’t been available to play since March 7, 2021, when he was still with the Buffalo Sabres and injured his neck during an on-ice collision.
Given the long layoff, Eichel wasn’t surprised by a little rust showing up in his game. It just didn’t lessen the enjoyment of being out there.
“Honestly, I was having a pretty fun time out there,” he said. “I think there’s some stuff to build on, but it’s a process. I know it’s going to get better. I didn’t expect it to be perfect tonight. There’s a lot to work on, and good things to build on as well.”
Vegas’ coach Peter DeBoer agreed, acknowledging the team saw only part of what Eichel will eventually be able to offer in full.
“I thought he worked hard,” DeBoer said. “[After] 11 months off, jumping in in the middle of the season against arguably the [NHL’s] best team, it’s a big ask. I thought he did a good job. We saw flashes of what he’s going to be able to do for us. He made some really good plays to some people, did a lot of good things. It’s a great first step.”
Simply getting to the point of competitive play again was a long road for Eichel. At the time he got hurt, Eichel was Buffalo’s captain, and the team’s second overall pick in 2015 was in the middle of an eight-year, $80 million contract he signed in 2018.
The disk issue would ultimately force a wedge between Eichel and the Sabres though, changing the course of their relationship for good. In April 2021, Buffalo announced Eichel would miss the remainder of the season because of his injury, which they wanted to treat with rest and rehab.
In May, Eichel came forward to express his unhappiness at the treatment plan. The 25-year-old wanted to undergo surgery to repair the problem, but the disk replacement procedure Eichel was asking for had never been performed on an NHL player. The Sabres were refusing to give him a green light.
“I’ve been a bit upset about the way that things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” Eichel told reporters last May. “I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect I think from the organization and myself. It’s been tough at times.”
Eichel went on to admit then that, “I have a lot of thinking to do in this offseason. There’s a lot I have to consider…Right now for me, I think the most important thing is just trying to get healthy and figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year wherever that might be.”
By September, Eichel and the Sabres were even further apart, and Buffalo stripped Eichel of his captaincy when he failed a training camp physical.
General manager Kevyn Adams didn’t rule out trading Eichel, under the right circumstances. Those materialized on November 4, when Eichel was traded to Vegas in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, a first-round and a second-round pick.
A week later, Eichel finally had his disk replacement surgery at Rocky Mountain Spine Clinic in Denver and had been rehabbing ever since. His comeback on Wednesday was the product of many long days and nights worrying and wondering just what the future might hold, and how it would feel to get there.
Eichel and the Golden Knights will be back at it on Friday against Los Angeles.