Eichel may need time to regain form for Golden Knights after surgery

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Jack Eichel skated with the Vegas Golden Knights for the first time Tuesday, prompting two main questions: When will he debut for them? How quickly can he regain his form as one of the best players in the NHL?

The timeline is uncertain as he recovers from the neck surgery he had Nov. 12, eight days after Vegas acquired him in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres, but the outlook seems promising.

“I was actually thinking about suiting up tonight, but they wouldn’t let me go, so … ” the 25-year-old center joked after wearing a red non-contact jersey at an optional morning skate. “No. I wish.”

The Golden Knights host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET; ATTSN-RM, TSN4, ESPN+, NHL LIVE). 

“I wouldn’t say there’s really a target date at this point,” Eichel said. “I think it’s a, see how you feel, and see how you progress and how confident and comfortable you are. I think at that point, you’ll know … I feel like I’ll know mentally and physically and emotionally when I’m ready to go.”

No one should get too excited too quickly.

Eichel hasn’t played in almost a year, since the Sabres lost 5-2 at the New York Islanders on March 7. He had a surgery that had never been done on an NHL player, a surgery the Sabres didn’t want him to have, an artificial disk replacement. The scar is visible on the front of his throat.

“You want to temper your enthusiasm,” coach Peter DeBoer said, “because this is just the first step on a long return-to-play road.”

Players often need an adjustment period after coming back from major surgery or joining a new team. Eichel is doing both simultaneously. 

That said, Eichel did his homework and fought to have an artificial disk replacement for a reason, and so far, so good. He said he had surgery and went out to dinner with his parents that night.

“It was a lot more straightforward than I had expected,” Eichel said. “To be completely honest, it was a really smooth process. I do have a lot of people to credit for that, but everything went very well, knock on wood. I’m in a great place now. I’m very happy that I stood up for what I believed in, and at the end of the day, it all kind of panned out the way I hoped it would.”

Eichel skated on his own after surgery and he said he felt better and better without setbacks. He said joining the Golden Knights for the first time was a bit of an emotional moment and that he felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

“Just with everything that I’ve been through, it seems like things are getting back to normal for me, so that’s what I wanted all along,” Eichel said. “It felt really good to be here and really feel like you’re, I guess, part of the group.”

Now he has to get to know his teammates on and off the ice, in full practices and on the road. A key test will come when he is cleared for contact and can test his neck.

“I want to make sure, one, I feel physically as confident as I can be that I can play my game,” Eichel said. “That just comes with practice time and more reps.

“I’m not in a rush right now to get anywhere. I think at this point it’s a feel thing, and [I’ll] just continue to build confidence in the way I feel and my conditioning level and my timing. I think as you start to pile days up, you start to feel better and start to feel more confident, and that’s when I think you get closer to feeling like yourself.”

The final test will be jumping into NHL action midseason. But Golden Knights captain Mark Stone, a potential linemate, said he thinks Eichel will start developing chemistry with his teammates after one or two games.

“I think it’s a lot easier to build chemistry with a player of his caliber,” Stone said. “I think he’s pretty easy to play with, when he possesses that kind of skill, that kind of talent.”

Eichel has scored 355 points (139 goals, 216 assists) in 375 NHL games over six seasons, including 127 points (41 goals, 86 assists) on the power play. He has never played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Imagine if he looks like the Jack Eichel of old in time for the Golden Knights this season.

Vegas has advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs three times since joining the NHL as an expansion team in 2017-18, and the Golden Knights (23-14-1) lead the Pacific Division this season despite many injuries and COVID-19 disruptions. Eichel is the type of player they’ve needed, a No. 1 center, an offensive catalyst.

“I had a big smile on my face all day,” Eichel said. “It’s what I love. I’m just really happy that it feels like things are getting back to normal for me, so I’m very, very fortunate.”

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