Jack Eichel will make his debut for the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday in a home game against the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon announced Monday.
“I always had the date circled for a while, I just had to go through all the protocols,” Eichel said. “I just feel like I’m back to that point where I’m ready to play. I just want to get back in there and get the confidence back to play a game.”
Eichel, who was acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Sabers in November, hasn’t played an NHL game in nearly a year, most recently on March 7, 2021.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions on Wednesday, I’m already starting to feel them,” said Eichel, who noted it was the longest layoff of his hockey career. “I’m just trying to be realistic with myself and my expectations. I haven’t played in 11 months and no pre-season games, and I’m jumping against the best team in the league right now.”
Eichel, 25, underwent artificial disc replacement surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck Nov. 12, a procedure never before performed on an NHL player.
McCrimmon said “there were a lot of skeptical people” about Eichel’s surgery. “But in the medical world, things change all the time. He pioneered this particular operation, and so far it has turned out to be a very good operation.”
In training on Monday, Eichel was placed on the front row alongside Max Pacioretty.
The Golden Knights took to Twitter to prepare fans for Eichel’s debut.
Soon 👀 pic.twitter.com/aRQnsW4xI1
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) February 14, 2022
In a corresponding move, Vegas placed captain Mark Stone on long-term injury reserve. The Golden Knights were over the $81.5 million salary cap, but Stone’s $9.5 million salary won’t count toward the cap as long as he’s sidelined, helping open the way to Eichel ($10 million) for his debut.
The Golden Knights said Stone had back problems dating back to last year’s playoffs and had seen “numerous” specialists across North America. Stone has been on and off the ice this season as he worked on his injury, including missing a month on injury reserve. Stone has only played back-to-back games once this season.
“It’s hard to define exactly what the problem is, I think it’s been really frustrating for Mark,” McCrimmon said. “And yet, that’s the kind of stuff we need to get to the bottom of, and that takes time.”
McCrimmon said he didn’t know how long Stone would need after the mandatory 10 games and 24 days required for long-term injury reserve.
Vegas still has defenseman Alec Martinez ($5.25 million) on reserve for long-term injury. McCrimmon said it was frustrating to get a diagnosis for Martinez, who suffered a facial laceration during a game against the Minnesota Wild in mid-November.
“This guy rode a scooter all playoffs in 2021, got off the scooter to get in the rink and froze his foot, played three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with no practice, skate game day or even take a step,” McCrimmon says. “He’s one of the toughest hockey players I’ve ever been around. I’ve heard speculation that we’re holding Alec for a salary cap [reasons]. I can’t imagine this guy not playing when he’s ready to play. He would break down the door.”
These salary cap questions will persist for the Golden Knights, just as they did for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year, despite sniper Nikita Kucherov missing the entire regular season in injury reserve after hip surgery. Kucherov returned to play in the playoffs, when the salary cap becomes moot. The NHL investigated the circumstances surrounding Kucherov’s injury and timing and found no wrongdoing.
Eichel missed the final 33 games of last season with a herniated disc in his neck; this injury led to a rift between the management of Eichel and that of the Sabres.
The Sabers preferred Eichel to undergo fusion surgery, which would put him back on the ice in six months. Eichel’s doctors suggested disc replacement surgery, which would have sidelined him for a shorter period of time and carried a much lower risk that the center would need future surgeries later in life.
The Sabers weren’t comfortable letting Eichel become the first NHL player to have artificial disc surgery.
Buffalo stripped Eichel of his captaincy this year and helped facilitate the Nov. 4 trade to the Golden Knights, which saw Eichel undergo his favorite surgery eight days later.
Since then, Chicago Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson has also undergone artificial disc replacement surgery.
Buffalo returning to the Eichel trade was Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, a future first-round pick and a future second-round pick. Vegas received a future third-round draft pick as part of the deal.