The Vegas Golden Knights probably are already good enough to win their first-ever Stanley Cup, but they are going to get that much better on Wednesday as former All-Star forward Jack Eichel will make his debut for the team against the visiting Colorado Avalanche in what could be a Western Conference Finals preview. Let’s take a look at the following analysis for your NHL odds.
All about Jack Eichel’s debut
Eichel, who was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres in November, has not played in an NHL game in nearly a year, last suiting up on March 7, 2021. The 25-year-old underwent artificial disk replacement surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck on Nov. 12, a procedure that had never been done on an NHL player.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions Wednesday, I’m already starting to feel them,” said Eichel, who noted it has been the longest layoff in his hockey career. “I’m just trying to be realistic with myself and my expectations. I haven’t played in 11 months and no preseason games, and I’m jumping in against the best team in the league right now.”
Eichel scored 18 points (two goals, 16 assists) in 21 games for the Sabres last season before sitting out the final 33. Selected by Buffalo with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel has scored 355 points (139 goals, 216 assists) in 375 games. Eichel scored at least 24 goals in each of his first five NHL seasons, including a career-high 36 in 2019-20. But he never had the opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs during his six seasons with Buffalo.
“[Eichel] is one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen, easiest skaters I’ve ever seen,” teammate Mark Stone said recently. “I think he’s going to help in pretty much every part of the game. He’s going to help us score goals, he’s going to help on the power play, [present] matchup problems. You’re adding one of the best centermen in the world into your lineup … You’re adding one of the best players on the planet.”
At practice on Monday, Eichel was slotted on the first line alongside Max Pacioretty. Eichel’s debut comes at a good time because Stone has been placed on long-term injured reserve with a back injury. The 29-year-old forward is among the best two-way players in the game as a two-time Selke Trophy finalist and point-per-game producer. In 28 games this season, Stone has scored eight goals and 28 points while playing a little over 18 minutes a night. Taking him out of the lineup for an extended period of time will certainly not be an ideal situation for the Golden Knights as they battle for home-ice advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.
Stone moving to LTIR helps alleviate the Golden Knights salary cap in anticipation of Eichel’s return. Stone carries a $9.5 million cap hit while Eichel has a $10 million cap hit. If the team is to bring Stone back before the playoffs, they’ll need to find a way to shed some salary. That would presumably need to be done before the March 21 deadline.
It’s not just Eichel’s $10 million salary the Golden Knights need to squeeze in; Alec Martinez and his $5.25 million salary have been shelved, and the defenseman appears ready to return soon.
The Golden Knights are 28-17-3 and have the second-best points percentage in the Pacific Division at .615. Vegas and Colorado have met once this season, a 3-1 Knights victory in Denver on Oct. 26. Reilly Smith scored a short-handed goal, and Robin Lehner stopped 26 shots. Cale Makar had the only goal for Colorado. Darcy Kuemper settled in after a rough start to make 26 saves.
On Thursday in the NHL, there will be history made when JT Brown and Everett Fitzhugh will host the NHL’s first-ever all-Black television broadcast, taking place when the Seattle Kraken face the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. Fitzhugh is usually the Kraken’s radio play-by-play announcer, and will be joining Brown, a regular Kraken analyst, on the TV side. Seattle’s incumbent television play-by-play voice, John Forslund, will be working on a different network Thursday night. That created an opportunity for Fitzhugh and Brown to collaborate.
“It all goes back to representation matters, that’s the overarching theme here,” Fitzhugh said. “I didn’t have Black broadcasters [and] play-by-play people to look up to when I was growing up. I didn’t know play-by-play was an option until I got to college, as far as a career goes. So to have that stage, to have that platform with [Brown] and to show people that, ‘Hey, there are two Black men calling hockey games,’ is something that I think will hopefully inspire other people.”