On Nov. 4, 2021, the Vegas Golden Knights took their winnings from the Wheel of Fortune slot machine, went to the roulette wheel, and placed it all on No. 9.
That is the day the Golden Knights acquired Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster trade. It looked like a risky gamble at times last season, but it is finally starting to pay off for Vegas and Eichel himself.
Roughly one year before the NHL announced that Las Vegas would get an expansion franchise, the Sabres selected Eichel with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. In many years, Eichel would have been the No. 1 overall pick, but he shared a draft class with Connor McDavid. Eichel went on to play six frustrating seasons for the Sabres. Despite his 139 goals and 355 points in 375 games with the franchise, the team never went to the playoffs with him on the roster. In fact, Buffalo never even finished higher than sixth in the Atlantic Division.
In March of 2021, Eichel suffered a neck injury. That is when everything changed for the player and the Sabres.
Eichel wanted to get disk replacement surgery, but the team disagreed. The Sabres preferred that Eichel undergo fusion surgery to repair the injury and claimed they weren't comfortable with the disk replacement procedure because it hadn't been done on an NHL player before.
That disagreement drove a wedge between the player and the team, and he was dealt to the Golden Knights prior to the start of the 2021-22 season. Vegas liked Eichel so much that it was willing to bet on him by sending a massive haul to Buffalo. The Sabres sent Eichel and a third-round pick to Vegas in exchange for forward Alex Tuch, prospect Peyton Krebs, a first-round pick and a second-round pick.
The Golden Knights allowed Eichel to get the surgery of his choice, but there were still questions about him. For starters, he just had neck surgery that had never been performed on an NHL player, so there were fair concerns about his health. Perhaps somewhat unfairly, there were also concerns about whether Eichel was the type of player around which a team could build a Stanley Cup contender.
In his first season with Vegas, anyone who voiced those concerns only got to turn the volume up on the megaphone. Eichel's surgery was successful, and he joined the Golden Knights in the second half of the 2021-22 season, when the team was scrapping for each and every point in the playoff race.
Eichel played 34 games for the Golden Knights last year, and he tallied 14 goals and 25 points. Under the surface, the team controlled just 50.58% of the expected goals when Eichel was on the ice at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. That wasn't a bad debut by any means, but it wasn't nearly good enough for the team to reach the postseason.
For the first time in Vegas' brief history, the team watched the entirety of the Stanley Cup playoffs from home.
After that disappointing campaign, Vegas fired head coach Peter DeBoer and brought in former Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. In order to accommodate Eichel's $10 million cap hit for the entire 2022-23 season, the Golden Knights also traded star winger Max Pacioretty and defenseman Dylan Coghlan to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for future considerations. In hockey terms, that means "slightly more than nothing." Once again, Vegas was betting that Eichel could be the engine that drives the team to Cup contention.
Well, just 13 games into the 2022-23 season, the Golden Knights are winning big.
Eichel has five goals and 14 points, and Vegas owns the best record in the NHL at 11-2-0. More important: all of this success looks sustainable.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Eichel leads the team in expected goals share at five-on-five (66.39%). Additionally, he has found some magic with Mark Stone on his wing. Those two have been together for over 102 minutes at five-on-five, and they are outscoring opponents 8-1 in that time.
There is still a long way to go this season, and a lot can change between now and April. However, it looks as though Eichel is finally comfortable in his new home, and he just might get the chance to show what he can do in his first taste of the NHL playoffs come spring.