- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
LAS VEGAS — Labels can be dangerous. So can superlatives. This is why it is suggested that those who use them be careful, because there is no way of telling if the expectation itself can be too much to bear before it’s too late.
Belief can create pressure, and pressure is something Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel has learned to manipulate in ways that work for him. He applied the right amount of it when he aggressively shadowed Ryan Suter when the veteran Stars defenseman had possession of the puck behind the Dallas net in Game 2 of the teams’ Western Conference final series.
This led to the puck making its way to Vegas’ Ivan Barbashev, who played it back to Eichel. With Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen draped over him, Eichel instantly fed a no-look, backhanded pass into the slot that Jonathan Marchessault converted for a 2-2 tie late in the third period. Vegas came away with a 3-2 overtime win to take a 2-0 series advantage. The series resumes tonight in Dallas (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+).
“There’s mistakes made, and they cashed in, and they made a real good play,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “Jack Eichel makes a world-class pass.”
World class. It’s a label DeBoer used to describe Eichel, a player he coached last season, not even an hour after the game ended. He’s not the only one who used that phrase. Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo went as far as saying Eichel was a world-class player.
Describing a person or their actions as “world class” brings no guarantee they’ll actually live up to that standard. But that was always the expectation with Eichel, who has been tagged with that superlative for some time.
Eichel is the type of talent executives and front offices long for. A No. 1 center. A franchise cornerstone. A player to build around. These are all statements that have been made at one time or another about Eichel. That is why the Buffalo Sabres drafted him second overall in 2015 and why the Golden Knights parted with two promising players and two high draft picks to get him.
Eichel’s talent itself was never in question. How he would fit in with the Golden Knights came with questions because of how everything ended with the Sabres. He went from being the star of the future and captain to battling with the franchise about treatment options for a disk in his neck that caused him to miss time across two seasons. He was stripped of his captaincy before being traded Nov. 4, 2021.
“I think all those rumors about problems or challenges with Jack have been squashed pretty quickly,” Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar said. “He’s a pretty awesome guy. I got to know him very quickly.
“He came in here. He knew Robin [Lehner]. He knew Will [Carrier], and he knew a bunch of other players who had played against him for years in the league. … He came in and just acted like himself from the start and blended well with our team. We have a very open locker room. Everyone blends well with each other, and the transition was quick.”
The move to Vegas came with questions. Would Eichel be the same — or an even better — version of himself following his surgery? If so, could he be the missing piece to help the Golden Knights win the title they’ve been chasing since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season of 2017-18?
What Eichel has done this postseason has led to even more questions. Could this be the year the Golden Knights win it all? Will the playoffs end with Eichel posing for photos with the Stanley Cup on one side and the Conn Smythe Trophy on the other?
Then there’s this question: What has Eichel done that has made him so beloved within the Golden Knights dressing room?
“I’ve been here for five years now, it’s a pretty easy group of guys to jump into,” Vegas captain Mark Stone said. “I did it. Petro did it. Everybody who’s coming here. There’s been a lot of turnover trying to make this team better. It’s been a testament to Jack coming in here and not trying to change anything, just trying to fit in. That’s all guys want here. They just want guys to come in, be themselves and fit into the group.”
ONE MIGHT THINK asking Eichel’s teammates what they had heard about his time with the Sabres and if they had any preconceived thoughts about him could create awkwardness or even tension. But that’s not the case at all.
“You hear the Buffalo stories about him, this and that,” Golden Knights center Chandler Stephenson said. “Then he comes over here and none of those were even close. You see he is just a good dude and such an unbelievable hockey player. Now it’s like he’s always been here with how he is and how comfortable he is.”
Carrier, Kolesar and Stephenson present a different perspective that explains what allowed Eichel to quickly be accepted by his teammates. Eichel’s introduction to the team was unique in that he was days away from having replacement disk surgery after he was traded to Vegas.
Even before he left for his surgery, he began getting to know his teammates. Kolesar said his first encounter with Eichel was when they had breakfast together at the team’s practice facility. Eichel was sitting down at a table when Kolesar went up to him, introduced himself and sat down, and they just started hitting it off.
Stephenson estimated it took Eichel around two days to start feeling comfortable with the rest of the team. But Stephenson added that’s not all that unusual with the Knights.
“Everybody has their own opinion about people,” Stephenson said. “It’s just a feel-out thing. You find out if they golf or what their hobbies are or if they have kids or a dog. It’s little things like that to kind of know their likes, dislikes and their personalities. You learn if they’re a one-line guy or if they are a storyteller. … You want to make players, and if they have a significant other, welcome, and that was something nice when I came here. The wives and girlfriends for my wife were messaging her right away and saying, ‘It was nice to meet you’ and ‘Hey, do you want to go out for dinner?’ That was huge, and it goes a long way. That’s what makes a team so special.”
Carrier spent one season with the Sabres as a teammate of Eichel’s. The Eichel that Carrier befriended in Buffalo — the anticipated future face of the franchise who was named captain before his 22nd birthday — is a contrast to the one he now plays with, a 26-year-old who has learned a lot about himself and gained maturity.
Carrier also explained how, with the Golden Knights, success is a shared responsibility and not one that falls at the feet of a chosen few.
“He’s not cocky at all. He can have four, five points in a game and he’s humble,” Carrier said. “I think a lot of it is body language, too. When it’s not going so well — he had a stretch, five or six games, when it’s not going his way — he’s not complaining, and some top guys complain if they don’t get the points. Even if you win, they get sad and don’t talk to anyone. I think he’s the opposite. Even if he is not having a great night and is still playing well defensively for us, I think that helps, too.”
That’s what made Eichel scoring a third-period hat trick earlier this season in a 7-4 win over the Sabres in Buffalo such an important moment for him and the team. Eichel made his initial return to Buffalo during the 2021-22 season, during which he was booed every time he touched the puck in a 3-1 defeat.
Forget how Eichel felt about scoring a hat trick against his former team. Kolesar said the entire team was just as invested, if not more so, in seeing him score those goals.
“It was not only important for him, I think it’s a pivotal moment in our year of jelling together as a team,” Kolesar said. “You look back at our celebrations as a bench. When he got the third one, we’re all losing it. You don’t normally lose it in what was a 6-1 or 6-2 game at the time. With Jack, we know how important that game was to him. Last year, we didn’t show up to play on that one and we cost him the reunion. This year, we wanted to make sure we got him the win, felt proud to play and something we’ll always remember.”
Or as Carrier said, “Getting booed by the fans, it’s almost like going at a member of your family. … We were happy for him. It would have been nice if he had four or five so he could shut their mouths at that rink.”
ATTEMPTING TO BUILD what they deem to be the ideal roster is an exercise that can leave general managers in one of two places. Either they concentrate on what they have or they focus on what they don’t have. Sometimes, they do both at once.
When Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon explains the circumstances that led him to acquiring Eichel, it’s evident he was living in both spaces. McCrimmon said the last time the Golden Knights played the Stars in the postseason, in the Edmonton bubble back in 2019-20, it became clear to him certain items are needed for a team to win a Stanley Cup.
McCrimmon said what the Tampa Bay Lightning had with Victor Hedman and the St. Louis Blues with Pietrangelo showed that championship teams cannot win without a No. 1 defenseman.
“I think in the same breath, so is a No. 1 center,” McCrimmon said. “We had good centers, but if you look at the Montreal series [in the 2020-21 playoffs], Chandler Stephenson was injured. All of a sudden, you’ve run out of centers. Right now, one of the strengths of our team is our strength up the middle.”
Strengths. As in plural. Being formidable in a variety of areas is part of the reason Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault said after Game 2 that this year’s team is “the best team we’ve ever had.”
Eichel is one of six Golden Knights players with more than 10 points this postseason. He’s tied with Stone for the team lead in assists and tied for third on the team with six goals, with William Karlsson and Stephenson tied for first with seven.
Still, Eichel has at times stood out with flashes of brilliance. Take Game 5 against Edmonton. He had the goal that tied it 1-1, and then after the Oilers went up 2-1 to end the first period, he had a hand in two of three straight Vegas goals — including the game-winner — in a critical 4-3 victory.
Then, of course, there’s the assist in Game 2 against Dallas that resurfaced the “world class” tag.
What was Eichel’s take on the play? He was matter-of-fact when describing it, saying he was trying to read the situation with the context of the Stars’ ability to condense space and shrink the zone, which presents challenges.
“It’s just a good forecheck by us. Barbs makes a great play on the wall getting it back,” Eichel said. “Just Marchy’s in the slot, he does a great job of getting inside and it’s a great finish by him.”
That shows off another skill that makes Eichel special, as he turned a question about himself into an answer about everything and everyone else.
But it also goes back to what Marchessault and so many others have said about the Golden Knights. No one person is at the controls. If anything, it’s more like an interchangeable assembly line in how everyone understands they have a job but is aware that what’s asked of them could change at any moment.
In that regard, Eichel is no different.
Yet the great irony in all this? That approach could be the reason Eichel wins a title but not the Conn Smythe in what is his first postseason appearance.
Even so, despite Vegas’ balanced attack, Eichel’s 15 points entering Game 3 are tied with Stars forward Jason Robertson and Stone for fifth in the postseason. Florida Panthers superstar winger Matthew Tkachuk and Stars two-way star center Roope Hintz are the only players on teams that are still alive with more points.
Oddsmakers aren’t shy about Eichel’s Conn Smythe chances. Caesars Sportsbook lists him with 9-2 odds, the third choice behind Panthers teammates Tkachuk and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“I think everyone brings something different to the group,” Eichel said of the Knights. “We’ve done a good job jelling as a team this year, and I think everyone enjoys each other’s company. I think with that, it allows you to be yourself every day.
“The more time you spend around people, I think the more comfortable you get. I think that’s sort of the big thing for me. It’s getting to spend time away from the rink with the guys, going on trips and being on the road. You get to know people. They get to know you. It allows you to be yourself.”
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