Eichel healthy, expecting big season with Golden Knights

Jack Eichel feels good, and it’s been a while since the Vegas Golden Knights forward has been able to say that.

“It’s been a nice offseason,” he said. “I guess more normal than the last two with COVID and then last summer, dealing with what I was dealing with. … So, it’s been good. The body feels good. It’s good to have your health, and looking forward to the year. “

Last summer, Eichel was dealing with a herniated disk in his neck and a disagreement with the Buffalo Sabers regarding which surgery to have. He wanted artificial disk replacement (ADR); the Sabers preferred a fusion procedure. Eichel was traded to Vegas on Nov. 4 and had the surgery he wanted eight days later.

The 25-year-old played his first game with the Golden Knights on Feb. 16, and finished the season with 25 points (14 goals, 11 assists) in 34 games. Although he led the team in goals during that stretch, it was his lowest points per game (0.74) since his rookie season in 2015-16 (0.69).

Eichel had three points (one goal, two assists) in eight games from April 9-26, when the Golden Knights were battling for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Vegas was eliminated from contention on April 27, failing to qualify for the postseason for the first time since entering the NHL in 2017-18.

The team said Eichel played the last six weeks of the season with a non-displaced fracture in his thumb.

“Listen, I’m not going to make excuses,” Eichel said. “I don’t think I played well last year in terms of my expectation of myself, and I’m sure the opinion of the public is probably pretty similar. They expect more out of me, and rightfully so.

“With that being said, I came off a major surgery after not playing for a year, and I had major spine surgery and played three months after and, so, that’s pretty quick and, you know, like anybody that’s had surgery or went through an injury, it takes a lot of time for you to get back to feeling like yourself.”

Video: [email protected]: Eichel cranks one-timer past Markstrom

This summer, Eichel has been able to have what he called a “standard offseason,” and he has used the time to rebuild and regroup.

“Just because you have surgery [and] you get opened up, doesn’t mean everything goes back to normal,” he said. “I was injured before having surgery for a long time, and you build a lot of compensations, and you get into a lot of poor patterns and other things start to act up. So it’s been a nice summer of trying to unwind a lot of things that maybe came with the injury, and just giving myself more time to heal and more time to do rehab and continue to just try and get back to feeling as much as myself as I can.”

Selected by the Sabers with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel had 355 points (139 goals, 216 assists) in 375 games in his first six seasons in Buffalo, where he was heavily leaned upon to be one of the main drivers of the offense.

Although forward Mark Stone will miss training camp after undergoing back surgery in May, Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said that Eichel won’t have the pressure of being the No. 1 guy anymore.

“Some nights less is going to be more because you’re on a good team, you don’t have to be driving everything every night,” Cassidy said regarding Eichel. “We have other good players. It doesn’t mean you take nights off, that’s not what I’m saying. Understand that you give us 18 1/2, 19 solid minutes, win your share of draws, make plays, but if you’re not on the score sheet that night and we’re winning games and you’re helping us, that’s a positive.”

Cassidy said Eichel, who he spoke to this summer, is ready to go.

“For him coming in maybe, I don’t know if clean slate is the right word, because I wasn’t here last year, but he’s coming in A) healthy, B) with something to prove, C) with a new coach and, basically, his first full year in a whole new organization,” said Cassidy, who was hired June 14 to replace Peter DeBoer. “So there’s a lot for him to get excited about in terms of, ‘Hey, you know what? This could be a springboard for my career right here,’ and I think he can’t help but get motivated to play when that happens .”

Eichel said he has developed a keen sense of perspective and is thankful for the opportunity to not only get back to playing hockey, but to regain his old form.

“I just want to get back to feeling like myself,” he said. “I think just being confident every night and trying to help our team win hockey games, whether that’s producing or winning face-offs and being [strong] … in our defensive zone.

“I think there are a lot of good things I did last year in terms of away from the puck and working and maybe some areas of my game that maybe I haven’t been good at in the past, but you know, I just want to get back to being that dynamic force that I was before I got hurt and I know I’ll be there.”

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