After not playing hockey for almost a year, Jack Eichel finally donned a Vegas Golden Knights sweater for the first time on Wednesday night. What did his first game show us? Here are my takeaways.
When you’ve been around pro athletes as long as I have, nothing about quick recoveries is surprising. Some people are just quick healers, some are better at playing through pain, and others are far more dedicated to rehabilitation than others. In Jack Eichel’s case, his recovery from a synthetic disc surgery was faster than hoped for and enabled him to join the Golden Knights lineup on Wednesday night.
That said, recovery is one thing. Getting back into a game and up to speed is quite another. But Eichel showed some good things despite the VGK being shut out 2-0 by the Colorado Avalanche.
The very first thing I noticed was that Eichel did not shy away from contact, which is important. Hand-in-hand with that is the contact seemed to not bother him or his surgically replaced disc. After the game Eichel spoke more about getting back in the saddle and feeling the love from Golden Knights fans, but didn’t mention any pain or discomfort. So being able to take a hit and give a hit is the first major hurdle cleared.
Another important thing I noticed was that Eichel seemed to be in pretty good shape given his extended absence. Several shots of him on the bench after shifts didn’t show someone laboring to regain his breath, but instead showed his conditioning to be much better than I expected. This signals Eichel has been training hard and was ready to go, with head coach Pete DeBoer not worried about handing him over 17 minutes of ice time.
It’s logical to assume players that miss significant time in any sport will have timing issues when they return to game speed. Yet Eichel came through pretty well in some key areas, including going 8-for-11 in the faceoff circle. Faceoffs are timing, touch and instinct, and jumping back in to win 73% of your draws is impressive. One of the major reasons Eichel was coveted by the Vegas Golden Knights was because the team needed a top center for Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Starting with the puck more often on a line that gets the majority of offensive zone starts will be a huge improvement for VGK scoring.
There were also a few times when the playmaking Jack Eichel appeared, flashing the brilliance that Golden Knights fans will come to know and love. There was a sweet back-door pass to a streaking Evgenii Dadonov that the latter just failed to direct on net. Other times Eichel was threading pucks through traffic to find sticks of teammates for potential scoring chances. He also was not hurried in making plays, slowing the game down with puck possession and skating, allowing his teammates to find scoring opportunities.
Finally, if you want to see what makes Eichel such a great player, look at his on-ice presence. Skating with his head up in his peculiar upright-but-crouched position, Eichel was seeing the ice well. He was finding time and space to look for teammates and make plays. Just watch Eichel when he carries the puck over the offensive blue line and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. He is one of the best in the NHL at it, and it can only lead to more great things for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Keep an eye on Eichel as he ramps his game back up. DeBoer has already said the pressure is off, he just wants Eichel to play his game.
That’s good, because when he does there are few better in the league.