The Jack Eichel trade saga is finally complete. And true to form, the Vegas Golden Knights have come out as the successful suitor.
The club announced Thursday that it has acquired the injured center from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for forwards Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs, plus two high draft picks.
The deal ends an impasse that began last March, after Eichel was sidelined with a herniated disc in his neck. He and his camp want to address the injury with artificial disk replacement surgery, which has been successfully conducted on athletes in other high-impact sports including MMA and rugby. Hockey players have also undergone the procedure, but not at the NHL level. For that reason, the Sabres’ medical team refused to sign off on the procedure for their then-captain, favoring a more commonly peformed disc fusion procedure.
Speaking with the media on Thursday, Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon confirmed that Eichel will undergo his desired procedure soon, although an exact date and location have not yet been set.
Understandably, Eichel’s recovery timeline is uncertain.
So, while the Golden Knights have already suffered through a litany of significant injuries this season, the Eichel acquisition is a long-term play. And while the acquisition price was significant, Vegas loses just one player off its current roster in Krebs — the 20-year-old who was drafted 17th overall in 2019.
Drafted as a center, Krebs has been deployed on the wing in Vegas. In 13 career NHL games, including nine this season, Krebs has one assist while averaging 13:01 of ice time per game.
Tuch, a power forward, has been sidelined after offseason shoulder surgery. In late July, McCrimmon said he expected Tuch to be unavailable for about six months — which would put the 25-year-old back on the ice around the time of next February’s Olympic break.
An original Golden Knight, the speedy and powerful Tuch ranks sixth on the franchise’s all-time scoring list, with 61-78-139 in 249 games. He is also sixth in playoff scoring, with 33 points in 66 games.
Eichel’s recent medical issues have overshadowed the fact that, at his best, he’s one of the best centers in hockey. Drafted second overall behind Connor McDavid in 2015, the 25-year-old Boston-area native has 139-216-355 in 375 career games, but his struggling Sabres failed to reach the playoffs during his six seasons with the team.
In their brief history, the Golden Knights have demonstrated time and time again that they’ll target the biggest stars in the game when they become available. They didn’t get across the finish line with Erik Karlsson at the 2018 trade deadline but subsequently pulled the trigger on major trades for Max Pacioretty (September 2018) and Mark Stone (February 2019), then lured Alex Pietrangelo as an unrestricted free agent in July of 2020.
But still thin down the middle — and after flaming out offensively last spring in the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens — the Golden Knights still had an obvious need for a true No. 1 center. Eichel had long been rumored to be the player who could be the best fit in that spot.
Vegas’s tendency to go big-game hunting has made it challenging for the team to remain salary-cap compliant, and Eichel’s acquisition will add to that pressure. He’s currently in the fourth season of an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit of $10 million a year.
Tuch also has four years remaining on his contract after this season, at a cap hit of $4.75 million, so the Golden Knights have effectively taken on an additional $5.25 million in cap responsibility. This year, cap relief from players on long-term injured reserve could be enough to let Eichel’s cap hit fit when he is healthy and ready to play. Going forward, McCrimmon says he’ll take things day by day.
The next step for the Golden Knights will be to try to stay in the playoff mix until Eichel is healthy and ready to join the team in the new year. Many preseason predictions had Vegas running away with first place in the Pacific Division, but after early injuries to Stone and Pacioretty, the team sits second-last in the division as of Thursday morning, with a record of 4-5-0.
A pair of centers have been the most recent additions to the Golden Knights’ injured list. William Karlsson is expected to miss four to six weeks after breaking his foot last week, and offseason trade acquisition Nolan Patrick was placed on injured reserve with an upper-body issue on October 30, the same day the Golden Knights plucked forward Michael Amadio off the waiver wire from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For the Sabres, the trade marks a reasonably successful end to a difficult saga. Now an NHL-high 10 years removed from their last playoff appearance, Buffalo walks away with a solid package of assets in return for a player whose upside is high, but who also carries significant risk — what if there are complications from the neck surgery?
Even with the threat looming that Eichel could file a grievance against the Sabres for blocking his preferred medical procedure, Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams stuck to his guns — both in terms of his desired trade package and his refusal to retain any of Eichel’s salary going forward.
On the ice, the Sabres have also been an unexpected feel-good story this season. With well-respected rookie head coach Don Granato at the helm, Buffalo has started the season with a 5-3-1 record and sits in third place in the tough Atlantic Division as of Thursday morning.
The trade won’t have any immediate impact Buffalo’s the current roster. Tuch is still a couple of months away from full health and Krebs will be assigned to the AHL’s Rochester Americans.