What a healthy Jack Eichel will bring to the Golden Knights lineup

Caroline Cameron is joined by the Hockey Central panel to discuss the Jack Eichel trade to the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Jack Eichel saga finally ends with the Golden Knights acquiring the centre from Buffalo. While pieces moved both ways — including draft picks, Peyton Krebs, and Alex Tuch to the Sabres — the most important piece of this deal is obviously Eichel.

So, let’s focus in there. What is Vegas adding to its lineup when Eichel returns to play and why does this trade make sense for them?

Eichel hasn’t played since last March, and is obviously dealing with a risky injury. There’s never a guarantee on how a player will fit with a new team, or how they’ll return from injuries or surgeries. But there’s reason to bet on this centre — he’s that skilled.

On the surface, even with the considerations surrounding the injury aside, there could be concern around the fact that he scored just two goals in 21 games in all situations last season. Shooting less than four per cent obviously limited his results.

Based on the quality of his shots, Eichel was expected to score more than he actually did — he was expected to have closer to six goals in all situations. The minus-4.45 goal disparity between reality and expectations ranked 12th in the league in all situations in terms of goal scoring under-performances. Just ahead of Eichel on that list? One of his most frequent teammates last year, Taylor Hall.

Eichel did manage nine power play points in 21 games, and he should provide a boost to, presumably, the Golden Knights’ top unit whenever he returns - a group that sorely needs it, as they have yet to cash in on the man-advantage this year. But that’s the area of Eichel's game where there’s likely the least concern since he’ll have more space to work his magic while surrounded by some of the best players in Vegas.

His 5-on-5 play on the surface stands out for the wrong reasons. The centre only mustered one goal and nine points there last season.

Eichel wasn’t the most frequent shooter in 2020-21, which only hurt his chances to score. However, he still contributed elsewhere, primarily with his puck-carrying and distributing.

Transitional play has always been a key part of Eichel's game. Highlights of him rushing end-to-end with the puck on his stick have stood out throughout his career. But even last year, when the Sabres were as dismal as possible, he continued his attempts to facilitate the team’s offence.

Only six players carried the puck over the blue line and into the offensive zone at a higher rate than Eichel’s 16.8 attempts per 60 minutes last season — Leon Draisaitl, Brayden Point, Jack Hughes, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor McDavid, and Mathew Barzal. Where Eichel slid slightly lower down the rankings (to 19th in the league) was a carry-in entry being followed by a successful play. That said, he still found himself in the upper echelon of the league in scoring chances after skating the puck in (35th).

Even when it wasn’t directly preceded by a zone entry, where Eichel thrived in particular was setting his teammates up to shoot. He teed up his teammates with a shot assist at a rate of 14.40 per 60 that led the Sabres, and ranked 14th among all forwards in the league.

Last season isn’t the best representation of Eichel though, just given how dreadful the entire team performed — he wasn’t healthy by the time Buffalo changed coaches and started showing some signs of life. Plus, he didn't even play half of last season's games.

The 2019-20 season paints a much different picture of the Sabres’ former leading centre. On the surface, of course, there’s his 36 goals and 42 assists for 78 points in 68 games; at that pace, he scored at the second-highest rate of his career (although the differences between 2018-19 and 2019-20 were one tenth of a point per 60). At the very least, it shows consistency in the pivot’s scoring abilities.

Besides his 27 points on the man-advantage, Eichel tallied 35 points at 5-on-5. His shooting was better in 2019-20 than 2020-21. The then-Sabres captain shot the puck at a higher rate than he did last season and generated more from the slot. The increase in shot volume (and quality) increased his expected goal generation, which his actual scoring exceeded.

The heat map below helps show those shooting opportunities, combining both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons at 5-on-5. The majority of Eichel's shots were within the home plate area, which give a shooter an increased chance of scoring.

Exceeding expectations isn’t anything new for Eichel; he’s done that through much of his NHL career. Sometimes a regression is anticipated or sustainability is questioned when a player surpasses their expected goals. While the extent to which Eichel outscored expectations in 2019-20 may not be the norm, him generally besting expectations is a testament to his shooting ability that only increases his chances of scoring.

Again, transitional play was a key part of his game. He carried the puck into the zone at a slightly increased rate (17.4 attempts per 60) that landed him fifth in the league. Unlike last season, in 2019-20 more of those entries led to successful plays and scoring chances after.

And only one of his teammates, Marcus Johansson, thread his teammates with a higher rate of shot assists.

Over the years, Eichel’s improved in two key areas: his defensive efforts and passing game. And the latter in particular has made him such a dual threat. He has the hands to deke around the opponents quickly, and has an effective shot.

Defenders are drawn to him, and when he pulls them in, he opens up space for his teammates if he can thread them a pass. But being able to deceive opponents and keep them guessing on whether he’s going to find a teammate or put the puck on net himself makes him even more dangerous, and adds a dimension to the way he attacks.

That’s why, despite his current injury status, so many teams were in on the Eichel sweepstakes.

Vegas, in particular, makes quite a lot of sense.

They’ve made splashy moves over the past few seasons — from acquiring Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone via trade, to signing free agent Alex Pietrangelo. So it’s only fitting that they’d sniff around another big name on the market. But this is an area they actually had to address.

As deep as the Golden Knights are, centre depth has been an area of weakness for some time. When compared to the average contender, there’s been some checks and balances in other areas to help make up for it — Mark Stone being one of the best two-way players in the league helped account for not having a elite first line centre that most contenders strive to have. Chandler Stephenson has fit in just fine between Stone and Pacioretty, anyway.

Clearly, though, in win-now mode, the Golden Knights weren’t ready to settle with this lineup just yet — not after losing in the semifinals last year and Conference Final the year prior. Things obviously haven’t gone as planned so far this season for the Golden Knights, but Eichel could potentially join the team for a late-season push, the playoffs, and the next four years.

What puts Eichel in a particularly strong position to succeed with his new team is the quality of teammates he'll have. He’s played alongside skill in Buffalo, from Hall to Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and Victor Olofsson. But the Golden Knights, when healthy (which they hope to be by the time Eichel returns) are stacked.

With Eichel, the Golden Knights have options. They could pair him between Pacioretty and Stone. Stephenson led that line (and the team) in carry-ins, so Eichel could easily replace that and help take them to the next level. That combination has the potential to be absolutely dynamic with their skill sets; Stone is a master at picking the puck off his opponents, Eichel’s transition game is stellar, and Pacioretty can complete a sequence with his lethal shot.

It’s possible that Eichel on that line would make the team too top-heavy. But with the influx of elite talent, now down the middle, they open up far more options to mix up their top-six. And whichever centre shifts to the third line as a result (likely Stephenson), adds to their forward depth to give them more scoring options now that Alex Tuch is on his way to Buffalo in exchange. A player with Stephenson’s playing style could help the third line create more in transition.

By moving to the Golden Knights, Eichel finally gets to be a part of a team built for contention. And Vegas adds a key piece they were missing in an elite centre.

All data via Sportlogiq

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