We know what he can contribute to a team. But where does he fit?
The logistics of his return are complicated, given the cap situation. So is his actual entrance into the lineup, given how deep Vegas is already and the fact that they have two top-six combinations they consistently roll with when the team’s healthy. But that’s a good problem to have.
The Golden Knights may ease him in, because as prepared as Eichel could be, nothing truly replicates game speed. But once the pivotal player gets going again, where will he fit in the lineup?
Let’s take a look at options for 5-on-5 play, and the ripples each would have on the lineup.
This would probably be the least disruptive option in the top six. It puts Eichel firmly between the team’s best offensive generators to form one of the better top lines in the league. Chandler Stephenson, the mainstay centre of the trio, likely then shifts to the third line. Not only does the top line get stronger, but their depth gets a boost with Stephenson shifting lower.
Of course, this would break up a line that Vegas has relied on for some time. This season, the Pacioretty-Stephenson-Stone trio is generating less than 53 per cent of the expected goal share and scoring about 67 per cent of the goals. Injuries have been a major factor in that, though. Looking back to last year, when they had 470 minutes together, they pushed for about 63 per cent of the xG share, to compare, showing how much they drive play.
Chemistry is obviously a key part of their success. So are complementary playing styles. But given that Eichel could provide what Stephenson does, and more, it would likely work.
At 5-on-5, Stephenson leads the Golden Knights with his rate of carry-ins at 14.0 per 60, thanks to his speedy skating. That helps this line generate offence off the rush. Transitional play is something Eichel has always been absolutely elite at, so there won’t be an issue of not having a puck carrier if he were to replace Stephenson.
They’ll gain a player in Eichel, who generates more individually. That probably will cause defenders to scramble in their attempts to somehow manage three top-tier offensive players.
This is the hot option for Vegas, given how skilled all three are. But is it the best option? There may be better ones to round out the top six, and even the top nine, if this line gets shut down.
This keeps Eichel and Stone together without necessarily overloading that first line. Between Eichel and Stone, there’re two elite transitional players. Few are better than Stone at stripping their opponent of the puck and sparking a play – whether he takes the puck up the ice himself or sends it to a teammate to do the legwork. With the winger on the right, there’s already that two-way presence. So the idea of balance isn’t necessarily for defensive play. That said, there has to be some give and take with this duo to ensure the rest of the lineup is as balanced with skill as possible, given that two of the team’s best would be on this line.
That’s where the coaches could look to the bottom six, whether it’s a player such as Will Carrier, Mattias Janmark, or even eventually Nolan Patrick.
In Carrier, this line would add another player who can drive to the slot to shoot; his rate of slot shots actually put him fourth on the team when accounting for minutes played. But more than his shot, the strength Carrier could add to this line is the ability to battle for loose pucks – he successfully wins those loose puck battles while under pressure both in the neutral zone and offensive end, including on rebound shots. That may be all this line needs given the abilities of the two stars on it.
For ultimate balance, the idea may be to keep Eichel away from Stone and Pacioretty altogether. He’s an elite player who doesn’t need much to thrive. And with Marchessault and possibly Smith, Eichel would still have skill on his wings.
Marchessault ranks as the best passer, both in frequency and quality, after the members of that top line. That should help set up a shooter such as Eichel, who tends to get to those quality areas of the ice with his attempts, as pictured below.
He’s also a volume shooter, though he doesn’t get to the high-danger area as often as some of his teammates this season. Having a player such as Eichel who can buy him time, space, and set him up with craft passes, could change that.
On the right, this assumes Smith is not a piece that gets moved to make the cap logistics work. As a pending UFA, he could be the piece the team chooses to part with. If not Smith, there’s Evgenii Dadonov or Mattias Janmark who could slot on to this line instead – the former with more offensive upside, the latter more of a two-way player.
The simple flip then could be slotting William Karlsson, the current centre between Marchessault and Smith, between Stone and Pacioretty. Then Stephenson slots down to the third line, giving the team outstanding depth. Or, if it’s recognized just how well Stephenson clicks in his current surroundings, Vegas could even experiment with Karlsson down the middle of the third to really expand their depth. That’s the beauty of strengthening a lineup with so much skill.
Pacioretty and Stone obviously click so well that the Golden Knights may not want to split them up at even strength. However, if lineup balance is the goal, maybe it should be a legitimate consideration.
Why would Pacioretty be the one to match up with Eichel versus Stone? Because Stone plays so well in transition on his own that he doesn’t necessarily need the centre for that – he can thrive no matter who he’s paired with. The left wing, on the other hand, matches up well with a puck carrier to handle that aspect of play – in their current combination, it’s Stephenson and Stone who are relied on for that.
With Pacioretty and Eichel together, the line has two effective shooters who both concentrate most of their shots to the home plate area. But Eichel isn’t just a shooter, he’s worked on his passing game over the years to become a dual threat. So he can keep defenders guessing on whether he’s going to take the shot himself or set up one of the more frequent shooters in the league in Pacioretty. That pairs two scoring threats together who will challenge defenders from only a matchup consideration; opponents will have to worry about this line that’s loaded with talent as well as Stone’s.
Plus, Eichel’s growth over the years helped him have a more complete game. So, between his defensive efforts and Smith’s, this line should be balanced enough to hold their own on one end of the ice, and drive play into the offensive zone. Again, if Smith isn’t the odd-man out for cap reasons. If he is, unlike the previous combination, then a player such as Janmark may be the most fitting here since there’s already so much skill that they may just need a two-way piece that can click to complete the trio.
To round out the top six, Marchessault-Karlsson-Stone is the obvious option in this scenario, with Stephenson moving down to the third line.
Data via Sportlogiq