One in, one out -- it's the way things have mostly gone in Vegas this season.
Wednesday night the Golden Knights celebrate the debut of Jack Eichel, acquired in this season's only blockbuster deal so far and adding the one missing piece of "eliteness" these contenders haven't had before at centre ice.
"I just feel like I'm at that point where I'm ready to play," he said Monday.
Eichel will be positioned to succeed right away, playing between Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov on a trio calibrated to put the puck in the net. Dadonov, who scored 25-plus in three consecutive seasons with the Florida Panthers, has 10 goals in 46 games on a career-low 8.5 shooting percentage. Dadonov is top three among Vegas forwards in expected goals, scoring chances and shots. Pacioretty is tied with Steven Stamkos for seventh in the league at 1.58 goals per 60 minutes over the past three years. He's their most dangerous striker and has been on a 40-goal pace this season and last.
And then there's Eichel, a 36-goal player (in 68 games) when we last saw him have a healthy season in 2019-20. He is great at generating individual chances, as outlined by Shayna Goldman in this piece reviewing Vegas' lineup choices. As dangerous as he is as a scorer, Eichel is as much a threat to set up his linemates -- from 2018-19 through 2020-21 Eichel ranked 25th in the NHL by assists per 60 minutes.
We haven't seen him in a while -- this will be Eichel's first game since March 7 -- and he's coming back after being the first NHLer to ever have an artificial disk replacement procedure to repair his injured neck. But we have to remember he was on his way to taking another big step before the pandemic hit. Eichel was tied for 10th in NHL scoring with Jonathan Huberdeau when the NHL hit pause in March 2020.
"I think there's a lot to prove to myself, to the rest of the league, to the organization," Eichel said. "I think I just...you consider yourself one of the better players in our league and you want to get back to that. Prior to the injury and last season I was starting to establish myself where I wanted to be and obviously been derailed a little bit with injuries. Just want to get back to where I was and take it to the next level."
He's being thrown right back into the deep end by landing on the top line in a showdown with the fellow Cup contending Colorado Avalanche, while Vegas sits second in the Pacific Division behind the surging Calgary Flames, for the first time since Dec. 18.
It will be a little bittersweet when the celebration of Eichel is mixed with the absence of Mark Stone in the lineup. Stone's back injury, a topic for cap conspiracists, is what allowed Vegas to activate Eichel without having to make any other substantial transactions. A fully-healthy Vegas lineup is nearly $11 million over the cap. If Stone does return before the playoffs, GM Kelly McCrimmon would have to figure out a way to really shake things up to create room.
The Golden Knights had players on LTIR when they acquired Eichel in November, but from that moment it was clear that, barring injuries, these Knights were going to have to slash some notable salary from the roster to make it all work down the road. Vegas has handled a ton of injuries throughout the season, though, and now with Stone on the sidelines, that decision can be kicked down the road a little -- or to the off-season entirely if their captain doesn't return before the start of the playoffs.
Meantime, the trade deadline looms.
"This had to happen for Mark Stone irrespective of our salary cap, irrespective of Jack Eichel returning to play," McCrimmon said. "Had Jack Eichel been able to return to play and Mark Stone been perfectly healthy, we would have made corresponding moves to fit him into our salary cap. The trade deadline is March 21, four weeks from now, we'll use the info we have available to us at that time to make the decisions we need to make. You do the work, you have to always be prepared for whatever the landscape looks like when the time comes."
Vegas, it seems, always has a way of dealing with the salary cap. All the best teams are able to manage the smallest of margins. And so, on a day where their most expensive player joins the lineup and their second-most expensive player is removed to remain barely cap compliant, of course the Golden Knights happened to come up in a trade rumour for the most expensive rental goalie on the market.
According to Daily Faceoff's Frank Seravalli, goalie Robin Lehner has an upper-body injury that's believed to be a torn labrum and will require surgery at some point. If the injury does become serious enough where Lehner misses time, or even has to be moved to LTIR himself, Vegas could relieve themselves of his $5 million cap hit and entertain the goalie market. This development should set off alarms and might push the Golden Knights back into the trade market again.
Servalli reported that the Golden Knights had expressed interest in bringing back Marc-Andre Fleury. It's a nice idea, though it's worth recalling the awkward way Fleury was traded away by the Golden Knights, with news of the deal leaking out on social media before the team communicated it with the goalie. Fleury, after a rough start to the season, has come all the way back in form following a slow season start, with a .918 save percentage, three shutouts and a winning record since mid-December.
One in, one out. It would be very bold and very Vegas.
McCrimmon, however, shot down the thought Tuesday night.
“There is absolutely no credence to that rumour at all,” McCrimmon told David Schoen of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I wouldn’t normally speak (officially) on such things, but there will be so much racket about this, it’s important to let people know that’s not going to happen.”
Regardless, Lehner won't start against the Avalanche on Wednesday, as the Golden Knights turn to Laurent Brossoit, who shut out the Oilers last week. And now their goaltending situation becomes one to watch again.
The story on Wednesday, though, remains Eichel and how he looks out of the gate returning from neck surgery. The latest game-changer added to a lineup full of them, he has room in his game to break out further as a superstar and now, for the first time in his career, will be surrounded by a great team -- even if the Golden Knights are still not back to full health.