Kelly McCrimmon, general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, said in a media call on Thursday that it might be as many as five months before newly acquired Jack Eichel suits up for his team after having neck surgery.
“It’s challenging to give a timeframe because it’s never been done before in this sport,” McCrimmon said on a Zoom call of the surgery. “I keep thinking 4-5 months, 3-4 months, but I say that because I see you all grab your pens and write that down, but we really don’t know, and I’m not trying to suggest we do know. But that might be the best guess I can give you right now.”
McCrimmon confirmed Eichel will be having artificial disk replacement surgery, a procedure that is common among the general population but has never before been performed on an active NHL player. The surgery was an issue of contention with the Buffalo Sabres, prompting the trade Thursday.
McCrimmon wasn’t certain as to when or where Eichel will be having the surgery, preferring to entrust that decision with the centre and his representatives. He added there are “unknowns” with the surgery, and the Golden Knights will be involved throughout the rehabilitation stage.
“We have a lot of respect for the work that has gone into this,” McCrimmon said. “We’ll defer to their wishes, the choices they’re making, knowing how much work they’ve done while working in the best interests of Jack’s health, both long-term and short-term.”
Eichel, who is an elite centre in the league, has 139 goals, 216 assists and 355 points in 375 career NHL games, all with the Sabres.
As for when Eichel is expected to return to form after the surgery, McCrimmon wouldn’t say.
“When he’ll be on the top of his game is an impossible question to answer,” McCrimmon said. “I believe he will make a full recovery. He has not played hockey since March, so there will be a period of time for him to return to form. … The only thing we are certain of is the surgery will happen quickly and go as planned.”
Eichel, 25, was obtained with a conditional pick in a blockbuster deal on Thursday that saw the Sabres receive forwards Alex Tuch (who also is injured) and Peyton Krebs, plus two conditional draft picks.
McCrimmon said the deal fits in with the Golden Knights’ organizational approach of going after the best players when they become available, regardless of need on the team.
“We were not in the market for another centreman, but this is not another centreman,” McCrimmon said. “In Jack Eichel, we are getting one of the top players in the league, in the prime of his career. … The price is high in terms of what we have sent to Buffalo, but at the same time for a player of this ilk, it should be high.”
McCrimmon added that Eichel gives his team an elite centre along the lines of others in the Western Conference, citing the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and the Los Angeles Kings’ Anze Kopitar. Eichel brings “size, speed, great playmaking ability, his release is special, how quickly the puck comes off this stick … picks the puck up in your end and then you’re in their end,” McCrimmon said.
“He’s an extremely competitive person, and I have a feeling he’ll have a lot to prove.”
After a falling out with the Sabres over how to treat a herniated disk that has sidelined him since March, Eichel was stripped of his captaincy when training camp opened on Sept. 23, and remains on injured reserve.
Sabres GM Kevyn Adams said on a media call on Thursday that he had talked to every team in the league at some point about Eichel. Some teams were focused on the medical situation, and some were focused on retaining salary, which was a non-starter for the Sabres.
Interested teams got more clarity on the medical situation while the hockey conversations were going on. “This was an extremely complicated situation, and this added to it,” Adams said.
Eichel parted ways with agent Peter Fish and hired NHL super agent Pat Brisson at the end of August.
“I’ve been a bit upset about the way things have been handled since I’ve been hurt. I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury,” Eichel said back in May. “There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times. Right now, for me, the most important thing now is to try to get healthy, figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”
The second pick overall in 2015 has five years left on an eight-year, $80 million contract, which features a no-trade clause that kicks in next summer.
The Sabres finished last in the standings last season while matching an NHL record by missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season, but have surprised many by starting this season 5-3-1.