LAS VEGAS — Jack Eichel admitted there were times he had lost hope.
The Vegas Golden Knights star didn’t make the playoffs for the first seven years of his career. He was often injured and maligned during his time with the Buffalo Sabres — drafted second overall in 2015 as a franchise savior, but unable to save the franchise. His first season with Vegas was also the first time it missed the playoffs.
Was it him?
“I think it’s only human nature to have some doubt creep in when you don’t make it to playoffs for an extended period of time,” Eichel said. “You’re wondering if it will ever happen. So many people go through their whole career without having the opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup. It’s the hardest thing in the world [to win].”
When the final horn sounded Tuesday night to end Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, a 9-3 rout of the Florida Panthers, Eichel skated with his arms extended into a pile of teammates. The doubts were gone. There was only one thing running through his mind.
“We did it. We’re Stanley Cup champions, man,” Eichel said after Vegas eliminated the Panthers to capture the first championship in the franchise’s six-year history. “I’m just so proud of our group and so happy to be a part of this organization and this city, with these fans. I feel really fortunate and blessed.”
Eichel spent six seasons with the Sabres, scoring 355 points in 375 games, but was unable to return Buffalo to the postseason. He was criticized as a one-dimensional offensive player and someone that hadn’t lived up to his eight-year, $80 million contract that he signed in 2017. But the Sabres were unable to build around Eichel, who had five head coaches and three general managers during his tenure.
Sensing the Sabres were entering another rebuild, he asked for a trade in 2020. But one didn’t materialize.
Eichel and the Sabres finally hit their breaking point when the center suffered a herniated disk in his neck in March 2021. Buffalo management preferred that Eichel undergo fusion surgery. Eichel and his team wanted him to have an artificial disk replacement surgery, which had never been performed on an NHL player to that point. Under NHL collective bargaining agreement rules, teams have the final say on how to treat injuries.
In November 2021, Eichel was traded to the Golden Knights, who allowed him to have his preferred surgery. He was limited to 34 games last season due to injury recovery. Vegas missed the playoffs, making it seven seasons in a row Eichel missed the postseason.
That streak was finally broken in 2022-23.
“First playoff and first [Stanley Cup] win for him, right? That’s a pretty good average,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault.
Eichel and Marchessault were the Golden Knights’ most dynamic duo during their Stanley Cup run. Eichel finished with 26 points (6 goals, 20 assists) to lead the playoffs. Marchessault had 13 goals, tied with Leon Draisaitl for most in the playoffs, along with 25 points.
“Honestly, ever since he came here, we were just a different team,” said Marchessault, as he sat next to the Conn Smythe Trophy he won as playoff MVP. “He’s a game-changer for the group. And this trophy could have definitely went to him. I could never have that without him.”
Eichel elevated his play during this season, playing a 200-foot game where his defense was often as good as his offense. The Golden Knights credited new coach Bruce Cassidy with aiding in that transformation.
“I know it was a little tough for him in his previous spot. I couldn’t be happier for him,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy said he had a relationship with Eichel before coming to Vegas, from his days in Boston. Eichel skated with the Bruins in the summer and Cassidy was friends with his skating coach. They met right away when Cassidy was hired by the Golden Knights. They talked about what the coach expected from his centermen and asked what Eichel needed from him.
“This was a fresh start for both of us. That’s the way I looked at it. Let’s see if we can do this together,” Cassidy said. “Jack’s been super from Day 1. There’s been no pushback in terms of what the ask was. All he wants to do is win.”
As Eichel stood on the ice after skating with the Stanley Cup, he was surrounded by loved ones, including his father, Bob.
“You get choked up seeing your family. They’ve been with you since the beginning, so you almost want to win it for them more than for you,” he said. “You think about the s— you’ve been through and they’re by your side every day. It means a lot.”
Eichel had three assists in Game 5, playing as large a role in their Cup-clinching game as anyone. On the biggest stage, in the biggest moment, Eichel made a difference.
“A superstar like that gets so much media attention. And he delivered,” Marchessault said. “I’m so happy for him and proud of him.”