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Jack Eichel returns to Buffalo 1 year after trade to Knights

Jack Eichel received a massive surprise when he pulled up to Red Rock Resort 367 days ago.

He stepped out of a car and was greeted by Chance, the Golden Knights’ giant Gila monster mascot. Plus a man in a full golden suit of armor. And drummers and showgirls for good measure.

His new team made sure to let Eichel know what their bold, over-the-top organization was all about when he arrived in Las Vegas three days after he was traded from the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 4, 2021.

There was no telling then how the move would turn out. Eichel had a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery. He was months from getting on the ice with his teammates. The largest move yet for a franchise known for its willingness to make a splash was, appropriately, a gamble.

One year later, there’s little cause for regret on either side. Buffalo, which will play host to its former captain Thursday, is 7-6 with one of the NHL’s youngest rosters providing optimism for the future. The Knights have the league’s best record at 12-2 with Eichel as their leading man.

“I feel like he’s playing out there with no pressure,” left wing William Carrier said. “He’s just around making plays.”

Eichel was in a far different place when he joined the Knights.

A dispute over surgery options for his neck injury is why his Sabres tenure ended. Also, Eichel had never experienced the level of success with the Sabres that the Golden Knights are enjoying this season.

In his six years there after being drafted No. 2 overall in 2015, Buffalo never made the playoffs. The Sabres’ 11-year postseason drought is the longest in NHL history.

The Knights thought they could provide Eichel more support when they acquired him. But they initially didn’t do that during last season’s injury-ravaged campaign.

“He got traded to us, got surgery, was out for three months,” captain Mark Stone said. “I don’t think it was easy. And then when he came back, everyone else went out. There were seven, eight guys out of the lineup when he came back. It was a lot on his shoulders.”

Eichel has thrived with more help this season.

He leads the Knights with 15 points in 14 games. He’s provided dazzling plays, like in back-to-back overtime victories over Winnipeg and Washington. He’s also impressed coach Bruce Cassidy with his commitment on defense.

Cassidy’s system requires centers to cover a lot of ice in their own zone and close down opponents quickly when needed. Eichel’s effortless skating stride, one of his standout traits, is helping him excel.

The Knights allow fewer shot attempts at five-on-five with him on the ice than any other player with more than one appearance, according to the website Natural Stat Trick.

“He’s been one of the best I’ve ever coached at it because of his first and second step,” said Cassidy, who added that Boston captain and five-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron is the standard. “Jack’s been excellent. Really bought into it.”

Eichel’s impressive two-way play has made him exactly the kind of No. 1 center the Knights hoped they were acquiring.

But it wasn’t cheap to get him.

Eichel and a third-round pick cost the Knights right wing Alex Tuch, prospect Peyton Krebs and a first- and second-round pick.

Tuch, a Syracuse, New York, native who grew up rooting for the Sabres, has provided a spark with 19 goals and 30 assists in 62 games. Krebs has joined Buffalo’s incredible collection of young talent that includes center Dylan Cozens, wingers John-Jason Peterka and Jack Quinn, and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power. Cozens and Quinn were top-10 picks. Dahlin and Power each went first overall.

The Sabres used the first-round pick they received from the Knights (16th overall) on center Noah Ostlund and will get a second-round pick in 2023.

But the centerpiece of the trade remains Eichel. He will be the focus in his second visit to Buffalo, one he hopes goes better than last time. The Knights lost to the Sabres 3-1 on March 10 with Krebs and Tuch each scoring a goal. Eichel was booed throughout the night.

He said in an interview with ESPN that aired Tuesday that he isn’t expecting a warmer welcome this time. What is different is his play this season. And the team he’s bringing with him.

“I’m sure I’ll get a pretty similar reception as I did the last time I was there, and it won’t be very positive,” Eichel said. “That’s OK. I’ve learned to accept that. Buffalo was a special place to me for a while, and it still is.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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