Jack Eichel’s latest exit interview went a lot different from his previous one.
When he met with the Buffalo media May 10, 2021, he admitted he was upset with how the Sabres handled his situation after he suffered a season-ending neck injury two months before. He said there was a “disconnect” between him and the organization, one that would last until he was traded to the Golden Knights on Nov. 4.
Eichel struck a much different tone Tuesday. He said his surgically repaired neck was a “nonissue” and sounded optimistic about his future with the Knights. He was disappointed about missing the playoffs — he’s never played in the postseason — but said he’s in a good place now in his life.
“I would have liked to still have been playing hockey now,” Eichel said. “But perspective-wise, I look at where I was a year ago at least and some of the challenges and things that I was going through and where I am now. Just to have some stability and have gone through what I did in the last year and having the opportunity to play hockey again, I’m very thankful for that.”
Eichel described his 2021 offseason as “being in limbo.” He and the Sabres disagreed on how to best treat the herniated disk in his neck.
After doing some research, Eichel preferred an artificial disk replacement surgery that never had been done on an NHL player. The Sabres preferred a more common and proven disk fusion surgery.
They stared at each other and didn’t blink throughout the offseason. Eichel was stripped of his captaincy in September and got no closer to a resolution.
“It was like every day you were waiting for some good news or some bad news or something to hang your hat on, and it didn’t really happen,” Eichel said. “So you’re just waiting around.”
His fortunes changed when the Knights acquired him and a conditional third-round pick for right wing Alex Tuch, left wing Peyton Krebs and a conditional first- and second-round pick. Eichel got his preferred surgery Nov. 12 and was playing by Feb. 16.
He hit the front end of his recovery timeline and inspired Chicago center Tyler Johnson to get the same procedure. Johnson, injured Oct. 29, returned March 3.
“I came back as soon as I could,” Eichel said. “But I feel good. I feel healthy.”
Eichel thinks a long offseason, a healthy one at that, will do him some good. He had 14 goals, which led the Knights after his debut, and 11 assists in 34 games. But he wasn’t the star he was in Buffalo, where he had 137 goals and 337 points in his first 354 games.
A long layoff, a new system and new teammates kept him from looking like his old self. He was plus-six at five-on-five but struggled toward the end of the season. He had one assist in a six-game stretch in which the Knights went 1-2-3 to fall out of playoff contention.
The team still realizes his potential. Left wing Max Pacioretty called Eichel “an elite power-play player.” Owner Bill Foley said he’s “100 percent” behind the trade even after the Knights missed the playoffs.
Some rest and more time to get acclimated could be all Eichel needs to become an elite scoring center again. That’s what the Knights hope to get from him. He’s hoping to get a playoff berth for the first time.
“It was a really easy transition,” Eichel said. “The organization and the guys in the room made it super easy. But we would have liked to have more success, and I know we will.”
Contact Ben Gotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.