Chris Johnston: The Jack Eichel trade to Vegas is good news for the game — and great news for him

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You are typically best advised to allow years to pass before pronouncing the winner in a NHL trade.

This one required all of nine seconds: Jack Eichel unquestionably came out on top in the Jack Eichel sweepstakes.

Not only did the superstar centre land with a Vegas Golden Knights organization that is all-in on winning every season — they’ve played 66 more playoff games than Buffalo since 2011, despite coming into existence in 2017 — but this move finally allows Eichel to start getting healthy.

He stuck to his guns on the treatment plan for a herniated disc in his neck. The Sabres medical team wanted him to undergo a commonly prescribed anterior cervical discectomy with fusion, but Eichel sought out multiple secondary opinions from physicians who endorsed his preferred artificial disc replacement surgery even though it’s never previously been used on a professional hockey player.

That comes with the promise of a shorter rehab time, the potential for less loss of motion and a lowered possible need for future surgeries.

What this situation highlighted is that the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement gives teams the final say in these matters. A player doesn’t fully control how a hockey-related injury is treated on his body.

However, Eichel’s willingness to wait it out until the Sabres found a trade partner comfortable with the “ADR” procedure eventually brought things to a favourable conclusion for him.

“Why wouldn’t his people want what’s best for him?” said Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon, while noting that he’ll defer to the specialists and doctors Eichel has been consulting with.

The 25-year-old is expected to have the surgery immediately and should be able to resume skating in a month or so. He may require another three or four months from there to get back into necessary playing shape after last dressing for the Sabres on March 7.

At least he’ll be able to find some relief and start progressing towards a return.

The standoff between Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres over the handling of his injury finally ended Thursday when he was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Eichel had basically been stuck in neutral over these last several months with the Sabres. That organization tried and failed to trade him during the summer and kicked off training camp by stripping him of the captaincy.

While the length of time he had to put off surgery cost him a chance to play for Team USA at the upcoming Beijing Olympics, he may still have an opportunity to join the Golden Knights before the end of this season.

It’s not known what version of Eichel they’ll get, post-surgery. At his best he’s a fast-skating, play-driving centreman capable of scoring at a 90-point clip. That alone makes the price paid here worth the gamble: Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, a top-10 protected 2022 first-round pick and the swapping of a 2023 second-rounder for Buffalo’s third-rounder in the same draft.

“He picks up a loose puck in your end and then you’re in their end,” said McCrimmon. “It addresses a need in our organization. For me when you look at what a NHL contending team should look like, he’s a really important piece to that.”

There has been no more aggressive organization since Vegas exploded into the NHL gunning for a Stanley Cup right from Day 1.

Dealing away Krebs — the 17th overall pick in 2019 — means that the Golden Knights have traded four of their six first-rounders ever. Those series of moves allowed them to add Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Nolan Patrick and Eichel to the players taken in the expansion draft, while also signing Alex Pietrangelo in free agency.

That core should keep the window of championship contention open over the next several years. Eichel is under contract for four seasons beyond this one at a cap hit of $10 million.

Of note, particularly for Edmonton and Calgary off to strong starts in the Pacific Division, the Golden Knights might take a temporary step back this season. They’ve been decimated by injuries and stumbled out of the gates with a 4-5-0 start and don’t have any immediate help coming on the horizon.

As for the Sabres, this trade closes the book on another disappointing chapter. Eichel arrived in Buffalo with great expectations as the No. 2 pick behind Connor McDavid in 2015 and scored at nearly a point per game for an organization that failed to build a contending team around him.

They didn’t even play a playoff game with him in the lineup.

This deal brings a local boy back to upstate New York in Tuch, plus a 20-year-old in Krebs who is expected to develop into a top-six forward, and another valuable draft pick. But none of those things carry the promise of Eichel.

It was the best they could manage with a limited field of suitors in-season that ultimately came down to Vegas, Calgary and Carolina before the trade was finalized early Thursday morning.

That news came as a massive relief for Eichel.

It signalled the start of his return to hockey, which is good news for the sport and great news for him.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris

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