Since they first took the ice in 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights have reset the bar for NHL expansion teams.
After making it to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season, the Golden Knights have made the playoffs in each subsequent year, never finishing lower than third place in their division. And on Wednesday, their evolution will take another step forward when star centre Jack Eichel makes his debut against the Colorado Avalanche.
While it’s impressive enough that the Knights have been as competitive as they are, adding a player of Eichel’s caliber, in the prime of his NHL career, is a rarity, not just for expansion teams, but for teams in general.
Yes, Eichel’s health after recovering from neck surgery is going to be a concern until he shows he’s the player that his former team, the Buffalo Sabres, employed for his first six seasons. But at age 25, time is on his side, and the upside for Vegas could be their first Cup championship.
Really, there are few instances in which a team is forced into parting ways with a cornerstone talent like Eichel. Even when Cups haven’t come right away, a franchise like, say, the Tampa Bay Lightning moved heaven and earth to keep superstar Steven Stamkos in the fold.
Eventually, they got their Cup, and a player like Stamkos was a key component of their winning blueprint.
You have to think that, even after making room for Eichel on the salary cap front by placing star winger Mark Stone on the Long-Term Injured Reserve, the Golden Knights will be significantly more dangerous starting Wednesday.
Before his neck woes limited him to only 21 games last season, Eichel had set new career highs in the 2019-20 campaign when he posted 36 goals and 78 points in just 68 games. And that was on a sub-par Sabres squad. Imagine what he’ll be able to do on a deeper, faster Vegas team that doesn’t need him to do all the heavy lifting. Imagine the ease on his mental state playing in a city where he can disappear into the desert after games, and not worry about being the centrepiece of media and fans’ attention.
Normally, expansion teams need the good fortune of a No. 1 overall draft pick, and a few seasons of NHL acclimation, before they can boast of a player like Eichel. Teams rarely give up hope on a star and true No. 1 centre like him. And rarer still is an expansion team in a position to acquire a phenomenal talent.
Take a look at the first-year Seattle Kraken this season: even if they had interest in Eichel, Seattle didn’t have the depth of talent to outbid Vegas. Heck, not even a team like the Calgary Flames, who were extremely interested in Eichel, wound up able to compete with the package (forward Alex Tuch, prospect Peyton Krebs, and first-and-second-round draft picks) the Golden Knights gave up for him.
Say what you want about Vegas spending to the cap ceiling, but you have to give them credit for developing talent to the degree that allowed them to ship out Tuch and Krebs.
The Kraken have talent, but their depth is nowhere near that of the Golden Knights. It will take some time before Seattle is in the position Vegas is in, and for that, you have to hand it to GM Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee. They have accelerated their expectations, and done so without sacrificing the future.
With Eichel in tow, they now can focus on adding parts that are much easier to come by.
As I’ve said before, sometimes you have to stand back in awe of what the Knights have been able to achieve in less than half-a-decade of operation. The addition of Eichel makes them all the more astonishing. And, sooner than later, their best days are likely to come.