It was a little after 8 o’clock on the night of June 13, and Jack Eichel was being interviewed on the T-Mobile Arena ice surface.
A few minutes earlier, Eichel and his Vegas Golden Knights teammates had wrapped up a not-nearly-as-close-as-the-final-score-indicated 9-3 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final to clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, in only its sixth season of existence.
And Eichel, whom Vegas acquired in a blockbuster trade from the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 4, 2021, was key to the Golden Knights’ success.
In his first Stanley Cup Playoff season, all Eichel did was play in 22 games, average 19 minutes of ice time per game, and compile a slashline of six goals and 20 assists for 26 points.
All of which led him to finish second in the voting for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Eichel finished with 56 points and five first-place votes. The winner, teammate Jonathan Marchessault, had 13 first-place votes and 80 total points. The voting was conducted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
“Best feeling in the world,” Eichel told Darren Millard, who hosts the team’s television broadcasts. “It’s incredible. Incredible.”
And perhaps there was and is a sense of vindication for the second overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Because champion was not an adjective often used in conjunction with Eichel during his six seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.
The North Chelmsford, Mass., native was a target for criticism during his tenure with a franchise that redefined the word dysfunctional.
Coaches and executives came and went like snow squalls in Western New York winters. Trade acquisitions and free agent signings struggled mightily.
And the team lost. And lost. And lost some more.
Need proof? The Sabres lost 282 of the 453 games they played during Eichel’s tenure with the organization (171-222-60), even though he recorded 355 points (139 goals and 216 assists) in 375 games.
Critics pointed to his minus-69 rating, the fact that he had only one 30-goal season to his name, that he couldn’t lift the organization out of its self-inflicted muck and mire.
That he wasn’t Connor McDavid.
Because, truth be told, Eichel was a consolation prize.
When then-general manager Tim Murray made the decision that the organization needed to undergo a top-to-bottom rebuilding process, the goal was to land the first overall pick in the 2015 draft and use it on McDavid.
So, Murray traded away veterans and useful players to put the organization in the best possible position to win the 2015 draft lottery.
The on-ice product reflected the executive’s vision. The Sabres finished with a record of 23-51-8, and the best chance to win the lottery.
There was only one problem with Murray’s plan: Lotteries are games of chance. Of luck. The Edmonton Oilers were the ones who were fortunate enough to end up with the first overall pick and the right to select McDavid.
“I’m disappointed for our fans,” Murray told reporters in Toronto immediately after the 2015 draft lottery. “...It’s just the process for me. …I believe the team that finishes last is probably the worst team in the league so therefore they need the best player, by whomever’s estimation–theirs certainly–to get better quickly.”
A day later, Murray tried to walk back his comments in an interview with then-ESPN hockey writer Pierre LeBrun.
“We love him,” Murray said, referring to Eichel. “People took my comments last night as an insult to Jack Eichel [and] that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I love Jack Eichel.
“Do you want to win the lottery? I mean, absolutely. I mean, we haven’t even had our [draft] meetings yet. We haven’t done our list yet. I wanted to win the lottery and pick who we pick. Maybe after we have our meeting in two weeks, maybe we have Jack Eichel at No. 1.
“But when you go to anything, you want to win. That’s all. We knew full well we probably weren’t going to win. We had an 80 percent chance of losing it. So we knew that.”
Not exactly the best way to welcome the new guy. And, in retrospect, started the clock ticking toward the inevitable divorce between Eichel and the Sabres.
For all intents and purposes, the marriage between the player and the franchise ended May 10, 2021, when Eichel pointedly said he and the organization had a “disconnect” regarding potential neck surgery during his season-ending interview session with reporters.
Eichel wanted artificial disc replacement surgery, which he and his representation argued would allow him to return to the ice more quickly as well as provide him with a better quality of life long-term than anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery, which the Sabres favored.
Neither side budged from its stance and the stalemate dragged on into the summer. Until Eichel’s lawyers released a statement on July 30 criticizing the Sabres for not acquising to the center’s wishes.
Nearly two months later, Eichel reported to the team for his annual physical, which he failed due to neck. Almost immediately afterwards, general manager Kevyn Adams announced that the organization had made the decision to strip Eichel of the captaincy.
The marriage was not salvageable, and meant the timetable for a trade had been moved up rapidly.
And truth be told, Adams did well by landing Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, a 2022 first-round draft pick and a 2023 third-round pick from Vegas. Under the executive’s stewardship and Don Granato’s coaching, the Sabres seem to have finally been righted.
But the Golden Knights added a franchise center, to add to its collection of stars. And the first thing the organization did was allow Eichel to undergo artificial disc replacement surgery.
He played his first game as a member of the team on Feb. 16, 2022, a 2-0 shutout loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, recording a shot on goal and a hit in 17:32 of ice time.
Eichel finished the 2021-22 campaign with 25 points (14 goals and 11 assists) in 34 games, and was nearly a point-a-game player this season (66 points in 67 games).
Essentially, he bet on himself and won big.
Which wasn’t lost on Millard, as he wrapped up the interview.
“You’re a champion,” Millard said to Eichel.
“Yeah,” the 26-year-old said in response, “we are.”