Professional athletes are by dint of their line of work forever walking a high wire. When your livelihood depends on your body being in peak condition, you, of course, will carefully monitor anything going into it, be it food or nutritional supplements or medicines or a surgeon’s scalpel. Yet, at the same time, they risk their health every time they participate in an event, especially if theirs is a contact sport. Injuries are not a matter of if to athletes, but rather when, how severe, and what will I need to do to overcome the injury and get back out there. This leads to the case of former Buffalo Sabres, now Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Eichel.
Eichel is one of hockey’s legitimate superstars, a center who can not only make plays with the best of them but finish the job. In his six years playing (he has yet to enter a game this year for reasons we’ll go into in a bit), Eichel has produced at a near point a game clip, with 139 goals and 216 assists in 375 games. This stat is even more impressive considering how dreadful Buffalo has been the past several years. The team last made the playoffs in 2011 and has not finished a season at .500 or above since 2013. That’s bad.
Last season, in March Eichel suffered a herniated disc in his neck and played in only 21 games for the Sabres. He would need surgery to repair the damage. At this point, things became, shall we say, complicated.
When a player suffers a significant injury in the NHL, the final decision on a treatment method belongs not to the player but the team. The Sabres wanted Eichel to have neck fusion surgery. Eichel wanted disc replacement surgery. Buffalo was uninterested in having its star player be the first in league history to have said surgery and said no. Neither side would move. Eichel wanted out so he could go to a team that would agree to the surgery he wanted. The Sabres, after letting ill will between all parties involved grow to epic proportions, eventually gave in and sent Eichel to the Golden Knights, who in turn sent Buffalo two players and two draft picks with the Sabres, for their part, parting with a draft pick of their own. Eichel received a typical Vegas welcome and had his surgery, with his return to the ice expected in three months.
The trade on Vegas’ part is standard operational procedure for the Golden Knights, who since entering the league have made winning the Stanley Cup every year their sole goal, and we’ll worry about tomorrow approximately three weeks after never. Vegas has been good, sometimes very good, but never quite good enough to win it all. This season has so far been poor by Golden Knights standards, with the team only one game above .500 and struggling mightily on defense (gee, guys, maybe you shouldn’t have traded Marc-Andre Fleury). Eichel, if he comes back when expected and immediately reacquires his scoring touch, can only help. Still, one has to wonder if, in a division where Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers are blazing away and a conference where the St. Louis Blues have regained their Cup-winning form, Eichel alone will be a sufficient difference-maker to bring the Stanley Cup to Sin City. One also has to wonder if Eichel’s choice of surgical repair is wise. Hopefully so.