Tuesday, April 18, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Jack Eichel might have the most important role in the Golden Knights’ locker room.
It’s a power Eichel wields that if one wrong decision is made, it could cause an uproar among his teammates. If a choice doesn’t sit well with them, there might be a side eye or two his way.
Such is the life of the team DJ.
Requests will come Eichel’s way on what songs are played to get the day going — whether it’s following a morning skate or after a gym session at City National Arena. Eichel, normally in control of the iPad, sets the tone.
“Some days I’m an indie rock guy, some days I like hip-hop, some days some tropical chill,” said the Golden Knights’ star center. “I can go all over the place. It depends on what the mood calls for.”
Though Eichel will say it’s a shared responsibility — defenseman Shea Theodore handles the tunes on gameday — it’s usually his call. But he enjoys “what other people like to listen to, so I can judge them.”
This season, Eichel gets to do something he’s never done — handle the team’s Spotify account for a playoff run.
Eichel, 26, will play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in his career when the Golden Knights open the first round today against the visiting Winnipeg Jets as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
It’s taken eight years for Eichel to compete for the Stanley Cup.
The first six seasons were spent with the Buffalo Sabres as a captain and perceived savior for a franchise that hoped for a return to glory. Following disappointing campaigns — and a neck surgery conundrum that soured both sides — Eichel was dealt to Vegas in November 2021.
Eichel was thrown into the fire fresh off an artificial disc replacement procedure that had never been done on an NHL player and is not believed to have been performed on a player in MLB, the NFL or the NBA to that point. A traditional disc replacement would have likely sidelined him for the entire season.
He returned much sooner than expected, missing about three months, and tallied 14 goals with 11 assists in 34 games. But despite Eichel’s efforts, the Golden Knights were eliminated from postseason contention for the first time after falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in a shootout in the second to last game of the season.
In 2022-23, Vegas rebounded to win its third Pacific Division title and clinch home-ice advantage. Eichel posted a team-high 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) in 67 games.
“I’m excited about it. It’s something I’ve waited for a while, and it’s something the group has worked really hard to grab this year,” Eichel said. “I think after the way last year went, we all had a good focus coming into this season that we wanted to get back to the postseason and prove a lot of people wrong.”
When Eichel arrived in Vegas, the “locker room cancer” label was thrown his way. Why couldn’t a player of his talent, taken No. 2 overall after Connor McDavid went to the Edmonton Oilers in 2015, not find a way to will Buffalo to the playoffs? Was it him? Was he more selfish than selfless because of his neck issue? Was it the franchise not putting the right pieces around him, or was his presence just not suited to be on a championship contender?
The outside noise that came with Eichel never reached his new teammates.
Giving a glimpse
From the day Eichel took the ice for the first time with the Golden Knights in 2022, he had this business-like approach. He admitted last year, at times, that he put pressure on himself in a new situation to perform right away, to prove he was capable of being better than ever.
Last summer, people got a glimpse of Eichel’s true personality. Eichel hit a home run during teammate Reilly Smith’s annual charity softball game. Rounding the bases, Eichel nonchalantly cartwheeled across home plate to the shock and laughter of his teammates.
It was the first time Eichel looked comfortable in his new surroundings and showed off the kind of character he was.
“He’s awesome,” said center Chandler Stephenson, who has been linemates with Eichel for the majority of his time in Vegas. “He’s always inclusive. He always wants to get together, go to dinner, always keeping it light. Doesn’t take the game too seriously. Just has fun.
“He’s obviously helped our team with the type of player that he is, but you could see the first week he was here, he opened up right away and he’s a genuine dude.”
Eichel took it a step further March 1 when the Golden Knights introduced their season-long postgame tradition, where the player of the game dons an Elvis Presley wig and glasses. Eichel was given that honor after scoring twice in Vegas’ 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Off the ice, Eichel opens his house nearly every day to his teammates. Whether it’s to relax at the pool or play cards — 13 Up is the game of choice — Eichel has become that perfect combination of leader and teammate in the eyes of the locker room.
“He cares about everyone,” defenseman Ben Hutton said. “He keeps it light on practice days, making jokes with everyone involved. At the same time, he’s very competitive. He wants to win. He doesn’t take it out on anyone. He’s the hardest on himself.”
Bruce Cassidy challenged Eichel to take that next leap.
Already one of the more gifted offensive players in the league, Eichel was never seen as a defensive option. Being the top-line center on a Cassidy-coached team comes with that responsibility at both ends of the ice.
Eichel had the best defensive season of his career this year, recording a plus-26 rating at 5-on-5 and a career-high 46 takeaways.
“I’m not surprised. He’s been arguably our best defensive forward in terms of closing in our end, being on time, killing plays,” Cassidy said. “I just think he’s bought in with what we’re trying to get him to do.”
Eichel missed 15 games this season due to different lower-body injuries, and also took a puck to the face. There was a nine-game stretch before the All-Star break where Eichel had just one point in nine games.
Other than that, he’s been the Golden Knights’ most consistent offensive player.
Eichel’s speed remains the best offensive threat Vegas has, both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. His ability to extend plays and use his long stick and reach separate him from the rest on the roster.
“He’s one of those players who’s just gifted,” forward and linemate Jonathan Marchessault said. “He can turn it on whenever he wants. Especially when he’s full speed, that’s when he can create.”
That added responsibility for Eichel had to come in handy once captain Mark Stone had his second back surgery in January and missed the second half of the regular season. Eichel was hit the most by Stone’s absence, not having the two-time Selke Trophy finalist on his line.
Having bought into the 200-foot game allowed the rest of the forward group to follow suit. That’s one of the reasons why Vegas went 22-4-5 since the All-Star break.
Eichel has been the biggest reason for that with 12 goals and 20 assists in 29 games in that stretch.
“We came into this season with something to prove,” Eichel said. “I’m sure everyone wanted to prove something to the league, but we wanted to prove something to ourselves. I think we wanted to make a statement that last year was a bit of a fluke.”
The next chapter
Eichel’s love for music knows no bounds. He’s always been a classic rock fan, growing up in a household where the Rolling Stones and The Beatles were sacred. Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison have always been favorites of his.
His go-to for music right now is Australian group Tame Impala, whose latest album “The Slow Rush” can best be described as psychedelic light rock with a hip-hop vibe.
One song on that album that might fit Eichel best is “On Track.” The first verse reads, “Strictly speaking I’m holding on, more than a minor setback, but strictly speaking I’m still on track, and all of my dreams are still in sight, because strictly speaking I’ve got my whole life.”
Eichel tasting playoff success for the first time is the next chapter in his life, that being his NHL career. It didn’t seem bright after last year, knowing he missed the playoffs again. Things looked bleak. Maybe he was the cancer social media dictated him to be.
The duties of bringing a Stanley Cup to Las Vegas will rest on Eichel’s shoulders. It’s the responsibility he once faced as captain of the Sabres, and now as the star on the Golden Knights. He’s also about to enter an unknown that he’s never experienced with playoff hockey. This is the time of year when the superstars are evaluated higher than ever.
There have been many minor, and major, setbacks for Eichel. Right now, he’s on track. It’s on him to not veer off it.
“It was our goal this year at the start to get into the postseason. Good on us for getting there,” Eichel said. “Now we’ve just got to finish the job here and continue to work toward that ultimate goal.”
Danny Webster can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Danny on Twitter at twitter.com/DannyWebster21.