Eichel to make Golden Knights debut Wednesday

    Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.

Jack Eichel will debut for the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday in a home game against the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon announced Monday.

“I always had the date circled for a while; I just had to go through all the protocols,” Eichel said. “I just feel like I’m back at that point where I’m ready to play. I just want to get back in there and get the confidence back in playing a game.”

Eichel, who was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres in November, has not played in an NHL game in nearly a year, last suiting up on March 7, 2021.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions Wednesday — I’m already starting to feel them,” said Eichel, who noted it has been the longest layoff in his hockey career. “I’m just trying to be realistic with myself and my expectations. I haven’t played in 11 months and no preseason games, and I’m jumping in against the best team in the league right now.”

Eichel, 25, underwent artificial disk replacement surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck on Nov. 12, a procedure that had never been done on an NHL player.

McCrimmon said that “there were a lot of people skeptical” about Eichel’s surgery. “But in the medical world, things are changing all the time. He was the pioneer in terms of this particular surgery, and so far, it has turned out to be a real good one.”

At practice on Monday, Eichel was slotted on the first line alongside Max Pacioretty.

The Golden Knights took to Twitter to get fans ready for Eichel’s debut.

In a corresponding move, Vegas placed captain Mark Stone on long-term injury reserve. The Golden Knights were over the $81.5 million salary cap, but Stone’s $9.5 million salary will not count against the cap while he is sidelined, helping clear the way for Eichel ($10 million cap hit) to debut.

The Golden Knights said that Stone had back issues dating to last year’s playoffs and he has seen “numerous” specialists across North America. Stone has been on and off the ice this season as he worked through the injury, including missing a month on injured reserve. Stone has played back-to-back games only once this season.

“It’s difficult to define exactly what the issue is; I think that’s been really frustrating for Mark,” McCrimmon said. “And yet that’s the type of thing we need to get to the bottom of, and that takes time.”

McCrimmon said he does not know how much time Stone will need after the mandatory 10 games and 24 days required for long-term injured reserve.

Vegas still has defenseman Alec Martinez ($5.25 million) on long-term injured reserve. McCrimmon said it has been frustrating to get a diagnosis for Martinez, who suffered a face laceration in a game against the Minnesota Wild in mid-November.

“This guy rode a scooter for the entire 2021 playoffs. He got off the scooter to get into the rink and get his foot frozen, played three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs without practice, game-day skating, or even taking a step,” McCrimmon said. “He’s one of the toughest hockey players I’ve ever been around. I’ve heard speculation we’re holding Alec out for salary cap [reasons]. I can’t imagine this guy not playing when he’s ready to play. He’d break the door down.”

Those salary-cap questions will linger for the Golden Knights, just like they did for the Tampa Bay Lightning last season. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year, despite star sniper Nikita Kucherov missing the entire regular season on injured reserve after hip surgery. Kucherov returned to play in the playoffs, when the salary cap becomes moot. The NHL investigated the circumstances around Kucherov’s injury and timing and found no wrongdoing.

Eichel missed the final 33 games of last season because of the herniated disk in his neck; that injury led to a rift between Eichel and Sabres management.

The Sabres preferred Eichel to receive a fusion surgery, which would have had him back on the ice in six months. Eichel’s doctors suggested a disk replacement surgery, which would have him sidelined for a shorter period of time and carried a much lower risk that the center would need future surgeries later in life.

The Sabres weren’t comfortable letting Eichel become the first player in the NHL to receive an artificial disk surgery.

Buffalo stripped Eichel of his captaincy this year and helped facilitate the Nov. 4 trade to the Golden Knights, who allowed Eichel to get his preferred surgery eight days later.

Since then, Chicago Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson also had artificial disk replacement surgery.

The return for Buffalo in the Eichel trade was Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, a future first-round draft pick and a future second-rounder. Vegas received a future third-round draft pick as part of the deal.

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