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Eichel trade paying off for both Golden Knights, Sabres so far

Jack Eichel Trade Sabres Golden Knights

The big game of the night on Thursday will be in Buffalo where the Sabres will be hosting Jack Eichel and the Vegas Golden Knights. It will be Eichel’s first visit back to Buffalo as a visiting player, and it is sure to be some sort of a circus.

Eichel was finally traded to Vegas earlier this season in a deal that included forwards Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch, as well as two draft picks, going back to Buffalo. It ended a year long saga that featured a trade request, trade rumors, and a pretty significant disagreement between team and player on how to handle the surgery that Eichel needed before he could return to the ice.

Following the trade to Vegas, Eichel went through the procedure he wanted all along and is now back on the ice hoping to be the missing piece the Golden Knights need to break through and win the Stanley Cup.

The early returns are -- so far -- looking very promising for both teams.

Eichel is just what the Golden Knights needed

From the moment they arrived in the NHL the Golden Knights have been one of the league’s best teams in both the regular season and playoffs. Since their debut season their 205 regular season wins are tied for the third most in the NHL (tied with Washington; trailing only Tampa Bay and Boston) while their 38 playoff wins are the second most (trailing only Tampa Bay). They have played in the Western Conference Final three times in four years and reached a Stanley Cup Final. They have been one of the most aggressive franchises in the league in terms of roster building, always being in the market for (and often times acquiring) star players that become available.

Alex Pietrangelo. Max Pacioretty. Mark Stone. Robin Lehner.

The one thing they had been missing was a true game-breaker in the middle of their lineup. An elite top-line center. That might have been at least a part of the reason why their offense would tend to dry up deeper in the playoffs against better defenses and goaltending.

That is where Eichel enters the equation.

Vegas always seemed like a perfect match for an Eichel trade because of their aggressiveness in acquiring stars and because there was an obvious need for a contender at a premium position.

[Related: Jack Eichel on first game back in Buffalo: “No bitterness in me whatsoever.” ]

In his first 10 games, he has mostly delivered. He enters Thursday’s game with seven points (three goals, four assists) and positive underlying numbers across the board in terms of driving possession, generating chances, and averaging more than four shots on goal per game. Some of the numbers may not be exactly on par with his career averages, but keep in mind: He is coming back from major surgery and is back in the lineup after not playing hockey in a year. It is an encouraging start.

The issue so far for the Golden Knights is that it has not yet really translated into wins as they continue to sit on the playoff bubble. Vegas is 4-5-1 in the past 10 games, but it is important to point out that Pacioretty missed four of those games, Stone has missed all of those games, and Lehner appeared in just four of them. They have not been anything close to fully healthy this season, and especially recently. The hope all season has been that if they can just stay in it until they get healthy come playoff time they should still be a top contender.

Early returns encouraging for Buffalo

The Sabres found themselves in an impossible spot in this situation because it became clear that a trade was inevitable, and trading a player like Eichel is never an easy proposition because it is almost impossible to get fair or equal value back in return. Trades involving these players also never look like people want them to look, either. The starting point for a return is always a first-round pick, a good prospect, an NHL roster player, and maybe something else thrown in. That is exactly what Buffalo got back in a first-round pick (top-10 protected), another conditional pick, prospect Peyton Krebs, and veteran forward Alex Tuch.

The Sabres had to get this trade right, because the last time they traded a top-line center and core player (Ryan O’Reilly) it ended up going very badly (yes, Tage Thompson is finally having a breakout season; but somebody has to score the goals and it is still not a good return).

So far, the early returns are far more promising here.

Tuch has been outstanding since making his debut, averaging nearly a point-per-game (23 points in 26 games) and posting dominant possession and play-driving numbers despite the fact he is playing for a lousy possession and play-driving team. Since making his season debut at the end of December he has played like a top-line player. He has been a strong top-six player when healthy throughout his career and is still signed long-term at a fair salary cap hit. He is a strong addition.

Krebs, though, is probably the key to the deal. While his initial on-ice performance has not been as strong as Tuch’s, he has shown flashes of the ability that made him a first-round pick and the top prospect in Vegas’ system. He still only has 37 NHL games on his resume at this point so there is still a lot of “what if” here, but if he can develop as the Sabres hope they could have two strong pieces in place as a result of the Eichel trade. Neither one is likely to be on the level of Eichel, which makes it difficult to “win” the trade, but it would be about as good of a return as they could have hoped for given the circumstances.