Jack Eichel thriving in the desert with Vegas Golden Knights

Mark Stone knew all about the player. He just wasn't sure about the person.

The Vegas Golden Knights acquired Jack Eichel from Buffalo in a blockbuster trade last November following a messy, protracted standoff between the star centre and the Sabres over how to proceed with a neck injury that required surgery.

The disagreement – or argument – unfolded, at least partially in public. The NHL also got involved.

Stone battled against the No. 2 pick at the 2015 draft plenty as a member of the Ottawa Senators, but didn't know his new teammate off the ice.

He had, however, heard stories.

"Definitely thought he was a bad guy from all the reports," the Vegas captain said before this season at the league's media tour.

"Couldn't be further from the truth."

Eichel got the procedure he wanted – known as artificial disk replacement, at the time a first in the league – as opposed to the more accepted fusion surgery on the heels of the trade because he believed it would get him on the ice sooner and produce better results.

And they've been there for all to see.

Eichel put up 25 points in 34 games after making his debut with the Knights in February, but wasn't able to get a roster decimated by injury into the playoffs.

Now with Vegas mostly healthy, the team's rocketed out of the gate with an NHL-best 12-2-0 record thanks to winning streak that now stands at eight games following Tuesday's 4-3 overtime victory in Toronto.

Eichel, who scored his sixth goal of the campaign in that one to give him a team-leading 15 points in 14 games, is back feeling like his old self – and credits the neck procedure he fought for.

"Just felt like that was my best chance to get back to as close to full health as possible," Eichel said. "It doesn't happen overnight.

"You don't just get surgery and things go back. It takes time."

That time now passed, it's been a seamless fit in the desert.

"As advertised," said Stone, who plays on Eichel's right wing. "Just a beast down the middle."

Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault was asked what he knew about the Boston University product pre-Vegas.

"Perception it is what it is," he said. "I make up my own mind when I meet the guy.

"Honestly, he's been unbelievable."

In his first season as Knights head coach, Bruce Cassidy sees a player back having fun.

"You've got the physical part accomplished (post-surgery)," he said. "Now you're mentally in a good spot, you're helping a team win, you're in a winning culture."

Eichel had to constantly answer for Buffalo's perpetual rebuild as the face of the franchise, but that's not the case when things go wrong in a Knights locker room populated by multiple Stanley Cup winners.

"Doesn't seem like guys in here get flustered," he said.

There's also been a period of adjustment.

"He's not the first over the boards in every situation," Cassidy said. "But when you're winning, you've got a smile on your face."

Set to make his second return to Buffalo on Thursday, Eichel is glad the trade has worked out for both teams with the Sabres finally emerging from their decade of disappointment.

"Really happy in my situation," he said. "And it's nice to see that they've been doing well."

After all he's been through, Eichel is relieved to be focusing on what happens between the whistles instead of arguing about his health.

"Good start," he said. "Just want to continue to keep building."

HART FOUNDATION

Carey Price might never play again because of injury and Marc-Andre Fleury turns 38 later this month.

Canada's goaltending picture on the international stage – be it the still-not-official 2024 World Cup or the 2026 Winter Olympics – is murky at best.

Carter Hart's first month of the season, however, demonstrates the cupboard isn't bare.

The Philadelphia Flyers netminder owns the second-best save percentage (.946) and sits fourth in goals-against average (1.97) so far in 2022-23.

Hart, 24, struggled behind a bad team the last two seasons, but new head coach John Tortorella has been impressed early.

"He was force-fed into the Philly organization in a really tough team for goaltenders, really tough city for goaltenders," Tortorella said. "He has not only done the job and then some on the ice, I just love the way he handles himself off the ice."

UGLY STREAKS

Vegas is on its eight-game winning run, while Boston picked up seven consecutive victories earlier in the schedule.

Then there are teams at the other end of the spectrum.

St. Louis won its first three games, but has lost eight in a row in regulation, Ottawa has dropped each of its last six contests, and Columbus has been on the wrong end of things in five straight.

All three teams are in action Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2022.

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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press