Jack Eichel didn’t hold back in his return to Buffalo on Thursday night. The Golden Knights center played his first game against the Sabers since being traded to Vegas on Nov. 4, coming out on the losing end of a 3-1 decision.
Eichel, 25, was Buffalo’s second overall pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft, and he captained the squad from 2018 to ’21. But the relationship soured last season, leading to the trade.
Eichel was in Vegas’ starting lineup for Thursday’s tilt and received a healthy number of boos from the crowd each time he touched the puck. The Sabers showed a tribute video for him during the first TV timeout as well, which drew more boos — and applause — from the season-high crowd of 12,437.
It was Eichel, though, who got the last word.
“It’s the loudest I’ve heard this place ever. Really,” Eichel said after the game. “It only took seven years and leaving me for them to get into the game. It was a nice tribute. There was plenty of people here that were supporting me, and there was plenty of people that were booing me. They must just be booing me because they wish I was still here, I don’t know.”
It wasn’t just boos that rained down on Eichel, either. As he patrolled the ice during Thursday’s warm-ups, Eichel was greeted by a smattering of signs along the boards at Keybank Center that ranged from upbeat, “Welcome back, Jack!” to malcontent, “Thanks for nothing, Eichel.”
When the final buzzer sounded, a fan tossed an Eichel Sabers sweater to the ice, too.
In another wrinkle, both players Buffalo acquired in the Eichel trade — Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch — scored in the Sabres’ victory. Eichel himself finished minus-one, with two shots on goal in 17:31.
Over 375 games with the Sabres, Eichel produced 139 goals and 355 points. He went back to Buffalo just 10 games into his tenure with the Golden Knights, having been sidelined for months following surgery on a herniated disc in November. The center had hit the ground running, though, producing three goals and seven points heading into Thursday.
Even if the result wasn’t what Eichel hoped for, he was glad to get that homecoming out of the way.
“I’m pretty happy it’s over. Just move on,” he said. “It’s not an easy game to play in by any means. I’m not going to stand here and say it was. It’s frustrating. We wanted to get a win here and we didn’t.”
Eichel said he tried all along to keep his focus on the game itself. When his video tribute played, there was ample footage of Eichel’s various charitable endeavors, many of which involved the city’s youth.
“I was trying not to watch it. I’ll take a look at it another time,” he said. “In a game situation, I didn’t want to get emotional, especially when you start involving some of the kids and some of the things I did in the community, that hits home with me. But I appreciate the tribute and it’s nice some people were here cheering for me.”
The Eichel in that video might never have imagined where his path with the Sabers would go.
The relationship between team and player began to sour midway through Eichel’s sixth season. He suffered a neck injury during Buffalo’s game on March 7, 2021, and by April, the team announced Eichel was done for the season because of a herniated disk.
Eichel’s preferred treatment was a surgery never performed on an NHL player. But Eichel was the Sabres’ star player and barely into the eight-year, $80 million deal he signed in 2018. The club wouldn’t allow him to go through with the procedure he wanted, advocating instead for rest and rehabilitation.
The impasse didn’t sit well with Eichel.
“I’ve been a bit upset about the way that things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” Eichel told reporters in May. “I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect, I think, from the organization and myself. It’s been tough at times.”
By training camp, the relationship appeared irreparable. Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams announced last September that not only had Eichel been stripped of the Sabres’ captaincy, he had failed his physical and would not be available to start the season.
Adams didn’t rule out trading Eichel at the time but took his time putting a deal together. In return for shipping Eichel to Vegas, Buffalo received forward Tuch, Krebs and first- and second-round draft picks.
A week after the trade, Eichel got his disk replacement surgery at Rocky Mountain Spine Clinic in Denver. He made his Vegas debut on Feb. 17.