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

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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.

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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.