Jack Eichel leads the way in NHL for disk replacement surgeries

Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
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Jack Eichel argued and argued with his former team, and even with the league, for the right to undergo neck surgery that had never before been performed on an NHL player.

The procedure Eichel wanted – the one he expected to get him back on the ice in a fraction of the time over the more-accepted standard of fusion surgery – is called artificial disk replacement and he eventually got it.

Given the success it has brought the talented forward, it could very well be referred to by another name now: The Jack Eichel Surgery.

The sharpshooting center for Vegas by way of Buffalo may be doing for lower backs and necks what Tommy John once did for the elbows of baseball pitchers – save careers.

“A year ago nobody had had it, and now all of a sudden, three guys have had it,” said Eichel, who scored the overtime winner with seven seconds as the Golden Knights moved to 8-2 atop the Western Conference. “It’s a more common injury than you think and it’s a good way to resolve that injury, so I’m happy that guys had the opportunity to do it.”

Others are already following his lead. Chicago forward Tyler Johnson underwent the procedure last December, and Philadelphia’s Joel Farabee had it in June.

The road to being a pioneer among his peers wasn’t exactly smooth for Eichel. He switched agents to Pat Brisson in August 2021, and yet the duo was still unable to convince Buffalo team physicians it was safe to insert an artificial disk into Eichel’s neck.

The reason for the reluctance: the question of whether the disk would hold up to the rigors of the league. No NHL player had ever had it before, and the Sabres also were hesitant to risk Eichel’s trade value.

ADR surgery isn’t new. Developed decades ago, it has been used on injured extreme athletes (think mountain bikers, big-wave surfers), military pilots and casual athletes just looking to swing a golf club or tennis racket pain-free again.

The surgery can put hockey players back in uniform in three months. With fusion surgery, where surgeons permanently connect two or more vertebrae, it can take six months or longer before a return, and could require follow-up procedures later in life.

Eichel did his homework and was insistent the ADR route was what he wanted. Frequently, teams acquiesce, but in this case there was built-up animosity between the two sides in what was an ugly divorce, with the Sabres holding the final say. One reason the NHL Players’ Association didn’t escalate it to a grievance was because the Sabres continued paying Eichel his contract while he was essentially waiting for a trade.

That came a year ago, when Eichel was dealt to Vegas on Nov. 4. Eight days later, he underwent ADR surgery. Three months after that, he skated nearly 18 minutes for the Golden Knights against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.

“I give Jack a lot of credit for being a stubborn student of what he was going to do his body,” Brisson said. “He was patient, and he fought a pretty lengthy battle. He was very strong and paved the way.”

Eichel and Brisson endured mounds of red tape in order to get the surgery, which was performed by Dr. Chad Prusmack in Denver.

“At one point, it wasn’t about hockey. I just wanted him to get the surgery so he could continue to live his life,” Brisson explained. “It’s a personal choice, and that’s where we are with the issue.”

Over his 30-year career, neurological spine surgeon Dr. Robert Bray Jr. has performed many disk surgeries. The founding director of DISC Sports & Spine Center, Bray has helped everyone from that 60-year-old golfer who wants to play with friends to extreme sports standouts like big wave surfer Koa Rothman and now Johnson, who followed the lead of Eichel after years of chronic numbness and pain.

“I’ve seen very few things that were absolute game-changers,” Bray, a former goaltender at Colgate, said of ADR. “It’s great to be able to return someone’s passion.”

Eichel could become synonymous with ADR much like Tommy John with elbow surgeries. The left-handed pitcher’s career could’ve been over, but John had ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction performed by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974. Since his ground-breaking operation, Tommy John surgery has been overflowing with successful comeback stories (see: Justin Verlander, who’s pitching for Houston in the World Series ).

Johnson conducted his own research as he watched Eichel’s situation. Johnson’s neck had been bothering him for years, with his offseason workouts all about managing the tingling and sharp pain he’d experience in his arm. He eventually talked to spine specialists about his options.

Last December, he had Bray perform the surgery, which involved a 1-inch incision and less than a teaspoon of blood loss. The outpatient procedure lasted approximately 70 minutes as Bray and his team inserted a titanium disk that bonded to the bone, with the center elastic portion of the disk acting as a shock absorber. The ruptured disk and bone spurs were removed. The implant restored normal joint motion, as opposed to sacrificing motion with a fusion.

Shortly after the procedure, Johnson was already walking around. No more tingling, either.

About eight days after that, he was skating again, with full mobility in his neck soon following. And three months post-operation, he was trying to get teammates to hit him – just to test his neck. No one volunteered.

So he crashed into the boards himself.

“Hard as I could just to test it out,” laughed Johnson. “No ill effects.”

Johnson returned to the ice last season, playing his first game post-surgery on March 3.

“Every day just kept getting better: your mobility kept getting better,” said Johnson, who was recently placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury. “It felt great.”

A word of caution: The procedure isn’t for everyone.

“It is a great operation for a lot of different neck related problems, but can’t fix everything,” Dr. Amit Jain, a spine surgeon at Johns Hopkins, wrote in an email. “Even if a player feels great, the decision to let early return to sport or delayed return depends on the surgeon and their protocol.”

Johnson has been asked by players around the league about the procedure and recovery process.

“Obviously, surgery is a scary thing,” Johnson said. “If it gets to a point where you’re wondering, `Hey, is it always going to be like this’ – if it’s constantly hurting and it’s getting worse and worse, people should do some research.

“For me, it’s been very, very beneficial.”

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.