Jack Eichel leads the way in NHL for disk replacement surgeries

Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

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.”

Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

“I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

“They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

“We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.