NEW YORK — Jack Eichel has opened the door to artificial disc-replacement (ADR) surgeries in the NHL.
Eichel, now with the Golden Knights, finally was allowed Nov. 20 — after months of public drama, culminating in his long-awaited trade from the Sabres — to become the first NHL player to have an ADR operation.
On Friday, Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson became the second. He’s expected to miss roughly three months, putting his estimated return date in early March.
‘‘It’s hard on him,’’ interim coach Derek King said. ‘‘[He was] coming here as a new player, [looking for a] fresh start, and this happens. I feel for him. Obviously, we’d love to have him on the team and in the lineup; he would help us. But he’s got to do what’s best for Tyler, and we’ll back him up on the decision he makes.’’
NHL players with herniated discs in their necks traditionally have gone through an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion (ACDF), a practice that has been used since the 1950s.
But the medical community has begun using ADR — which was approved in 2009 — over ACDF in most cases, according to Vincent Traynelis, the director of the Neurosurgery Spine Fellowship Program at Rush University.
ADR has a much shorter recovery time than ACDF, which can take up to a year, Traynelis said. It also better preserves range of motion and reduces the probability of needing additional surgeries five or 10 years down the road. Studies have shown the artificial discs have no greater risk of dislocation, either.
‘‘For a hockey player, every bit of normal motion they can continue to enjoy will help them with their job,’’ Traynelis said. ‘‘So I can see the reason to do it.’’
Much of the resistance to ADR stems solely from its relative newness compared to the tried-and-true ACDF method, and the Sabres clearly fell into that category. Their summerlong battle with Eichel became one of the biggest medical controversies in hockey history.
The Hawks, however, easily avoided a similar saga by letting Johnson do as he wished.
The surgery also resolves more than a month of uncertainty about Johnson’s health timeline. He had left the Hawks’ loss Oct. 29 to the Hurricanes with an injury and hadn’t played since.
From Nov. 3 to Nov. 10, Johnson was also in COVID-19 protocol. On Nov. 11, King said he was ‘‘ready to get going,’’ but that proved not to be the case. On Nov. 17, the Hawks put him on long-term injured reserve. He partially participated in practice Nov. 25 but hadn’t been seen since.
Team physician Michael Terry said in a statement Friday that the Hawks turned to surgery ‘‘after trying to manage his neck pain conservatively for the past couple of weeks.’’ King later provided more clarity.
‘‘They tried different procedures, [they] weren’t getting what they wanted out of them, so this was the next step,’’ King said. ‘‘It’s major, but he’ll be fine. He’ll just work his way back. And who knows? Sometimes you recover quicker than you think. But he’s got a lot of hockey left in him.’’
Johnson, 31, initially was slotted as the first-line center and on the first power-play unit during training camp, a surprise after the Lightning essentially dumped him for defenseman Brent Seabrook in an offseason salary-cap maneuver.
He didn’t live up to expectations early on and slid down the depth chart, finishing October with three points in eight games. Still, his absence has been felt by a Hawks team that has lacked depth scoring.
‘‘He was really good in that middle spot on the power play and also just adds a lot of speed and energy to our lineup,’’ wing Patrick Kane said. ‘‘That’s tough to hear. Hopefully he’ll get better soon and be able to come back better than ever.’’