After a season in which the stars seemed to be aligning for a Vegas Golden Knights and a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, almost an inevitability, the team now finds itself at home as they watch the Montreal Canadiens continue their Cinderella story. It was a disappointing end to the season for a Golden Knights team that has now lost in the final four in each of the two previous seasons.
This playoff run was supposed to be where they took the lessons learned in years past and applied them, finally getting over the hump after a few close calls. They brought in Alex Pietrangelo, a veteran defender who is one of the best in the world, to reinforce the roster and add a player with the experience of winning the Stanley Cup.
Despite their best efforts, they were still eliminated by a Montreal Canadiens team that won only 24 of 56 games and had more goals scored on them than they scored during the regular season. While the series revealed some serious flaws that the Golden Knights will need to address moving forward, it’s now been too many years of learning and not enough winning. Patience is starting to run thin.
This offseason represents a fork in the road for the Golden Knights, where they will have to decide what route they want to take. Is it now clear that there are significant structural issues with this current core and things need to be shaken up seriously? Or has the team run into a string of bad luck and needs to take these losses as fuel for future playoff runs?
Identifying the Golden Knights issues
The NHL is a league with a high degree of parity and you can have the best team and not win the Stanley Cup more often than not. It’s a physical sport that can force a player to leave the ice with an injury in a second and sometimes teams need a few chances before they find a way to win it all. Just look at Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, for example, a franchise that took many runs at the cup before eventually winning it all.
Despite their best efforts, they were still eliminated by a Montreal Canadiens team that won only 24 of 56 games and had more goals scored on them than they scored during the regular season.
For the Golden Knights, this may be their answer as to what went wrong this year. If you look at the stats, the Golden Knights were one of the best teams in hockey and just because they lost a series to a red-hot Canadiens team doesn’t necessarily mean that there need to be big changes made. Perhaps they need to run it back with the same group of players and coaches and give themselves another chance.
“I think this was our best team,” said Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon. “We made improvements to our team from a personnel standpoint and in terms of style of play. Without those improvements, I don’t know if we beat Minnesota or Colorado.”
Management inside the Golden Knights thinks highly of their team and for a good reason. The Golden Knights had a +67 goal differential during the regular season as they steamrolled opponents, eventually finishing tied for the most points in the league with the Avalanche. Any drastic changes would need to be carefully considered as no one wants to mess with a good thing.
On the other hand, a few issues were made apparent during this playoff run, and identifying them is the first step on the road to fixing them. These are major inhibitors on the Golden Knights’ path to a Stanley Cup championship and themes that must be addressed to be fully confident that they have exhausted every option. Of those issues, three of them must be addressed this offseason:
- An inability to score goals
- Big names (and big money contract players) not showing up
- Slow starts to important games
These three things are the main issues that prevented the Golden Knights from completing their goal. Addressing these issues should be the number one priority for the management group moving forward. Before McCrimmon and his team have the chance to do that, it needs to be discussed if he is the right person for the job and how comfortable he should feel in his current position.
Evaluating job security throughout the organization
While some fans may be yelling for McCrimmon to be replaced due to the team’s multiple shortcomings in recent playoff runs, it seems unlikely that he will get replaced. McCrimmon has done a strong job building this team and has shown a drive to continue to improve with moves like the signing of Pietrangelo.
In fact, McCrimmon recently received some recognition for his hard work as he finished fifth in General Manager of the Year voting. He received four first-place votes, displaying that he is generally held in high regard in hockey circles around the league.
As far as head coach Peter DeBoer goes, it seems like he is unlikely to lose his job this offseason. DeBoer joined halfway through last season and has had a winning percentage of over .700 in both of the regular seasons that he has coached in. While he has yet to add a Stanley Cup to his resume, he has taken many teams on deep playoff runs across multiple franchises.
The first line is as good a place to start as Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty were rendered useless against the Canadiens. The disappearance of two of their best players is one of the main reasons why the Golden Knights lost that series.
Major changes to management or the coaching staff seem like overkill at this point, as both groups have succeeded in their roles. Instead, any changes should be directed at the on-ice product that the players create, as movement in this area would have the largest expected change on results for the team.
Possible solutions in Vegas
To look at some possible solutions to the Golden Knights’ issues, we can start by ruling out what doesn’t need changing. The defense core did a great job throughout this run and finding a way to bring back Alec Martinez will be enough in that area. The goaltending duo was excellent. Marc-Andre Fleury won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender; however, the two are also expensive. A decision will need to be made in this area as to what will happen as. If the Golden Knights want to improve in other areas, they may need to borrow some cap space from their goaltenders.
No matter what direction they decide to go as far as goaltending, maybe they move Robin Lehner and bring in a more cost-effective option. Most of the tinkering this offseason will have to do with the forward group. The first line is as good a place to start as Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty were rendered useless against the Canadiens. The disappearance of two of their best players is one of the main reasons why the Golden Knights lost that series.
While the smart move might be to give the two stars a pass on this one and let them run it back next year, their absence speaks to a larger issue and that is the team’s depth at center. It’s arguably the most important position in hockey and Stanley Cup-winning teams will often be very deep down the middle. The Golden Knights have gotten away without having a true number one center as Stone often carried the burden for many traditional centreman jobs.
This gave Chandler Stephenson space and freedom to excel but when he got injured in the playoffs, the Golden Knights lack of depth at the crucial position was exposed. One answer to this issue could come in the continued development of Cody Glass. Glass is a former top-ten pick that has shown an ability to put up points. However, his lack of a two-way game and early position in his development arc have kept him back from having a huge impact at the NHL level.
Glass is an intriguing prospect that has had his ups and downs along his path to the NHL. Even though he hasn’t been an instant superstar, the Golden Knights aren’t giving up hope yet.
“There’s a long list of players that have been a little later finding their way and we still expect Cody is going to do that,” said McCrimmon.
If the Golden Knights were looking for something a little more immediate, free agency or a trade acquisition would have to be the play. Jack Eichel is the big name on the trade block this offseason and he would be a huge get for the Golden Knights. He would slide into the top-line spot seamlessly and give the Golden Knights one of the scariest looking rosters in the league.
While it would take a hefty price and a handicap for the team in terms of the salary cap, players like Eichel are rarely available. It’s already been determined that there aren’t many holes on this roster and he would shore up any concerning spots.
No matter what they decide to do, the Golden Knights are in a good spot heading into next season. Barring disaster, they will once again be one of the premier contenders for the Stanley Cup and a juggernaut in the Western Conference. However, they are also at a crossroads that will determine the franchise’s direction for years to come. Will they shake things up in a major way or roll the dice and run it back?
Only time will tell.