Golden Knights didn’t win Stanley Cup, but they aren’t failures

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After falling to the Canadiens in overtime of an entertaining Game 6, the Golden Knights likely feel exhausted, and deflated.

Drill down into different aspects of that Canadiens – Golden Knights series, and you can identify plenty of regrets. Mark Stone himself admitted he got “skunked.” As tremendous — unsustainably tremendous — as Carey Price was on the penalty kill, the Golden Knights’ power play was a total dud.

” … They owned the key moments of the series,” Peter DeBoer said after Game 6, via TSN.

“When they got a chance, they stuck it in the net. When they needed a big save, they got a big save. They won the overtime battle. They won the special-teams battle. If you’re losing those areas of the game, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Once again, the Golden Knights fell just short of their ultimate goal: advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, and winning it all. This franchise spent a lot of money and assets to try to win a Stanley Cup. Instead, Golden Knights fans are starting to pile up some playoff heartache.

[MORE: How the Canadiens shocked the Golden Knights, and the NHL]

But few other NHL fans will feel much sympathy for the still-new Golden Knights. And you know what? Those fans are right. Because, in the grand scheme of things, the Golden Knights remain a stunning success.

Really, they’ve been so successful, so often, that people might take those successes for granted. Let’s count some of the ways the Golden Knights have succeeded.

Shrewd expansion draft moves still paying dividends

The 2020-21 Golden Knights look dramatically different from the debut squad that stunned their way to a 2018 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Even so, the Golden Knights expansion draft remains the gift that keeps giving.

Did they really want to keep Marc-Andre Fleury in 2020-21? Deep down, maybe not. But he put together a blazingly brilliant season, finishing as a Vezina finalists. While he ran out of steam, Fleury also provided some playoff brilliance.

If we’re being honest, Reilly SmithWilliam KarlssonJonathan Marchessault looked like the “real” Golden Knights top line in Game 6, rather than “the other top line.”

And, while you can quibble with Shea Theodore‘s argument as a Norris-range defenseman, you’d be straining the limits of logic to claim that he hasn’t been an enormous success for the Golden Knights. (Also: he might be the first bullet point in an argument for why Bob Murray’s seemingly lost his touch in Anaheim.)

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Once the Golden Knights enjoyed shocking early success, they diverted from their main focus of the expansion draft: piling up a bunch of draft picks. As much as it stung to see Nick Suzuki power Montreal to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, even that process helped Vegas. They used excess picks to land some of the big fish on the trade market, and that mostly worked out.

(Also: while people aren’t as ecstatic about the Golden Knights’ prospect pool as they once were, it’s still a respected group.)

No Stanley Cup, but Golden Knights have generated great results overall

For some, an NHL team is a failure if they don’t win the Stanley Cup.

Frankly, that seems silly, and maybe a downright unhealthy way to view sports. Stack up what the Golden Knights have accomplished since their inaugural 2017-18 season, and you won’t find many teams who have been more successful:

  • They’ve won their division twice. This year, they fell short … because the tiebreaker went to the Avalanche, who oh yeah, also won the Presidents’ Trophy.
  • In three of four playoff runs, they’ve won at least two series. That wild and wildly unlucky Game 7 loss to Peter DeBoer and the Sharks marks the only time the Golden Knights fell in the First Round.
  • Generally speaking, they’ve been fun to watch. For rival fans, that might translate to a “love to hate” vibe. But they’ve rarely been boring.

That’s … pretty amazing, right? Here’s another sign that the Golden Knights are a smash success: the bar seems way, way too high for the Seattle Kraken.

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche - Game Five
(Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Quite a track record with big gambles

Let’s be honest: the Golden Knights rode a ton of luck during that first season. Credit a sharp management team for a) identifying the few stars who’ve become available and b) doing what it took to land the ones who are positive difference-makers.

Look around the NHL, and you’ll see plenty of gambles that look like failures. Some of those went bust shortly after the ink dried on ill-fated contracts.

Culminating with Matt Duchene, the Predators’ run of bold moves plummeted from savvy to scary. Those Sharks have beached with Erik Karlsson merely the biggest of several albatross deals. Avert your eyes from that Sergei Bobrovsky contract.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights didn’t sink when they made their big splashes.

Big returns for their new top line

Again, yes, Mark Stone got “skunked.” He’s absorbing a rare bit of the sort of blame stars experience in markets like Montreal.

But those criticisms are rooted, in part, because of how high expectations were. After joining the Golden Knights, Mark Stone’s risen from two-way rising star to a no-doubt-about-it superstar.

Maybe Stone’s rise might explain why Max Pacioretty slips under the radar a bit. How many people realize that, with 24 goals, Max Pacioretty tied for 13th in the NHL with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby,  and Sebastian Aho?

Where the Golden Knights made expensive bets on Pacioretty and Stone, they bought low on the severely underrated Chandler Stephenson.

Sure, it was disappointing to see that trio come up short against the Canadiens (even if the Habs deserve a ton of credit, especially pizza-loving, Selke-grade forward Phillip Danault). Yet it’s fair to point out that a healthy version of that line might have been more productive.

Pacioretty missed most of the First Round. Stephenson sat out a chunk of the Canadiens – Golden Knights series. And it’s possible Stone was nursing something too (it was the playoffs, after all).

Even if you show no mercy to them … they still mostly delivered as a genuine top line. That doesn’t always happen when a team invests in big stars.

(It’s easy to forget how important Stone was in the Golden Knights slowing down Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche, for example.)

Pietrangelo and other investments shine

Remember when Alex Pietrangelo seemed like a letdown for the Golden Knights?

Whether you prefer your stats fancy or traditional, Pietrangelo struggled a bit (by his standards) during the regular season. That changed during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though.

Pietrangelo finished second on the Golden Knights in playoff scoring with 12 points, including four goals. Pietrangelo scored three of those goals against Montreal, crucial stuff when Vegas couldn’t buy a bucket.

Along with bringing that offense, Pietrangelo was sound defensively, and provided a steadying presence in transition. After tough years for Nate Schmidt and Paul Stastny, the Golden Knights look justified in straining to add the former Blues star.

You can extend the kudos to other, smaller moves. Alec Martinez isn’t perfect, but he was mostly a nice find for Vegas. While firing Gerard Gallant was questionable, it seems like Peter DeBoer mostly pushes the right buttons.

Challenges ahead

Now, can the Golden Knights sustain these successes, and maybe even win that Stanley Cup? They have to hope that they didn’t already enjoy their best chances.

The biggest downside to their team-building strategy is that their core looks shockingly old for a team that’s existed for four seasons. Pacioretty is 32, Pietrangelo is 31, Stone is 29, and that other first line has some mileage (Marchessault and Smith are 30; William Karlsson is 28). Marc-Andre Fleury’s carefree attitude belies his age (36). Even Robin Lehner‘s no baby at 29.

Now, those ages don’t scream “drastic decline.” But it’s at least a consideration. That’s especially true because they’ve been through some grueling playoff battles.

Maybe that’s where a prospect like Peyton Krebs comes in. Or perhaps the Golden Knights will once again roll the dice, this time focusing on, say, a more established center?

Eventually, those big bets might not pay off. If you can zoom out from the disappointment of falling to an underdog (but underrated) Canadiens team, it should be clear that the Golden Knights’ successes massively outweigh their failures.

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (MTL wins series 4-2)

Game 1: Golden Knights 4, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Game 4: Golden Knights 2, Canadiens 1 (OT)

Game 5: Canadiens 4, Golden Knights 1
Game 6: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2 (OT)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.