When the 2021-22 NHL season began the Vegas Golden Knights were not only viewed as a slam dunk playoff team, they were the runaway favorites to win a Pacific Division that looked short on contending teams.
Add the in-season addition of Jack Eichel to the mix, and they should be one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the entire league. Crazy how quickly things can change.
After dropping back-to-back games over the weekend, including a very ugly loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the Golden Knights now find themselves in third place in the Pacific Division, losing ground to both the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, and suddenly on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference overall.
It is, quite frankly, one of the most stunning developments in the league this season.
As of Sunday evening the Golden Knights are six points back of Calgary for the top spot in the Pacific (while Calgary still has two games in hand), three points behind the Kings (in the same number of games played), only one point ahead of Edmonton (same number of games), and only three points ahead of Anaheim. Expanding things to the Wild Card side of things, Dallas is also just one point back with a game in hand.
The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is a fight, and Vegas now finds itself right in the middle of it.
The Golden Knights have been one of the league’s most successful teams since entering the NHL in 2017-18 and have an ownership group and front office that is willing to do anything in its quest to get over the hump and win a Stanley Cup. Sitting on the playoff bubble and fighting just to get in the playoffs is not where anybody expected them to be three quarters of the way through the season.
So what happened?
A lot of the problems started in January, with the Golden Knights going just 7-8-4 in their 19 games since the start of the new year, with only five of those wins coming in regulation.
Their underlying numbers during 5-on-5 play are still mostly strong. They outshoot their opponents, they outchance them, they have an edge in expected goals and scoring chances (via Natural Stat Trick). There are two big problems during that stretch.
The first is the fact starting goalie Robin Lehner has missed almost all of February, leaving the net in the hands of Laurent Broissant. Lehner has played in just two games this month, with the Golden Knights going just 2-3-1 in the games he has missed.
The bigger problem, though, is the simple fact the puck is not going in the net for them. Since January 1 the Golden Knights are scoring on just 6.3 percent of their shots during 5-on-5 play (second worst in the league) and only 7.5 percent of their shots in all situations (the worst mark in the league).
They are getting chances. They are not getting goals. This has been a problem for them at times over the past few years, especially as they get deeper into the playoffs and face better defenses and better goaltending. Getting a top-line center like Eichel in the mix can help that, but he has only played five games to this point.
Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone have both missed significant time over the past two months, and there remains no timetable for the latter’s return to the lineup. Their absences — and Stone’s continued absence — has put a major dent in the offense. That has all coincided with several other key players going cold. After a great start to the season Chandler Stephenson has gone cold over the past two months (just two goals and seven points in his past 17 games), while Evgenii Dadonov, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson have combined for just nine goals on 128 shots on goal during that stretch.
Are they actually going to miss the playoffs?
This still seems hard to believe, even with their current place in the standings. Only 11 of their remaining 29 games are against teams currently occupying a playoff spot, and a lot of their underlying numbers remain strong. They are getting crushed by injuries and percentages right now. Some of those are going to reverse, and with Pacioretty and Eichel back in the lineup that is going to help. The big questions are going to be when they get Stone back, and how long they are without Lehner and if they have to add somebody to strengthen the depth there.
If they did miss though the organizational fallout from that would probably be ridiculous. There is perhaps no team in the NHL willing to be as aggressive and bold as the Golden Knights when it comes to pursuing a championship. The firing of Gerard Gallant, the acquisition of Robin Lehner, benching of Marc-Andre Fleury, the trade of Fleury, and the pursuits of Pacioretty, Stone, Eichel, and Alex Pietrangelo show just how bold this team is willing to be. They have known, to this point, nothing but success and still make drastic changes when they do not win it all. It would be wild to see how they handle missing the playoffs this season.