What if the Golden Knights miss the playoffs?

1 Comment

After going all-in to trade for Jack Eichel, the worry was that the Golden Knights would nonetheless fall short in their (often-ruthless) pursuit of a Stanley Cup. Yet, after ending a five-game losing streak but seeing Eichel injured, an uncomfortable question lingers. What if the Golden Knights miss the playoffs?

With the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline looming, the Golden Knights are basically a coin flip to make or miss the playoffs. Some projections give them just about a 40-percent chance to reach the postseason, others go up to about 56%.

Either way, it’s a jarring state of affairs for a franchise that exudes a “Stanley Cup or bust” mentality.

Let’s get this out of the way: the Golden Knights are unpredictable, maybe even impulsive. Where other NHL franchises sometimes move as swiftly as molasses, the Golden Knights often turn on a dime.

How about we rummage through this season, and beyond, to ponder the potential fallout if the Golden Knights miss the playoffs?

Would that same ruthlessness apply to the top executives running the team?

Most NHL teams exhibit a lot of patience. Often too much, ignoring a fire as it spreads.

In this case, a more zen-like approach would probably best. Because, seriously, this has been a devastating season of injuries for the VGK.

Would anyone be surprised if the Golden Knights resumed being a force with mostly-healthy seasons from Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Max Pacioretty?

Again, though, ownership doesn’t seem interested in waiting for a Stanley Cup. Considering expectations and heavy investments, a wasted season would be brutal, particularly for a sneaky-old team.

It doesn’t help matters that management earned a reputation for a scorched earth approach with fan favorites like Marc-Andre Fleury and Nate Schmidt. If beloved players didn’t even get a courtesy phone call about a trade, should management be able to ride excuses like injuries?

Being cutthroat, like a hockey Bill Belichick, might work out OK if your team is winning. Lose enough, especially with high expectations, and you might find a pink slip in your hoodie.

Injuries: a mix of bad luck, but also risky age?

No doubt, there’s some bad luck involved here. While you expect a team to withstand injuries, there’s a threshold where you’re asking too much. Vegas may have crossed that.

That said, you roll the dice when you lean so much on veteran talent. Max Pacioretty is 33, with some gnarly injuries in his past. Sometimes big goalies like Robin Lehner, 30, tend to break down faster than expected. Alex Pietrangelo is 32, Alec Martinez is 34, and even Mark Stone and William Karlsson are getting older at 29.

All of that extra mileage leads to more risks.

Over the years, the Golden Knights traded away picks, and prospects such as Nick Suzuki. All fair in chasing a Stanley Cup, yet a lack of youth becomes glaring when bumps and bruises pile up.

Mixed results with big moves

Even a seemingly impatient owner like Bill Foley hopefully understands that it’s too early to judge the Jack Eichel trade. Unprecedented surgery and new team considered, he’s been reasonably effective so far.

Yet for every smash success like Max Pacioretty and especially Mark Stone, there have been bold moves that haven’t worked out as well.

  • Trading Marc-Andre Fleury in part to make room for Robin Lehner was already risky from a PR perspective. On paper, Lehner makes sense: he regularly put up strong numbers, and he’s quite a bit younger than MAF. Goaltending is a strange beast, though, and things have been bumpy.
  • Credit to Evgenii Dadonov for helping Vegas end its losing streak, but his acquisition remains baffling.
  • Factoring in that all-in mentality, the Golden Knights’ prospect pool could be worse. But it’s unclear if meaningful help is coming anytime soon.
  • It might sneak under the radar, but the Alex Pietrangelo investment is looking shoddy. This Evolving Hockey RAPM chart is one way to capture his troubling defensive struggles.
  • Even seemingly sound investments in Shea Theodore and William Karlsson look less inspiring now.

Would missing the playoffs prompt a Golden Knights coaching change?

Perhaps someone might wonder if Alex Pietrangelo’s underlying numbers would improve if he was deployed differently. Maybe a smidge less aggressively?

That brings us to another bold move by McCrimmon/McPhee: firing Gerard Gallant and hiring Peter DeBoer. This one warrants its own section.

At the time, firing Gallant seemed arbitrary, and like a knee-jerk reaction. But the Golden Knights performed reasonably well under DeBoer, at least early on.

Overall this season, the Golden Knights still grade reasonably well in underlying stats, although they’re in the middle of the pack when it comes to winning the high-danger chance battle. Add in the injuries, and Peter DeBoer likely deserves nitpicking, rather than a boiling hot seat.

Again, though, this franchise rarely accepts “give it some time”-type logic. Also, a management change would be easier to pull off than another dramatic roster renovation.

Limited room for more splashy moves

Over and over, the Golden Knights find ways to make a splashy move, defying the salary cap again and again. They might be low on tricks now, though.

Their roster is riddled with risky term, and plenty of big-money players also have no-trade or, worse, no-movement clauses. Unfortunately, the rare exception term-wise generally boils down to a player they’d miss, like Reilly Smith (UFA this offseason) or Max Pacioretty (only under contract through next season).

There’s even limited wiggle room with goalies. Beyond Robin Lehner ($5M cap hit through 2024-25), backup Laurent Brossoit is signed through next season at $2.325M.

If anything, the Golden Knights are primed to lose talent.

Realistically, the best way forward is to improve what they have. It’s up to the Golden Knights to determine if they merely need time, or must replace DeBoer.

The wisest move would probably just be to take a breath

To reiterate: the Golden Knights shouldn’t blow it all up, if they even have the ability to do so. The closest they may reasonably come to that is trading away a pending free agent at the trade deadline, like Reilly Smith.

Ultimately, the wisest move might be reversing the Golden Knights’ usual M.O. Take a breath. Gather yourself. Don’t make reckless bets.

Because, seriously, injuries really are hurting this team. They could shrug those crises off, get healthy for the playoffs, and look back at these times as character-building experiences. If they make the playoffs and have their big guns healthy, who knows?

Even if the Golden Knights miss the playoffs, they could easily bounce back with a healthier team next season. Zoom out and you’re more likely to see a disappointment here, rather than a disaster.

Of course, the person signing the checks might not have that same patience, or perspective.

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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

ovechkin all star
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

Chase Agnello-Dean/Getty Images
0 Comments

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

mark stone surgery
Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
2 Comments

LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

brunette dui
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
1 Comment

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.