What if the Golden Knights miss the playoffs?

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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.

Florida Panthers in familiar territory, backs to the wall once again down 0-2 in Stanley Cup Final

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sport

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Panthers need a miracle. Again.

Such is the story of Florida’s season, and it makes all the sense in the world that the plot has reappeared in the Stanley Cup Final. The Panthers needed a furious late-season push just to get into the playoffs as the lowest seed, then needed to win three consecutive elimination games to oust a record-setting Boston team in Round 1.

And now, another huge challenge awaits. Down 2-0 in the title series to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Panthers return to home ice on Thursday night looking to spark one more epic turnaround and get right back in the hunt for hockey’s biggest prize.

“Desperation and winning a game,” Florida veteran Marc Staal said. “We’ve approached every game in the playoffs the same way. We just try to take it – like everyone says – one at a time. But our backs are against the wall, obviously. We’re down by two. But we’re coming home. Love our team, love our resiliency. We’re going to go out and give our best effort and play our best game tomorrow and go from there.”

To say the odds are stacked high against the Panthers is a bit of an understatement.

– They’ve beaten Vegas in four of 12 all-time meetings between the franchises. And now they’ve got to beat them in four of the next five games to win the Cup.

– They’ve been outscored 10-2 in the last four periods against Vegas.

Matthew Tkachuk has two more misconduct penalties (three) than he has points (one, a goal) in the series.

– Former Panthers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have as many goals so far in the series (four) as all the current Panthers do in the series, combined.

– Vegas hasn’t dropped four out of five games since going 1-2-2 to start a six-game road swing that began in late January.

– Teams that start a Stanley Cup Final with two home wins have won the Cup 38 times in 41 past instances.

But by now, Florida’s penchant for pulling off the improbable is well-known. Almost expected, really.

“Of course, we’ve had three really tough series,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Boston is a good example. We were down, we found a way, we started playing a little better, we found a way to come back and get out of there. Same thing here – we’ve just got to work a little harder, work a little smarter and find a way to win games.”

They’ve done it before.

There was the 6-0-1 stretch late in the season to hold off Pittsburgh for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The winning three elimination games against a Boston team that had the best regular season in NHL history in Round 1; Game 5 there was on the road in overtime, Game 6 required a rally late in the third period to erase a 5-4 deficit and Game 7 was another road OT victory. There was a four-overtime win at Carolina in the East final, setting the table for a sweep where the Panthers got four one-goal wins and allowed only six goals.

They’ve given up 12 goals in two games against Vegas. And it’s not all on Sergei Bobrovsky, either. Panthers coach Paul Maurice found it funny that it was considered a surprise to some that Bobrovsky – who carried Florida to the final round – will remain the starter for Game 3.

“He was outstanding in Game 1,” Maurice said. “And he was as good as our team was in Game 2.”

The message was simple: Everyone has to be better. The Panthers have a history of rising to those moments.

“We never lose doubt in this room,” Florida forward Ryan Lomberg said. “Obviously, they’re a good team. They got here for a reason. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s kind of the theme of our whole year is we make it tough. Whether we wanted it this way or not, it’s this way, so we’ve got to play the hand we’re dealt now.”

NOTES: Maurice said he expects D Radko Gudas, who left Game 2 injured, to play in Game 3. Forward Eetu Luostarinen will remain out. Maurice declined to offer specifics on Luostarinen’s injury, but quipped “he’s a good human.” … Thursday will be Florida’s first Stanley Cup Final game on home ice in FLA Live Arena. The Panthers’ 1996 final appearance was at a long-demolished arena in Miami.

Flyers trade Pride-night boycott defenseman Provorov in 3-team deal

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Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers have traded Ivan Provorov, sending away the defenseman who boycotted the team’s Pride night as part of a three-team trade that included the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings.

The seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, the 26-year-old Provorov lands in Columbus and is set to enter the fifth season of a $40.5 million, six-year contract. He was the centerpiece Tuesday of the first major move under new Flyers’ leadership.

There were plenty of moving parts in the three-team deal.

— Philadelphia traded Provorov and forward Hayden Hodgson to Los Angeles in exchange for goalie Cal Petersen, defenseman Sean Walker, defenseman Helge Grans and the Kings’ 2024 second-round pick. The Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs.

— Columbus acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Philadelphia in exchange for a 2023 first-round pick (22nd overall) and a conditional second-round pick in either the 2024 or 2025 NHL Draft. Columbus acquired Provorov from Los Angeles in exchange for Connauton.

The Flyers already hold the No. 7 pick in this season’s draft and now also have the 23rd pick as they start accumulating key assets for long-range success in what is expected to be a deep draft.

Flyers general manager Danny Briere had said no player was untouchable after the Flyers missed the playoffs for the third straight season and went to work with the Stanley Cup Final still underway. The Flyers named broadcaster Keith Jones team president last month and he is still working the Final for TNT. But it’s clear the overdue rebuild is underway for a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 48 years.

“We felt that the picks and the direction that we wanted to go in, it was really enticing, very exciting,” Briere said. “We have a chance to really start building the team the way we wanted. The right way.”

Briere said the Flyers are “open for business” this summer and that included potentially listening to offers for No. 1 goalie Carter Hart. Coach John Tortorella, Briere and Jones have all tempered offseason expectations for any fan looking for a quick fix. The trio all insist the Flyers have a cohesive plan for the future.

Provorov had 65 goals and 217 points in 532 career games with the Flyers. The Russian was widely criticized in January when he cited his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason he did not participate in pregame warmups when the Flyers wore Pride-themed jerseys and used sticks wrapped in rainbow Pride tape.

“I respect everybody’s choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”

Now, he’s traded during Pride month.

Briere said the backlash over Pride night had nothing to do with trading Provorov.

The Blue Jackets, who missed the playoffs this season, were ready to take a flier on a defenseman seemingly with many productive years ahead.

“Improving our blue line has been a priority for us and acquiring Ivan gives us an established left-shot defenseman who is still a young player with his best seasons in front of him,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He immediately improves our group on defense as he is durable, has great skill, skates well, is an excellent passer with an accurate shot and can effectively play at both ends of the ice.”

Provorov said at the end of the season he wasn’t necessarily happy the Flyers planned to rebuild but understood the decision. Briere declined to say if Provorov wanted out of Philadelphia.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the most positive news you can hear, but there’s a bright future here, and there’s a lot of great players that can keep growing,” Provorov said in April. “Obviously, it depends on how quick everybody gets better and how quickly the team game gets better. I think that’s what determines the length of the rebuild.”

Turns out, the potential success out of the haul the Flyers got for Provorov just may determine the length of the rebuild.

Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

“I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

“They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

“He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

“We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

“I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.