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.
The Pacific roller coaster rides on, with the Golden Knights dropping like a stone (pun not intended) despite their win Thursday.#Canucks odds fell 10% from 27% to 17% with a tough home loss to Detroit and some ugly breaks on the out of town scoreboard: https://t.co/qmWisjZ8sA pic.twitter.com/lYz28a6kMl
— Thomas Drance (@ThomasDrance) March 18, 2022
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.
.@NHLInjuryViz actually charts lost WAR against Points Per Game.
By this measure, Vegas has lost quite a bit more WAR.
Again, I’m not arguing the Golden Knights are MORE injured. They are both incredibly banged up.
Montreal has been horrid. VGK is probably lucky not to be too. https://t.co/hYvAlrxlZe pic.twitter.com/WhlvIkLewm
— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) March 18, 2022
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?
Marc-Andre Fleury on how he found out he was traded to Chicago. https://t.co/kJvqkPAe6v
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) August 4, 2021
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.