Golden Knights would be nightmare playoff opponent (if they make it)

Vegas Golden Knights
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When the 2021-22 NHL season began the Vegas Golden Knights were one of the league’s top Stanley Cup favorites, and for good reason.

They were coming off another trip to the Conference Final/Semifinal round, had a great roster on paper, and were considered a favorite to land Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres in a trade (which they eventually did). In what looked to be a watered down Pacific Division they should have been a shoe-in to cruise to the top spot and go on another lengthy postseason run.

It has not at all played out that way.

They enter play on Thursday on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, right on the bubble in a three-team battle for two playoff spots. They are three points back of the Los Angeles Kings for the third spot in the Pacific Division and three points back of the Dallas Stars for the second Wild Card spot. Either one seems attainable as they have one head-to-head matchup remaining with the Stars and still have two games in hand on a Kings team that is fading fast and dealing with the absence of its top defender (Drew Doughty) for the remainder of the season.

The playoffs are far from a lock, but they seem way more possible than they did just a couple of weeks ago. Especially as the Golden Knights have gone on an 8-3-1 run over their past 12 games and are starting to get healthy with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone both back in the lineup.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Toronto Maple Leafs climbing; Los Angeles Kings struggling]

The rest of the Western Conference better hope a healthy Golden Knights team does not find a way to sneak in, because they might again become one of the top favorites just based on the roster they are going to be putting on the ice.

The biggest problem for the Golden Knights this season has been a matter of health, and then eventually a salary cap crunch (much of which was their own creation). But let’s start with the health, because we have not really seen a fully healthy Golden Knights team at any point this season.

Stone has been limited to just 29 games due to injury. Pacioretty only 31. Reilly Smith has appeared in just 56. It has only been 59 games for William Karlsson.

Those four players — all of whom have been among the Golden Knights’ best and most productive players the past few years — have been in the lineup, at the same time, for just 13 games this season. Vegas is 10-3-0 in those games, and looked every bit the Stanley Cup contender they were supposed to be.

If you want to include starting goalie Robin Lehner — who has been in and out of the lineup all season due to injury — with that group, the Golden Knights have only played 10 games with all five of them. They are 8-2-0 in those games.

Then there is the Eichel factor, who has yet to play in even a single game with all of them. He has only played in five games with at least three of the them. We just have not seen this team at its full complement of players.

In advance of Thursday’s game against Calgary, Flames coach Darryl Sutter pretty accurately summed up the challenge the Golden Knights are going to present for teams in the playoffs.

“When they have the full squad, they’re the favorites to win the Stanley Cup,” said Sutter. “Other than the team that has the Stanley Cup [Tampa Bay], they’re the favorites. They have a $100-million payroll, so they have to figure out how to keep 20 (million) out.”

As we know the salary cap goes away in the playoffs, and if Vegas can get to a point where it can have Eichel, Pacioretty, Stone, Karlsson, Smith, and Lehner all together with the rest of the roster the payroll is going to be well north of $90 million. The league’s salary cap for the season is $81.5 million. We saw last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nikita Kucherov how LTIR can be utilized to ice a super team in the playoffs and how much of a difference that can make, and as of this moment there is nothing stopping teams from doing it.

[Related: NHL invalidates Golden Knights-Ducks Evgenii Dadonov trade]

Vegas had attempted to fix its salary cap issue at the trade deadline by trading Evgenii Dadonov to the Anaheim Ducks in a salary dump trade. But even that had a crazy way of working out in Vegas’ favor. The trade was ultimately invalidated by the league because of Dadonov’s no-trade clause that was still valid and included the Ducks. The result has been Vegas still having a productive player on its roster for the stretch run and (hopefully) the playoffs. Since he rejoined the team Dadonov has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the seven games he has played. He is still a very good player and could play a significant role in the playoffs.

So now we are looking at a situation where the Presidents’ Trophy winning Colorado Avalanche, or the Edmonton Oilers with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, could go into the First Round of the playoffs and be rewarded for their seasons by getting a First Round matchup with a fully healthy Vegas team with its $93 million payroll and playing its best hockey of the season.

The Golden Knights still have a lot of work to do to make the playoffs, but if they do make them it could significantly change the entire outlook for the Western Conference and the NHL as a whole.

 

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

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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

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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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

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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.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”