If you wanted to be generous you could point to a handful of reasons as to why the 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights ended up being a colossal disappointment and spectacular failure on the ice.
The biggest reason, of course, might be injuries.
Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Alec Martinez, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Robin Lehner all missed time this season (some of them significant time), while Jack Eichel did not make his season debut until January after being acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Buffalo Sabres.
With some better health luck their season almost certainly would have been different. Maybe this preseason Stanley Cup contender wouldn’t have fallen flat on its face and missed the playoffs entirely for the first time in its five-year existence.
But pointing to that — and only that — would be giving them an excuse. It would be giving them an easy way out. And quite frankly, they do not deserve an easy way out or your generosity because a lot of their problems this season were their own creation, while they failed to take care of their own business down the stretch when the schedule (and their health) should have been in their favor.
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Let’s start with the injuries
The most significant of those belonged to Stone, Pacioretty, and Martinez. And that definitely took a toll, especially as it related to Pacioretty and Stone who both missed half of the season.
But the Golden Knights are not the only preseason playoff contender that lost key players for significant chunks of the season.
- Washington played half of the season without Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha, which accounts for literally half of their top-six forwards, while also never having a consistent starting goalie.
- Pittsburgh played half of the season without Evgeni Malkin (who was only a fraction of his normal self when he did play) and had various injuries to Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Jason Zucker and Teddy Blueger for significant parts of the season.
- Colorado had injuries to Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Sam Girard, Bowen Byram, Devon Toews, Valeri Nichushkin, and Nazem Kadri at different times.
All three of those teams comfortably qualified for the playoffs in significantly tougher divisions than the one Vegas played in. Beyond that, once Vegas did get healthier down the stretch with the returns of Stone, Pacioretty, and Martinez, not to mention a healthy Jack Eichel, they only went 3-3-4 in their past 10 games with losses to Vancouver (twice!), San Jose, New Jersey, and Chicago, not to mention a crucial head-to-head to loss to Dallas. The New Jersey loss is especially unforgivable given that it came at home, against a Devils team that entered the night having lost 13 of 16, has not won a game since, and was playing without its best player (Jack Hughes) and starting a third-string goalie (Andrew Hammond). How do you drop that game with your season on the line?
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Even worse, the key players that they were missing for most of the season were mostly invisible during these key games.
• Eichel had five points over the past 10 games and was largely invisible in most games.
• Stone had zero goals and one assist.
• Pacioretty had three goals.
• Jonathan Marchessault had one goal.
Their top offensive players during the stretch run were Chandler Stephenson and Evgenii Dadonov, a player that would not have even been on the roster had his no-trade clause been messed up at the NHL trade deadline. And that does not even get into the fact that in their three consecutive shootout losses their skaters went a shocking and historically bad 0-for-17, wasting a valiant effort from goalie Logan Thompson who did everything he could to save their season.
Before that 10-game stretch began Vegas looked like a team that was starting to put it all together and could potentially be a nightmare matchup if it got in, and there was very good reason to believe in them once they got those players back. And then they got them back in the lineup and the bottom totally fell out.
Problems beyond injuries
Injuries are a fact of life in the NHL and every team has to deal with them and there is not much you can do to control them. Some teams are able to overcome it. Vegas did not. But Vegas also did itself no favors with the things it could control, including roster construction and its entire organizational philosophy.
From the very beginning of its existence Vegas has operated like a pre-salary cap spender where every big name player that becomes available is a realistic target for them, no matter the cost and no matter what they have to do to get it. They act like the salary cap does not exist and are always in the running for every star that becomes available, with Eichel being the most recent.
Individually, there is nothing wrong with any of the signings or trades they made. Stone and Pacioretty have been great. Alex Pietranagelo is a top-pairing defender. Eichel should (emphasis on should) be a cornerstone player going forward. But it has all helped cause havoc on their salary cap situation, especially when combined with other moves on the fringes, and cut into their depth, both in terms of what they have given up in trades and limiting what they can do with the rest of their roster.
For example: Taking on Dadonov’s contract from Ottawa, only to trade for Eichel a couple of months later, knowing full well the salary cap gymnastics it would require.
Or signing Robin Lehner to a long-term deal with a $5 million cap hit when they already had Marc-Andre Fleury, eventually creating a situation where they were going to have to essentially give one of them away due to cap constraints. They of course sent away Fleury just a couple of months after he won the 2020-21 Vezina Trophy. In hindsight, it was a catastrophic decision.
It was another example of just how cutthroat and ruthless this organization has been in its quest to add the next superstar and chase after the Cup.
Vegas fired Gerard Gallant early in year three (with a winning record!) after being behind the bench for consecutive playoff appearances and a Cup Final appearance in year one. They replaced him with Peter DeBoer, who has now created drama with two different goalies in the past three years (Fleury, for benching him in the playoffs for Lehner; and then Lehner for his handling of his injury situation and seemingly calling him out for not being available down the stretch this year).
All of it together almost makes it seem like there is no plan beyond “see big name player; acquire big name player; worry about the rest later.”
It ultimately looks like a directionless organization that succeeds by accident rather than some smart grand plan. It all finally caught up to them this season and it cost them what should have been a guaranteed trip to the playoffs.
Now we get to see what happens this offseason as they try to clean up the gigantic mess they made for themselves.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.