After the Vegas Golden Knights upset the Colorado Avalanche in the West Division finals, it looked like the franchise was well on their way to make their second appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in the four years of their existence. Yet despite an easy 4-1 victory in Game 1 of the NHL semifinals against Montreal, they were exposed by the Canadiens in the next five games despite being a 5-1 favorite to win that series before it started. With three straight disappointments in the postseason after their inaugural season run to the finals, the Golden Knights are suddenly a franchise at the crossroads. What happened?
Management took a big chance in trading with the very same Montreal Canadiens for Max Pacioretty before their second season. At the time, the move was designed to bring superstar talent into the organization that they could not acquire in the expansion draft. They later traded for Mark Stone at the trade deadline that gave them a top forward line of Pacioretty, Stone, and Paul Stastny, another offseason acquisition, that took the pressure off the William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith line that was such a surprise from the expansion draft. But a key piece in that trade with the Canadiens was Nick Suzuki who Vegas drafted as the 13th pick in the first round in their first draft. Suzuki outperformed Pacioretty in that series with five points, tied for the most for Montreal in that series.
With hindsight being 20/20, the Golden Knights are weak down the middle. The injury to Chandler Stephenson exposed this deficiency even more. When Vegas drafted Cody Glass sixth in the 2017 draft before selecting Suzuki seven picks later, management had, in theory, laid the foundation for how their team would look at center for the next decade. Instead, Glass has failed to develop yet, he was not on the postseason roster, and Suzuki starred for the team that defeated them in the playoffs. At 21-years-old, Suzuki is 11 years younger than Pacioretty.
Besides holes at center, depth was a concern for the team all season. They were only able to dress 15 skaters in their final home game of the year against Colorado which determined home ice in the playoffs and the President’s Trophy. Over $12 million were invested in their goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. Having two top-notch goaltenders is a luxury that teams probably cannot afford when operating under a salary cap. But the adage in the NFL regarding the problems of having two worthy starting quarterbacks on a roster may apply to goaltenders in the NHL.
Rumors were that the team tried to unload Fleury before the start of the season after they signed Lehner to a five-year, $25 million contract. After Fleury saved the team during the regular season with Lehner dealing with a host of injuries, he won the Vezina Trophy for the first time in his Hall of Fame career. That cache will likely lead to the team being able to get a better deal from him in the offseason. If it was not clear that the team committed to Lehner when they signed in the fall to that $25 million deal, when head coach Peter DeBoer chose him to start in Game 6 of their series with the Canadiens, the writing was written on the wall for all to see.
Next season likely becomes a make-or-break year for DeBoer. He was hired immediately after management made the surprising move to fire Gerard Gallant midway through the 2020-21 season. Having taken the New Jersey Devils and the San Jose Sharks to the Stanley Cup finals, DeBoer’s ability to made adjustments from game to game was considered a strength that Gallant lacked. Yet DeBoer was unable to push the buttons to get Stone, Pacioretty, and the other Knights’ forwards going against Carey Price and the Montreal defense. In the meantime, Gallant has been hired to be the head coach of the New York Rangers in the biggest market in the National Hockey League.
With the windows beginning to close on the prime years of Stone, Pacioretty, and Alex Pietrangelo (the team’s major offseason acquisition last year) all 29-years-old or older, the urgency for the Vegas franchise to win their first Stanley Cup only intensifies. Expect many moves in the offseason.
Good luck - TDG.