The coroner is in…let’s just get this over with.
The skinny: If there was ever an NHL team that could be described as having a whirlwind existence, the Golden Knights are that team. After a phenomenal inaugural season that saw them demolish several expansion team records and make a spirited run to the Stanley Cup final, the weight of expectation has hung largely on the Knights ever since. Their reaction has been, frankly, a mixed bag of tricks. The second season saw a few key players take a step back, ending with a crushing first-round exit that saw the Knights blow a 3-1 series lead to the San Jose Sharks. Last season, despite a midseason coaching change that brought in Peter DeBoer from that same Sharks team, the Knights rolled to the end of the postseason and won the round robin in the playoff bubble to secure the top seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, their run would come to an end at the hands of the Dallas Stars.
This year felt like more of the same. They struggled against Minnesota, but managed to overcome the adversity and pull out the Game 7 victory. They then rolled through the Colorado Avalanche in surprising fashion, winning four straight after dropping the first two in Denver. A series against Montreal was supposed to be a strong chance to visit their second Cup Final in four years. Instead, the Knights fell in a shocking upset for the second straight year. How did it happen this time? Well, history does tend to repeat itself…
Offense: Last season, Vegas went out of the playoffs due to an offense that shut down at the worst possible time and couldn’t get anything going. This year, unfortunately, provided more of the same. They only managed two goals and 13 points from their top-six forwards. For context, that goal output was doubled by the Canadiens’ Cole Caufield and outproduced by the line of Caufield, Tyler Toffoli, and Nick Suzuki (seller’s remorse much?) Captain Mark Stone was held without a point the entire series. The worst performance, however, came on the power play, where the Knights went scoreless in 15 attempts. After two straight postseasons marred by offensive struggles, it’s fair to wonder if it’s time for Vegas to make some changes about how they manage the puck on the opposing end of the ice.
Marc-Andre Fleury: It’s hard to speak ill of Fleury for his performance. The Vezina Trophy winner for the first time in his career, Fleury was a key piece to the deep run the Knights went on this postseason. Unfortunately, Montreal didn’t make life easy for the Flower, finishing the series with a middling .904 save percentage. Most notable in all of this was Game 3, when Fleury made a rare mistake that saw the Canadiens tie the game late and essentially cost Vegas the game. It resulted in the return of the goalie rotation (to be fair, Robin Lehner bounced back nicely in relief) and, when Fleury returned to the ice in Game 5, the mojo that’s defined Fleury’s time in Vegas just wasn’t there. A storybook season brought to an unfortunate end.
Coaching: In the sense that the Knights are a roller coaster kind of team, Peter DeBoer is a roller coaster kind of coach. He’ll have stretches of dominant play throughout the regular season and postseason, but it can be balanced out by, in this instance, being outcoached by an interim to the interim head coach. Sure, part of the Knights’ struggles can be attested to Carey Price channeling the ghost of Ken Dryden past, but the offense for Vegas felt way too predictable far too often. The Canadiens, with their savvy veteran talent and smart coaching, were able to implement a system that frustrated the Knights and left them unable to do anything. It was the same trap that DeBoer caught Colorado’s Jared Bednar in the previous round, and it was also the same trap that he got caught in last postseason against Dallas. DeBoer deserves at least one more go, but he needs to prove that he can make good on these deep playoff runs.
The crystal ball: Remember the “Cup in six” decree handed out by owner Bill Foley when the team was announced? In an ironic twist of fate, Foley might just have been referring to the team’s first Cup window. It puts Vegas at two more years before divisional foes like Los Angeles and Anaheim can start providing threats to their likely divisional supremacy, so they’ll have to act fast to make good on this window. The good news is the roster doesn’t have many holes (outside of the unrestricted free agency of Alec Martinez), so they don’t have to break the bank too badly. Their exemption from the Seattle Expansion Draft also puts them in position to make a move or two, giving them leverage over teams fearful of losing a valuable piece for nothing. It may require an expiring contract or two being moved out for cap purposes (Brayden McNabb and Ryan Reaves stand out as two options), but those will likely be far cries from the last two summers of bloodletting.
The only question now is this: what happens to the goaltending rotation of Fleury and Lehner? Both played incredibly well last season and meshed very well together, but the simple fact is that Vegas has $12 million invested in two players that sees only one play every game. The gamble paid off and it did make sense in order for both to handle the rigors of a condensed schedule, but what happens now with the Knights at a crossroads in their young existence? The asking price for Fleury will likely be much better than it was a season ago, but will fans potentially turn on the team for trading the face of the franchise after a career year? Meanwhile, if the team trades Lehner just one season into a five-year contract extension, what does that say to potential free agents about Vegas’s management? They could also choose to keep both, but doing so would immediately strike Vegas out of many of the top free agents in this class. It’ll be a delicate balancing act this season but, if Vegas can be trusted with one thing, it’s that they know how to put on a show.