Depth is a valuable, albeit fleeting, asset to have in hockey. Just ask the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Golden Knights and general manager Kelly McCrimmon worked hard this past summer to solidify a deep, balanced roster in the face of a cap crunch. Though the salary cap cost them their Vezina-winning franchise goalie, it enabled the front office to bolster the forward ranks with some savvy additions. The moves positioned Vegas nicely for another season of Stanley Cup contention, but depth is only helpful if the players are active.
That last part loomed large over Tuesday night’s home-opening 4-3 win over the Seattle Kraken – almost as much as the club’s wild pregame show. Yes, the Golden Knights came away victorious, as they have in all but one season opener to date (the only loss was a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2018-19). But the absences of Alex Tuch, Mattias Janmark, Nicolas Roy, William Carrier and Brett Howden proved problematic, particularly as their 3-0 lead evaporated in the third period.
Injuries happen, and competing without a full lineup will be a challenge for every club, although Vegas is probably better suited to deal with it than most. But rather than shrug off an inconsistent showing on Tuesday and just note the win, it’s worth taking stock of the under-manned team’s performance and how they might offset some of the inevitable personnel losses during the season.
DeBoer’s Trust Issues
The Golden Knights are supposed to have a rich, prosperous pipeline of talent to defend against injuries, and maybe they still do. On night one, however, even with some of that young, prospective talent in the lineup, it was offset by head coach Pete DeBoer’s reluctance to use them. Pavel Dorofeyev played just 4:07 in his NHL debut, Dylan Coghlan jumped from the blue line into the forward corps for 4:37, and Jack Dugan got press box duty (from, “Golden Knights demote 2 forward prospects, call up 2 more,” Ben Gotz, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 10/13/21).
Even Peyton Krebs, the headliner amongst Vegas’ current crop of NHL hopefuls, was only on the ice for 10:52. That left the heavy minutes to the club’s top-six. They responded, recording all four goals for the home side, but it remains to be seen if that workload is sustainable. Janmark (COVID protocol), Roy (upper body), Carrier (undisclosed) and Howden (undisclosed) shouldn’t be out long-term, but it’s safe to anticipate further absences.
DeBoer will ultimately have to let the young guys make mistakes. Perhaps that will result in a lost opportunity here and there, but Vegas has the long-term stability and talent to withstand the occasional winnable defeat. Dorofeyev is just 20 but has competed against men in the Kontinental Hockey League, while Coghlan has played 30 NHL games to date, and Dugan stood out with the Henderson Silver Knights last season. If these guys don’t get an opportunity now, then when?
Shuffling the Deck
There was some line shuffling late in Tuesday’s game, as Jonathan Marchessault dropped down in the lineup for a few shifts. DeBoer would be wise to continue this practice until Vegas can roll what is, at least, a mostly healthy squad.
In that regard, it will be worth keeping an eye on Max Pacioretty, who netted two goals and an assist in the win. While Pacioretty remains a key cog on the top line with Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson, a shift down the lineup could not only spark some depth players but would lessen the minutes on the 32-year-old. Any bump that he could offer Krebs, Nolan Patrick or Evgenii Dadonov would surely offset a dip in top-line production.
The same might be true of the Golden Knights’ deep blue line, where Zach Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague might be top-four options on other teams, just not with Vegas. Here, there’s even more age-related burden-easing to consider for players like Alec Martinez (34), Alex Pietrangelo (31) and Brayden McNabb (30).
Even Shea Theodore, who played 17:17 after averaging over five more minutes per game last season, probably requires more easing into the season after missing time during the preseason and didn’t look himself against the Kraken.
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On one hand, having five regulars out of the lineup leaves a whopping hole that is tough to fill internally, so it’s no wonder there was a bit of a dip on Tuesday night. However, none of the injuries are expected to be long-term, so while that denies the possibility of using long-term injured reserve to create cap space, it also means an imminent return to health.
That said, anyone who thinks this will be the end of the injury bug hasn’t watched much NHL hockey. The next time, it could be a member of the vaunted top-six forwards or top-four defense that Vegas has to contend without. Luckily, even as the club lacks the cap space to sign their way out of trouble, they boast the depth and talent to bring about viable internal solutions to most personnel losses. They just need to use it right.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.