In literally any other season of the Vegas Golden Knights’ existence, the season-ending 7-4 win over a largely indifferent St. Louis Blues’ side would’ve represented a fun, albeit sloppy, interlude to the postseason action to come. But because it followed their official elimination from the playoff picture two days prior, all this hollow victory inspired was a locker clean-out and questions about what comes next.
The surface explanation for a failed 2021-22 season is that a rash of injuries forced Vegas to narrowly miss the playoffs for the first time ever, but you won’t find many people who believe the club’s issues stop there. In reality, this was a top-heavy team done in by their own cap management issues that don’t have any easy, obvious paths towards offseason improvement.
So, what now? The Golden Knights’ brain trust has plenty of tough questions to face for the summer ahead. There’s no guarantee that team president George McPhee and GM Kelly McCrimmon answer all those questions by the time next season kicks off, but it’s important to at least outline some of the challenges on the horizon to determine where the organization goes from here.
Personnel Changes Off the Ice?
For Vegas, the offseason unofficially gets underway some time in the late stages of this week, as McCrimmon is scheduled to sit down with head coach Pete DeBoer to discuss the season and look ahead to where things are going. Could a termination also be in play? McCrimmon was diplomatic in his comments on the meeting, but also didn’t exactly offer any assurances, saying, “Pete is under contract. Pete and I will sit down later this week. When you conclude your season, these meetings are a common place.”
What that means for DeBoer’s future is clear as mud. His predecessor, Gerard Gallant, was fired 49 games into his third season with the club after guiding an expansion team to playoff appearances in their first two years. It’s worth noting that his .551 points percentage in that abridged Year 3 was only slightly lower than DeBoer’s .573 mark this past season.
Of course, DeBoer would have a pretty strong argument that he was handcuffed by his GM’s poor cap management, which left an under-manned, injury-plagued team without the ability to always ice the best lineup available on account of cap constraints. That said, the fact that McCrimmon is holding the meeting with his coach indicates the GM should be fine for now.
Maybe the Golden Knights aren’t considering a managerial change because they know their cap situation doesn’t make for a desirable employment destination? Even with the cap ceiling set to rise to $82.5 million, Vegas is already roughly half a million over the limit with 18 players signed. Those still in need of a contract include unrestricted free agents Reilly Smith and Mattias Janmark, as well as restricted free agents Nicolas Hague, Nicolas Roy, Keegan Kolesar and Brett Howden.
Clearly, something has to give here. Even if they don’t wish to undertake a complete rebuild (more on that below), just maintaining the status quo would necessitate moving a contract or two. It’s hard to pinpoint any particularly bad contracts on the books, but there was already one very public failed attempt to unload Evgenii Dadonov, so fans have to figure another one is coming.
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Dadonov aside, Golden Knights brass would probably be happy to get out of paying the nearly $30 million still left on William Karlsson’s contract, especially considering the Swedish center hasn’t scored more than 15 goals since 2018-19. If the awkward end to Robin Lehner’s injury-marred season created a rift between the club and their No. 1 goaltender, his departure would clear $5 million off the books, albeit while opening up a massive hole in net (from ‘What happened between Golden Knights and Robin Lehner?’, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 5/3/22).
Retool, Not Rebuild
Look, “retool vs. rebuild” would stand as the major, over-arching theme of this piece if there were any reason to believe there was a debate. Any time an expensive veteran team underperforms, there’s bound to be questions about whether it’s time to start fresh. The problem here is how poorly equipped Vegas is to handle any immediate attempts at a reboot. To build the roster they currently have, they’ve sacrificed future assets and committed lots of long-term money.
Even the Golden Knights’ top stars likely wouldn’t fetch a significant return package considering their sizable cap hits. Instead, the prudent solution here is to run it back with hopes of better forthcoming health. For as bad as 2021-22 went in Vegas, incurring the spate of injuries they did and still finishing just three points out of a playoff spot should provide at least a glimmer of hope for a quick rebound.
Jack Eichel began the season sidelined and wanting out of Buffalo. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty played 76 games combined! Heck, even injury replacement blueliner Ben Hutton played more games than Smith, Alec Martinez or the aforementioned trio of star forwards. The notion of “running it back” often indicates trying to capture a fleeting shred of past success, but between the very real injury woes they experienced and how daunting a rebuild would be, it seems like the only viable option at present time, and one that could realistically pay off.
It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that this is the lowest point in the history of the Golden Knights’ franchise. Yet, is a turn-around really that far off? There’s no question that it will be tough for the club to watch playoff hockey from the sidelines this spring, but there should be at least some positivity in knowing that, for as bad as things went this year, this group absolutely has what it takes to be in the postseason mix. That should be true when next season starts, too.
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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.