To wrap our five-part series on burning questions ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2021-22 NHL season, we’re taking a step back with more of a big picture view of things – what happens if the club falls short of a Stanley Cup championship once again?
To start, let’s get the odd duality of the situation out of the way. Yes, the Golden Knights are heading into just their fifth season in franchise history. But in the four years preceding, as you know, Vegas has set an impossibly high bar with a Stanley Cup Final in year one, two Western Conference Final appearances, and seven playoff series wins. For a veteran-laded roster accustomed to winning, the only remaining unconquered goal is the Cup.
As former women’s tennis great Billie Jean King likes to say, “Pressure is a privilege.” Vegas is only in this position because of the high standard they’ve already established. But now, such success is the expectation, and anything less than the franchise’s first championship has to be seen as a step sideways or backwards. The hope in Nevada is that they take that next step, but president George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon must also consider the less desired scenario.
While we are mere weeks away from the start of the new NHL season, it’ll still be another nine months until the Stanley Cup Final gets underway (if the Golden Knights make it that far, of course). Still, the pressure and expectations in Vegas loom over the entire season. It’s been largely good times and excitement along the Strip and around T-Mobile Arena for much of the club’s existence, but could that be about to change?
Golden Knights Blow it Up?
The success of the Golden Knights has glossed over the organization’s cap struggles and significant long-term money owed. That becomes a far more daunting challenge if substantial change is needed. Max Pacioretty, for instance, has been a reliable top line contributor over the past three years, but will turn 33 early this season. With two years and $14 million remaining on his contract, we could be looking at another Marc-Andre Fleury situation.
As currently constructed, the club already has 10 contracts on the books for as far forward as the 2023-24 season, and three that will remain owed right through 2026-27, with each of those players (Mark Stone, William Karlsson and Alex Pietrangelo) holding at least partial no-movement clauses (NMC’s). This is a roster that is, for better or worse, locked in, which doesn’t necessarily jive with a GM who can be trigger-happy at times.
McCrimmon, DeBoer on the Hot Seat?
Unfortunately for McCrimmon, his owner also hasn’t been shy about making changes amidst disappointing results. At the dawn of the Golden Knights’ franchise, Bill Foley famously set a Cup deadline of six years, a threshold we aren’t that far from reaching. With so many players locked in and potentially difficult to move, a losing season that would send Vegas stumbling into year six could spell trouble for McCrimmon.
The former Brandon Wheat Kings owner arrived in the GM role with a Stanley Cup blueprint already in place thanks to McPhee and his expansion draft mastery. But it was McCrimmon at the helm when the club swung a deal for Robin Lehner, added Alec Martinez and landed Alex Pietrangelo in free agency. Of course, if that veteran trio can’t produce a championship with more than $88 million still owed to them, something’s gotta give.
Moving from the front office to behind the bench, any threat to McCimmon’s job would also be a threat to head coach Pete DeBoer’s. DeBoer has enjoyed considerable success in Vegas, but his predecessor, now-New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant, was just 18 months removed from winning the Jack Adams Award when he was axed by the organization.
Look, no one following the Golden Knights wants to consider this doomsday scenario right now – not when the club remains one of just a handful of teams with a realistic chance to go the distance. But for as much fun as it is to glimpse ahead towards an optimistic outlook, it’s also worth noting what’s at stake for the upcoming season.
For as consistently excellent as Vegas has been, each season has ultimately ended in disappointment. At some point, even a Western Conference Final appearance can constitute falling short and failing to meet expectations. That time is now, and this could be the last crack at the Cup for this version of the Golden Knights.
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.