The little “x” that sits beside the Vegas Golden Knights‘ name in the NHL standings to signify a clinched playoff berth offers a nice bit of security, but it really means little in the broader scope of the club’s Stanley Cup aspirations. As head coach Pete DeBoer will surely be reminding his charges, there remains plenty of work to be done between now and the end of the regular season.
Even a nine-game win streak has failed to provide any separation for Vegas atop the Honda West division. The Colorado Avalanche, against whom they will play one more regular-season head-to-head on Wednesday night, remain just four points back with a game in hand. Meanwhile, the surging Minnesota Wild boast a seven-game win streak of their own and quietly lurk just five points back of the Golden Knights (From “With playoff berth in hand, Wild take aim at division title,” Twin Cities Pioneer Press, April 25, 2021).
Of course, Vegas can only worry about that which they can control. Lucky for them, there’s still plenty to focus on that has nothing to do with divisional standings, scoreboard-watching or the chase for the No. 1 seed. After all, even 34-11-2 teams still need some fine-tuning as they gear up for the postseason. Here are a few questions that still need answers before the Knights can embark on their quest for the franchise’s first Cup:
The Battle for the Crease (Again)
DeBoer is back to using Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner in tandem, and we should all probably just accept the arrangement and move on. Still, if Fleury’s agent Allan Walsh wasn’t happy when Lehner was acquired last season, those sentiments likely aren’t subsiding now as the Swede returns to split duties amidst his client’s Vezina-caliber season.
After a slight dip in performance in March, Fleury has quickly returned to the sparkling form we’ve seen for much of the year this month. Lehner, meanwhile, might be garnering more attention for curious allegations of promises made by the NHL about easing COVID restrictions, but he happens to be playing even better than his fellow netminder. The 29-year-old is sporting a 9-0-1 record with a .938 save percentage and 1.58 GAA since returning from a concussion.
DeBoer would surely point out that having two exceptional goalies to turn to isn’t exactly unenviable. That said, he should know to be prepared for another fresh set of questions about the dynamic heading into the postseason as it again festers as a potential distraction.
Mattias Janmark and the Middle Six
Six games into his tenure with the Golden Knights, trade deadline acquisition Mattias Janmark has already demonstrated his value and versatility. He tallied an assist and a plus-2 in his Vegas debut two weeks ago, a 6-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, as a third liner. With Reilly Smith battling an undisclosed injury, Janmark has since moved up to the second line, where he delivered a goal, assist and a plus-3 in Wednesday’s 5-2 win over the San Jose Sharks.
With Smith’s status up in the air, it’s unknown where Janmark will be deployed the rest of the regular season. It’s been fortunate that the Swedish forward has so seamlessly moved up into the top-six, but DeBoer could face a conundrum if Smith remains out: keep the newcomer on the second line to allow the best opportunity for success or bump him back down to help him gel alongside Alex Tuch and Tomas Nosek on the presumptive third line come playoff time.
Can Hague and Whitecloud Get Their Legs Back?
One of the best early season stories for the Golden Knights was the development of young defencemen Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud, both of whom thrived while being thrust into significant roles thanks to injuries to Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden McNabb. Lately, though, the performances of the 22-year-old Hague and 24-year-old Whitecloud have slowed somewhat.
Speculatively, fatigue is an easy conclusion to draw here. Hague, who hasn’t hit the scoresheet in 10 games and carries a minus-1 over that stretch despite playing for a team that won nine of those contests, has already surpassed his total ice time from his rookie season. Likewise, Whitecloud topped 20 minutes on the ice in eight of his first 18 games but has done so just once over his past 18, suggesting that DeBoer might be recognizing some fade.
Clearly, the team has managed just fine. Come playoff time, however, having an energized and productive third pairing would be a huge lift, highlighting the urgency to help the young blueliners get their legs back.
The Ryan Reaves Problem
To date, team president George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon have proven to be largely unsentimental in embracing significant roster churn and constantly reworking the Vegas roster. Ryan Reaves, however, could offer a more challenging situation.
The gritty, charismatic fan favorite stands out as one of the biggest personalities on the Golden Knights. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that he’s 34, has produced just five points in 37 games this season and earns $1.75 million, a cap hit that looks positively staggering amidst current NHL economics. You’ll never hear anyone with the club admit it, but Vegas executives will only be too happy to have Reaves remain on LTIR for as long as possible.
So, what happens when doctors determine he is healthy, fit and ready to return? Nicolas Roy is probably better off being flanked by Keegan Kolesar and William Carrier on the team’s fourth line, leaving Reaves facing possible taxi squad duty. But even that would still mean that $675,000 of the 11-year veteran’s contract counts against the cap, not to mention that his $1.75 million in added LTIR space would disappear (the club is currently using $1.3 million of it).
Unless the Knights catch a break (or can find some creative, sly ways to extend his LTIR stay) and Reaves’ undisclosed injury lasts through to the playoffs, Vegas will need to figure out how to manage a roster whose very makeup hinges on their resident tough guy staying injured. And that doesn’t even get to the playoff lineup, where it’s hard to see Reaves factoring in at all at this point.
Even the best teams have things to fine-tune and tighten up as they get set for postseason play, and Vegas is no different. While the nine-game win streak and the chase for the West division top spot will surely draw most of the attention, now is also the time to take care of the details, as well.
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.