LAS VEGAS — Perspective can be everything. Look no further than the Vegas Golden Knights.
Skipping the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year led to questions never before asked about the team. On the other hand, this is only the sixth season in franchise history, and the Golden Knights actually finished the 2021–22 campaign well above .500, as well as the second-most wins in a season in their short existence.
But high expectations have become the standard. Here’s what happens when a franchise reaches the Stanley Cup Finals in its first season and the Western Conference Finals in its other two. Reaching those heights only to fail has fueled a culture of winning at all costs ever since. This resulted in the Golden Knights changing coaches along with a significant portion of their roster at a breakneck pace.
This is what happens when winning the Stanley Cup is the only goal that matters.
“I think when you come here on a team like this, your goal should be to win the Stanley Cup,” said Golden Knights center Jack Achel. “I think we have the players to do it. I think that’s the standard that this organization holds… But it’s so far away. take care of your business all year round and give yourself a chance.”
This is where perspective comes into play. Is it a concern that the Golden Knights have had three coaches since their inaugural 2017-18 season? Or are they, like every other franchise, trying to win everything, given that only three NHL coaches were in their current positions before the Golden Knights even played their first game?
Similar philosophical questions can be asked about their composition. The discussion around Eichel is more about what impact he can make in his first full season? Or is it really about asking how potentially dominant he could be in the lineup? The same approach can be applied to all the moving parts around Phil Kessel, Mark Stone and their goaltending activities.
Besides, isn’t that too much for Bruce Cassidy in his first season as head coach? Or was it his ability to manage expectations amid potential chaos that the Golden Knights hired a coach who never missed the playoffs in six seasons with the Boston Bruins?
The answer to all these questions may depend on the point of view.
“We have a really good team and we had one last year, but we were always missing three or four of our really good players,” Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchesseau said. “We always had three or four guys on long-term IR. We held the fort as long as we could, returning a lot of healthy bodies by the end, and couldn’t figure out how to win hockey games. … No one talks too much about us, so maybe it’s good that we’re coming back as an underdog team. Maybe we can surprise you.”
It was believed that the Golden Knights were going to win the Pacific Division last season, being one of the teams that were in contention for the Cup. The reality is that they missed the playoffs by three points and this led to the earliest offseason in their short but largely successful history.
This has since led to discussions that the Golden Knights are strangers in a foreign land when it comes to the landscape of the Western Conference. The Pacific appears to have gotten tougher considering the Edmonton Oilers are legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup after reaching the Conference Finals last season. Both the Calgary Flames and the Los Angeles Kings, who also made the playoffs from the Pacific Rim, strengthened their offseason rosters. The Vancouver Canucks were five points behind the playoffs. But the progress the Canucks have made under Bruce Boudreau gives confidence that they can at least compete for a place on the team.
Now add the Central Division to that equation. Five teams from the Center have qualified for the 2022 playoffs, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. It is possible that the same five teams could return to the postseason. And while the Winnipeg Jets must answer questions themselves, it looks like they still have the staff they need to qualify for a playoff spot.
So where does the Golden Knights fit in all of this? Or do they fit at all?
“People love to hate us,” Stone said. “People love to hate this team. But when you go to the Cup final in your first year. I mean, I was in Ottawa. in this team, I understand why they reached the Cup final. We’ve been successful and that makes people want us to fail.”
But doesn’t it all seem a little strange? Being a Cup contender who missed the playoffs does cause some anxiety. This was to be expected. However, if you listen to some of the talk, it looks like the Golden Knights are the kind of team that is at a crossroads when all they need is points from two wins to make it to the playoffs.
They added Kessel on the cheap. They hired a coach who had won the Jack Adams Award for the past three seasons. They were also flexible enough to trade goaltender Adin Hill so they had another option when they learned that Robin Lehner would miss the entire regular season.
How exactly do players like Stone deal with all of this when they’ve been in previous situations that were far more horrendous?
“Lately it’s a ‘what have you done for me’ league and last year we didn’t make the playoffs,” Stone said. “So people write us off, and that’s okay.”
No one in the Golden Knights locker room hides the fact that they missed the playoffs. But they do not hide their optimism. Veterans like Marchesseau and Stone are proud of the turnout they got for captain’s skates before the team went to camp. They will usually have around 10 players who arrive before the start of the preseason.
This year, the Golden Knights had 20 players on the ice for these unofficial skates.
“It tells me they like each other, otherwise they wouldn’t show up this early,” Cassidy said. “When you tend to go back to where you play, from your house during the off-season, you are with the guys… You are in the gym with the guys, at the rink with the guys and maybe hanging out with the guys. It tells me it’s a tight-knit group that wants to settle down and focus.”
Cassidy maintained throughout the camp that lineups could change. But he left Eichel with Kessel on the line, which also has Reilly Smith. Chandler Stephenson anchors a line with Marchessault and Stone on the waiting list. William Karlsson is a center third, while homegrown players like Paul Kotter continue to reinforce the belief that the Golden Knights can have more bottom six forward depth than many think.
Alec Martinez, Braden McNabb, Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore are back. So does Zak White Cloud. Nicolas Haig remains on injured reserve. But there is depth in the form of Ben Hutton and others they can call out from the AHL. And, as with Kotter, there are local talents that the Golden Knights believe can be trusted when called upon.
“I think there are probably a lot of teams in the NHL that look around and they have a lot of depth, a lot of good players and a lot of good pieces,” Eichel said. “They feel like they can be competitive every year, but it all depends on how you connect them. lots of good things to go your own way.”
Like, say, maybe a goalkeeper?
The situation around Laurent Brossois, Michael Hutchinson, Logan Thompson and Hill raises a number of questions. Brossois is still recovering from off-season hip surgery, thinking he can return later. Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon recently said the team will have three goaltenders to start the regular season.
“I would say [goaltending] and powerplay is what they’re talking about here,” Cassidy said. – But the goalkeepers and how we dealt with it? We discussed this with everyone present, including the injured LB: “This may be the best opportunity to become the number one goaltender in the National Hockey League.”
Cassidy explained to the group that the Golden Knights didn’t lose Lehner and replaced him with someone who was previously #1 elsewhere. They told all four goalkeepers that there was a competition and that it was they who would determine what happened next.
Will one of them become the absolute number one? Or could Cassidy be inclined to take a tandem approach? From Cassidy’s point of view, it all depends on how his goalkeepers react to what is happening in front of them.
“I don’t think this is the problem everyone presents, but I understand why,” Cassidy said. “When you are not playing, how do you look at the team? You look at it on paper because you cannot look at it any other way. But games are not won on paper.”
So far, the Golden Knights have started the season 4-2. Thompson started four games and Hill two. This is a tandem that saved 92.9% of combined shots, scoring an average of 2.17 goals.
Eichel has seven points (three goals and four assists), while Kessel has just one assist. Stone has a goal and four assists to start the season playing the relentless hockey that has made him a Selk candidate in recent years.
Again, it all comes back to perspective.
Those who are optimistic will point out that this is a better start than last season, when the Golden Knights lost four of their first five games. The same crowd will say that winning three games in a row at the start of last season could have been a game-changer in a playoff bid, only to miss out.
Skeptics will counter, stating that the team’s identity may be decided soon by Thanksgiving in America. It has become the de facto demarcation point for…