In many ways, the Vegas Golden Knights are like those well-intentioned parents who give their five-year-old kid everything he wants, and then some, for his birthday. It can create a level of expectation that is difficult to match. As the Golden Knights come to grips with being simply an average NHL team just months after establishing themselves as the best expansion outfit in the history of professional sports, that reality is smacking them directly in the face.
This time last year, the Golden Knights were 9-4-1, second in their division only to the red-hot Los Angeles Kings, the same Kings who fired their coach yesterday. They had scored 50 goals and were blessed with bountiful good fortune. Aside from their goaltenders, they were healthy and productive and establishing a culture of accountability and expectation that simply has never been seen before in a first-year team. After 14 games this season, the Knights are 6-7-1 and looking up in the standings at all but two teams in the Western Conference. They’ve scored just 33 goals and are closer to getting Jack Hughes in the draft lottery than repeating as Western Conference champions.
“We’re pushing uphill right now,” conceded Vegas coach Gerard Gallant, who won the Jack Adams Award for his success last season. “We’re playing pretty well in most games and we have a chance to win most games. Last year, everything seemed to go our way. The puck luck was going our way and we were 8-1-1 in our first 10 games. It’s a little more of a grind (this season), but I like the way we’re playing for the most part and it’s going to come.”
And therein lies much of the problem. The coach likes the way his team is playing, but those close games they are losing this season are the same ones they were winning a year ago. There was almost no chance the Golden Knights were going to duplicate their early season achievements this year, there was less a chance that William Karlsson would score on one of every four shots. And contrasted to a team that was healthy and got career years out of almost every skater, this season the Golden Knights have had to deal with injuries and other setbacks. The first came when valuable defenseman Nate Schmidt was suspended for the first 20 games of the season for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Then came when GM George McPhee built what he thought would be a formidable second line by signing Paul Stastny as a free agent and trading for Max Pacioretty. They were supposed to play with Alex Tuch, but that line has not been together for a single game this season. Pacioretty is expected to be back in the lineup tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs after missing four games with an upper-body injury, but it’s 11 games and counting for Stastny’s lower-body ailment. Tuch is playing in just his seventh game of the season after missing the first eight.
“Obviously, our goal scoring is way down from last year,” Gallant said. “We know it’s going to pick up and we have the personnel to do that. We’ll work through it.”
The players and people who have followed hockey for a long time realize that the Golden Knights created a level of expectation that would be almost impossible to match. They also know that there are ebbs and flows to every season. But this is a market that is not only experiencing the NHL for the first time, but is in its first foray into the world of pro sports. All indications are that Vegas fans have a firm grip on reality here and have easily sold out the building in each of the team’s first five road games.
“We actually wanted to do better this season,” Tuch said. “It’s still early in the season and we have to find a way to be better. The lines have been mixed up, but there are no excuses. We have to be better. That was our mindset coming in. We wanted to be better and we wanted to prove people wrong who said, ‘Oh, they won’t be as good as they were last year.’ But so far we’ve lived down to that expectation.”
It may be early in the season, but the Knights face a crucial stretch here. They begin a four-game road trip through the Atlantic Division tonight and play 10 of their next 14 on the road. Schmidt is due to return from his suspension Nov. 18 and the Golden Knights are hoping their puck luck will turn around. One good thing is that the Knights last season established as culture of accountability that continues. The same way being a first-year team was not accepted as a crutch last season, the Knights are not being given a pass to rest on their laurels.
“You’ve seen teams win back-to-back Cups and other teams that are consistently there year-in and year-out,” said Vegas defenseman Colin Miller. “L.A. and Chicago had those runs for so long and won those Cups. It’s an early time for this organization and we’re still finding our way a bit, but we want to be one of those teams that is consistent in this league. I don’t think we’ve talked a lot about last year, to be honest. If you let the season get away from you too early, then you’re not going to be where you want to be at the end. This is an important month for us. We’re definitely going to have to be sharp.”