With the world slowly returning to normal and the possibility that the NHL will be able to complete the season, it’s time to look at the teams that are favored to win the Stanley Cup. From now until the playoffs begin, I’ll highlight one team per week and make the case for it to win the Stanley Cup. This week: The Vegas Golden Knights.
In the past four years, two teams have fired their coaches during the season and gone on to win the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it 2015-16, replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan, and the St. Louis Blues did it last season, bringing in Craig Berube after piping Mike Yeo. The early returns certainly suggest the Vegas Golden Knights have a shot at making it 3-for-5 in that department.
When the Golden Knights shocked the hockey world by firing Gerard Gallant in January, they did so because one of the league’s top coaches, Pete DeBoer, was out of work. Less than seven months after playing in the Western Conference final, the San Jose Sharks fired DeBoer, and he was brought in a month later to replace a guy who had been to the Stanley Cup final with one of the most unlikely teams in NHL history 20 months prior to that.
When DeBoer arrived on the scene, the Golden Knights were not exactly destitute, but the Golden Misfits had morphed into the Golden Underachievers. They were tied with the Winnipeg Jets for the last wildcard spot in the Western Conference with a record of 24-19-6 and were sporting a goals differential of minus-1. From that point until the league paused March 12, the Sharks tore up the NHL with a 15-5-2 record and a plus-15 goals differential. Not all of either of those scenarios was solely because of either Gallant or DeBoer, but it’s pretty clear GM Kelly McCrimmon was not steering anyone wrong when he said the change was made because he was not seeing his team play to its potential and did not see that trend turning around.
DeBoer did do a number of things that helped with the revival. From their inception, the Knights had forged their identity with speed and puck movement, but leading up to Gallant’s dismissal there didn’t seem to be much discipline in their game. That led to 10-bellers going the other way, chances that seemed to be going past Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban far too often. DeBoer tweaked the breakout to give it a little more structure and accountability and it did wonders for their transition game. The Knights progressively got back to being the speedy and dangerous team they were in their first season.
The addition of Alec Martinez at the trade deadline basically coincided with the Golden Knights defensemen being more assertive and offensively productive, but there’s no doubt his addition bolstered the blueline and gave the players on the roster the impression that management was willing to make a move to try to put them over the top. DeBoer also leaned a lot more on his top-four defensemen more than Gallant did. Case in point was Shea Theodore, a guy who actually put together a sneaky Norris-type of season. In 49 games under Gallant, Theodore had played 25-plus minutes six times and had six goals and 28 points. In 22 games under DeBoer, he registered 25-plus minutes five times and exploded offensively with seven goals and 18 points.
The Golden Knights were healthier and luckier and got better goaltending under DeBoer than they had with Gallant, so perhaps they might have turned things around anyway. They certainly had the personnel to do so, both up front and behind the blueline. And they upgraded their goaltending considerably at the deadline, dealing for Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks. In the seven games the Golden Knights played after the deal, Lehner played in three and won all of them, sporting a .940 save percentage.
Any resemblance between the team that went to the Stanley Cup final two years ago and this season’s Golden Knights is purely coincidental. The Golden Knights leveraged their expansion draft thievery and the players and prospects they gained from it to make substantial additions to their roster. This team is, on paper, much better than the one that surprised the world in 2018. There’s reason to believe this one could do that team one better on the ice as well.
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