This is the latest file in THN.com’s ongoing Burning Questions series, in which we pose three key questions about each NHL team. In this edition, we’ve got three burning questions about the Vegas Golden Knights:
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS IN 2022-23
1. Was Vegas’ Chance At Success This Year Torpedoed By Robin Lehner’s Season-Ending Injury?
Like many NHL teams, the Golden Knights rely heavily on their starting goaltender, so when Lehner went down after hip surgery this summer and will require the entire season off, many questioned whether Vegas could be competitive in the arms of Lehner’s replacement(s). The goaltending problem was compounded when backup Laurent Brossoit went down to hip surgery as well – and although Brossoit will be back eventually this season, he’s hardly an elite-level goalie who can steal games for new head coach Bruce Cassidy and the Golden Knights.
For now, and for a while, Vegas will have either former Coyotes/Sharks goalie Adin Hill or 25-year-old Logan Thompson in net. Hill is coming off two consecutive seasons in which his Save Percentage has fallen – from .918 to .913 with Arizona in 2020-21, and then to .906 in a career-best-for-a-single-season 25 games last year in San Jose. Thompson, meanwhile, has just 20 games of NHL experience under his belt. He may be given the No. 1 job, but nobody can tell whether he’ll thrive or wobble under the pressure of playing on a veteran team built to win, and win right away.
It’s unlikely Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon will be able to trade for a more veteran hand in net, given the fact Vegas is salary-capped-out, and still needs to find room for restricted free agent defenseman Nicolas Hague. More change is coming soon for Vegas, but the heat will remain on whoever’s between the pipes this year. And if it’s bad news in net, the Golden Knights may miss the playoffs for the second straight year, something that won’t please owner Bill Foley.
2. Is this the year Jack Eichel finally thrives and is part of a playoff team?
Now 25 years old, Eichel posted 14 goals and 25 points in 34 games after being acquired from Buffalo last year – numbers on offense that aren’t bad per se, but certainly not what you’d expect from someone who carries a $10-million-per-season cap hit. Two years ago, Eichel had 36 goals and 78 points in 68 games, but he has yet to get a taste of Stanley Cup post-season hockey. That’s not all on him, but it does have a clear effect on his status as a top-tier NHLer, and he no doubt wants to change that this season.
Unfortunately for him, Eichel is playing on a Golden Knights team that has been forced to shed talent, in part because of Eichel’s impact on their cap. Vegas still has two forceful forward lines, and two effective, veteran defensive pairings, but they’ve been stripped of much of their depth, and if the injury bug strikes anyone – including Eichel, who has played 69 or more games in a single season just twice in seven NHL years – it could get really difficult for the Golden Knights to keep pace in the improved Pacific Division.
Vegas did finish just a single win (and five points) behind the Los Angeles Kings, who were the final Pacific team to make the playoffs last year. But Vancouver and Anaheim have improved their rosters this summer, and it’s possible the Central Division may once again have five teams qualifying for the post-season, as they did last year. All of which is to suggest it will not be a cakewalk for the Golden Knights to return to the playoffs – and Eichel may once again be on the outside of the Cup chase looking in.
3. Will the rest of this team stay healthy, or is the lineup going to be ravaged by the injury bug for the second straight season?
The Golden Knights were extremely unfortunate on the health front in 2021-22: only one player – defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who played 80 games – played more than 79 games for Vegas last year, and only seven players played more than 69 games. The injury bug played a role in the Knights missing out on the playoffs, and already this coming season, it has taken out Lehner, Brossoit, and forward Nolan Patrick. This is not a good harbinger of what’s to come for this organization.
With injuries will come some degree of cap relief, but Vegas fans shouldn’t anticipate there will be a savior on the horizon in the trade market. They’ve got to make do with what they have right now.
If they can stay healthy, the Golden Knights can put together a decent attack. But the way the NHL is lately, with injuries left and right, they could be in health trouble yet again.