After blowing a lead and eventually losing to the lowly San Jose Sharks in a shootout Sunday, the Vegas Golden Knights hovered where they’ve been for a while now – on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, looking in.
With three regular-season games left for them, the Golden Knights are six points behind the Los Angeles Kings (who have only two games left) for third place in the Pacific Division. Vegas also trails the Dallas Stars by three points for the second wild-card berth in the West, and the Golden Knights trail Nashville by four points for the first wild card position.
Although there weren’t a majority of hockey analysts who projected Vegas to be the best team in the West, it’s also fair to say analysts believed the Golden Knights would be a playoff team. And now that it’s looking likely they’ll miss out on the post-season, the Golden Knights’ assignment of blame has to include more than just one single target.
For instance, it’s accurate to say Vegas has dealt with injury problems this year. Three of their top forwards - center Jack Eichel, and wingers Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty – have played 35 or fewer games this season. That’s one-third of their top two lines. In addition, veteran defenseman Alec Martinez has appeared in only 22 games, and starting goalie Robin Lehner has been dealing with a knee injury for a lengthy stretch and was rumored to have been on the verge of shutting down his season to have surgery. There are very few NHL teams that could take that many blows to key memes and maintain a playoff pace. Vegas has clearly been unable to stay healthy from top to bottom, and when the post-season race comes down to two or three standings points, team health matters.
That said, the injury bug is not the sole determinant of the Golden Knights’ disappointing season. Vegas also has been hurt by its inability to play defense down the stretch. In their past eight games, the Golden Knights have allowed 27 goals. In three of their past six games, Vegas has allowed four or more goals.This is the time of season in which teams are ratcheting up their defensive play, but the Golden Knights are losing control in their play without the puck. Even if they do make the playoffs, Vegas is going to get flattened by the probable-opponent Colorado Avalanche.
But wait, there’s more to the worrying patterns we’ve seen from the Golden Knights: their special teams are the pits – they’ve got the NHL’s 21st-best power play at 17.8 per cent, and the 19th-overall penalty kill at 77.7 percent. The Stanley Cup playoffs are about peaking at 5-on-5 play, but the Golden Knights haven’t inspired much confidence if they do go up a man or down a man in the post-season. Head coach Peter DeBoer needs to find solutions on the special teams, or their playoff experience this year could be especially short.
What’s worse – if Vegas does miss the playoffs entirely or goes out meekly in Round One, they’re locked into this roster, for better or worse, for the 2022-23 campaign. According to CapFriendly.com, the Golden Knights have more than $83 million in salary cap commitments next year, and that’s with only 18 players signed. GM Kelly McCrimmon is not going to find it easy to make change.
Vegas exceeded expectations in their first four NHL seasons, making the playoffs all four years, and making it to at least the Conference Final in three of those four years. But they don’t look like an organization with the ability to clear the high bar they’ve set for themselves. With every day that passes, they look worse for wear. And the answers for this setback of a season seem harder and harder to come by.