In the aftermath of one of the most controversial Game 7 defeats in recent memory, and perhaps in NHL history, positivity is going to be in short supply in Vegas.
Instead, the Golden Knights are going to be dealing with a number of other emotions. Anger? Sure. Sadness? Without a doubt. Disappoint? You bet. But an overwhelming sense of hope or a willingness to search for the silver lining? Not a chance. The facts are the facts, and the fact is Vegas – regardless of your opinion of the major penalty assessed to Cody Eakin that resulted in the San Jose Sharks’ comeback for the ages – failed to close out a series they led 3-1, surrendered a 3-0 lead in Game 7 by giving up four goals against on a single five-minute penalty kill and fell one goal short of advancing to the second round of the post-season.
But in the wake of the seven-game defeat at the hands of the Sharks, it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in Vegas, and that begins with the fact that despite the post-season result, or even the regular season finish, these Golden Knights were better than the team that stunned the sporting world last season. Truth be told, dig beyond the base totals and the picture that is painted is one of a team that took strides forward, not backwards, this season.
In terms of underlying numbers, coach Gerard Gallant pushed his team from a middle of the pack group into the upper echelon of the NHL. At 5-on-5, this season’s Golden Knights were dominant. Vegas finished third in the league in Corsi percentage (54.4), third in shots percentage (53.8), first in scoring chances percentage (54.9), first in high-danger chances percentage (55.8) and had the third-best expected goals for percentage at 54.7 percent.
What the organization saw, too, was the continued progression of some of its key players. Though each of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith saw their point totals decrease this season, all three made it clear that last season wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan performance. Marchessault scored 25 goals for the third consecutive season despite the lowest shooting percentage of his three full campaigns in the NHL. Karlsson didn’t hit the 40-goal plateau again, but his drop off wasn’t as steep as some predicted. He still mustered 24 goals and 56 points, all the while further establishing himself as a reliable two-way pivot. And Smith pieced together consecutive seasons in which he was a legitimate top-six scorer. Sure, he fell short of 20 goals, but this season marked the first time in his six full campaigns that he was able to follow up one 50-point season with another.
It goes beyond the top line, though, and what will make the Golden Knights better moving forward is the way in which Vegas has added to the group. As the season wore on, summer acquisitions Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny became perfect linemates, and the addition and subsequent signing of Mark Stone to a long-term contract not only gave Vegas the best so-called second line in the NHL but checked a massive box for the Golden Knights before the summer even began. And the group is only going to get better. Consider that Cody Glass, the third-ranked prospect in The Hockey News’ 2019 Future Watch issue, and KHL standout Nikita Gusev are primed to step into the lineup next season and suddenly the Golden Knights’ top nine looks like it could go shot-for-shot with any other team in the league.
That’s not to say there aren’t areas that will need addressing. The cap situation is going to need careful managing this summer. Karlsson is in need of a new deal and possesses arbitration rights, though it looks as though Vegas made the right move bridging the center on a one-year deal instead of paying big after his breakout season. Other pending free agents, either restricted or unrestricted, include Gusev, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Tomas Nosek, Brandon Pirri, Ryan Carpenter, Deryk Engelland, Jimmy Schuldt and goaltender Malcolm Subban. Some will stay and some will go. Complicating matters, though, is that the Golden Knights are projected to be nearly $3 million over the salary cap for next season, according to CapFriendly.
The good news, however, is that Vegas will be able to pare down the collective cap hit of its roster without suffering many – or any – significant losses, and stuffing David Clarkson back on the long-term injured reserve already takes $5.25-million off the books gets the Golden Knights back under the spending limit with relative ease. That said, it would be no surprise if blueliners Nick Holden and Jon Merrill, who carry respective $2.2-million and $1.38-million cap hits are sent packing. That’s particularly so given it would allow the Golden Knights to keep their top four of Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller intact with a cheaper bottom pairing rounding out the roster.
Truly, the only way the Golden Knights aren’t back in the dance next season and fail to make this season’s first-round exit a distant memory is if their season comes down to goaltending once again.
At risk of drawing the ire of those in Vegas, Marc-Andre Fleury was mediocre this season. His .917 save percentage at 5-on-5 ranked 31st of 43 goaltenders with at least 1,500 minutes at five-a-side this season, his goals-saved above average was minus-2.95, again 31st of those 43 keepers, and .913 SP at all strengths tied for 21st among the 48 goaltenders who made at least 30 appearances this season. His shutout total aside, it was a far cry from the play that saw him in the Vezina Trophy conversation last season. That said, Fleury has proven time and again that if you put a good team in front of him, he can do what’s necessary to win games. And to paraphrase the immortal words of late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, sometimes all that matters are wins, baby.
The long and short of it is that Vegas didn’t catch lightning in a bottle last season. Rather, they built a foundation for sustained success, and this was the second in what is sure to be several seasons of prolonged success for the Golden Knights. So, unfortunate end to this season aside, this is only the beginning in Vegas. They'll get their chance again, and don't expect them to repeat their mistakes.
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