Seeds of the Golden Knights’ collapse were sown long ago
The seeds of the epic collapse that saw the Golden Knights’ miss the playoffs after entering the season as a favorite for the Stanley Cup were sown long before that 4-3 shootout loss Wednesday to the Blackhawks at the United Center in Chicago.
Oh, we could look at the NHL record of more than 500-man games lost to injuries to rationalize the failure, and yes, they played a role. We could point to Jack Eichel, who accounts for 12.6 percent of the team’s salary cap, scoring one measly point over the final six games when the games mattered most as a reason.
It didn’t help when Evgenii Dadonov and Shea Theodore each went long stretches of the season without a goal, or that leading goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault has gone the last 34 games without a power play goal.
Dadonov scored a goal on Jan. 17 in a loss to Pittsburgh, then went 17 games without a goal before scoring on March 8. Theodore scored on Jan. 20 against Montreal, but didn’t light the lamp again, amazingly, for 27 consecutive games, well more than a quarter of the season, before scoring on March 30 against Seattle.
Then, there is the ridiculousness of this team going 0-for-17 in the shootout in these last three critical games when the season was on the line, and there are reasons aplenty why the Golden Knights won’t be playing after Friday’s regular-season finale in St. Louis.
But left wing Max Pacioretty was dead accurate when he spoke about what went wrong. It wasn’t just the injuries or the cold streaks or the horrible power player or the stunningly poor shootout performances.
The franchise is loaded with talented players, but collectively they are far from a great team. Every franchise in the NHL would love to have a Mark Stone, or an Alex Pietrangelo or a Pacioretty or a Theodore, among others. But there is an saying used in hockey circles that is old as the hills but has a lot of truth to it in the VGK’s case:
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
And the more that George McPhee, the Golden Knights’ president of hockey operations, and Kelly McCrimmon, the general manager, tinkered with their roster, the more they got away from what made them great in the first place.
A captain in Montreal and an unquestioned leader for the VGK, Pacioretty addressed that head on only moments after the team was eliminated from playoff contention on Wednesday.
“I believe in what we have,” Pacioretty said. “On paper, what can anyone say we’re missing? We have it all. But at the same time, that hard work beats that talent on paper. Chemistry is probably what’s most important on and off the ice. Like I keep saying, I believe in this group.”
McPhee and McCrimmon traded and signed this team into oblivion. The chemistry that was such a big part of the run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018 is long gone now, as McPhee and McCrimmon brought in every hired hand they could find. So, too, is the cap space.
It really started with the Feb. 24, 2020, trade for Robin Lehner. In an attempt to improve their backup goaltending situation, they created a goaltending controversy.
But it began in earnest after they signed Pietrangelo in free agency in 2020. That forced the Oct. 12, 2020, trade of Nate Schmidt to Vancouver for a third-round pick. That was a direct result of signing Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo is a better player than Schmidt, but Schmidt was hugely popular in the locker room and in the community.
They treated him poorly after having signed him to a long-term deal. Schmidt said to the media he had no idea what was going on in his final days in Vegas.
Schmidt by that point was an iconic figure in this franchise’s history. McPhee and McCrimmon needed to treat him with kid gloves to try make the situation as easy as possible for a guy who did so much on and off the ice.
But what they did was trade Paul Stastny to probably the one place no one player really wants to go — Winnipeg — and moved Schmidt to a franchise that is not a preferred destination for many.
That was followed nine months later by trading Fleury — the reigning Vezina Trophy winner — to Chicago for zero return.
So the Knights dealt Stastny, Schmidt and Fleury in a span of nine months and got a third- and a fifth-round pick back.
Much of the team’s heart and soul went out the door when Schmidt, Fleury and, to a lesser degree, Nick Holden and Ryan Reaves were moved. McPhee and McCrimmon forget it’s a people business and they treated their players as replaceable automatons.
To use a baseball analogy, McPhee and McCrimmon always swing for the fence and try to hit home runs. But games are won by moving the runners over, by playing good defense, by pitching well and being smart on the bases.
Chemistry, as Pacioretty said, is an important thing. And in treating Lehner the way they did, they probably put a wedge in that relationship where he’ll never want to play for the franchise again. They’ll be left to throw in a few sweeteners to get a team to take him off of their hands.
They have to hope Eichel is more than he’s shown so far. Admittedly he’s coming back from a serious injury. But he’s shown he’s a great offensive zone player, a so-so neutral zone player and an awful defensive zone player. He hasn’t shown that clutch gene to play his best in the biggest games which you want from a guy you’ve committed so much to, both in terms of money, players and picks.
Foley has a tough call to make. Coach Pete DeBoer seems as good as gone, because coaches always get blamed for these kinds of collapses. McPhee and McCrimmon led the franchise to the semifinals in three of its first four years, so they’d seem on the surface to deserve a little rope, but they’ve also left this club with very little in the farm system, cap-starved and with little maneuvering room to fix it.
Pacioretty knows that the makeup of next year’s team will be vastly different.
“A lot of decisions are at this point are out of the players’ control, but you’ve got to expect when a team underperforms the way we have this year, all bets are off,” he said.
He later added, “We believe in what we have on this team here. We’ve made two runs here the last two years. They made a run before I came, so three of the four years [the VGK reached the NHL’s Final Four]. We know we have what it takes in this room to win, but there’s still no excuse for the position we’re in right now.”
They won’t want to hear it, but they’re in danger of losing their fan base. The fans weren’t addicted so much to the Golden Knights as they were to winning, and the great show the team’s game night staff produced. But the game night shows got stale and the Knights began to win less. If the Raiders all of a sudden became serious contenders and the Golden Knights are struggling, wow. It won’t be pretty.
The pressure has never been greater on Foley. The moves he makes in the next few days and weeks can alter the future of this franchise significantly.
It’s your turn, Mr. Foley. Make your decisions carefully.