Bill Foley fired the wrong guy, as Pete DeBoer pays for sins of others
General manager Kelly McCrimmon stood at a podium at City National Arena on Monday afternoon, addressing a small group of reporters who had made their way to the Vegas Golden Knights’ headquarters to try to understand the firing of Pete DeBoer as the franchise’s head coach.
Whoever McCrimmon, owner Bill Foley and the VGK’s Wizard of Oz, George McPhee, the guy behind the curtain pulling the levers and pushing the buttons, hires as the third head coach is going to have an unenviable, almost impossible task. Foley brashly said before the Knights had ever played a game that he expected the team to make the playoffs in three seasons and win a Stanley Cup in six.
Season 6 will begin in October and the Knights are farther away from the Cup than they’ve been since the franchise’s inception.
Yes, injuries played a huge role in the disappointing season that saw the Knights miss the playoffs for the first time in their existence. DeBoer is no Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake, but he’s an above-average NHL coach and he nearly directed a hugely decimated team into the playoffs. If the Knights had not gone 0-for-17 in the shootout in the season’s critical, final week, it’s likely they would have squeezed into the playoffs.
It can fairly be debated whether DeBoer is the right coach at the right time for this specific group of players. But what has happened to the Golden Knights is a story that goes well beyond missing the playoffs because of an avalanche of injuries.
The turnover on the team’s non-hockey staff has been incredible, and many of those who left, good people who had done a great job and contributed mightily to the team becoming beloved in the first place, cited a toxic environment that ultimately falls in Foley’s lap. You can’t lose as many talented people as the Golden Knights have and not expect to see a drop-off.
The Golden Knights have developed a reputation for cavalierly discarding their players when they no longer have use for them, and after conversations with several former employees, it’s not limited to just the players.
The fans, though, mainly care about the product on the ice, and McCrimmon had far too few answers for why things went wrong and how it was DeBoer’s fault.
He was loathe to critique DeBoer publicly, and only gave cryptic answers that raised more questions than they answered.
“The decision was made based on next year,” McCrimmon said in his opening remarks in attempting to explain the move. “The decision was not made on last year.”
When the season ended, McCrimmon threw all his chips into one pot when he tried to explain how a team that entered the year among the league’s favorites to win the Stanley Cup had failed to make the playoffs. It was injuries, he said over and over. He disputed a contention that there was disfunction, even though he’s the one who brought the disfunction up and sought questions about it.
He couldn’t have been more clear: It was the remarkable number of injuries, which cost Alec Martinez 56 games, captain Mark Stone 45 games, Max Pacioretty 43 games, Nic Hague 30 games, Reilly Smith 26 games and Zach Whitecloud 23 games. That doesn’t count goalies Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit, who also missed considerable time and who both needed season-ending surgery.
DeBoer had nothing to do with his best players being out of the lineup for long stretches, often together, and minor leaguers and fringe NHLers playing significant roles. Yet, McCrimmon pushed him off the gangplank rather than look in another direction.
“We’ve talked openly about the injuries that we’ve had on our season and I’ll say it again, maybe it’s hard for people to understand because we’re in the results business, but the decision is about next year,” McCrimmon said. “It’s about starting with a fresh voice. It’s about starting with a re-energized team. It’s about having a group of players with something to prove.”
All of that other than the fresh voice would have been true had DeBoer been the coach when training camp began in September.
What McCrimmon failed to address are the trades he’s made that stripped this team of its identity as well as of any semblance of a prospect pool. Changes need to be made in the professional sports business, and they are. But there is also showing belief in one’s group and giving them chances.
McCrimmon, McPhee and Foley never gave this group that chance. Starting in the offseason between Seasons 1 & 2, they were constantly hammering away at the roster and were never satisfied. So they added Pacioretty at the cost of prospect turned excellent young player Nick Suzuki, and then brought in Stone from Ottawa in what’s turned out to be a huge heist.
But the turnover never ended. Popular defenseman Nate Schmidt was dumped and treated like the 25th man on a 23-man roster when Alex Pietrangelo was signed. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury was given away last summer, weeks after winning the Vezina Trophy with not so much as a seventh-round pick in return. Fleury’s salary was problematic to fit under the cap, but he was a leader on the team, one of the best goaltenders in the league and the unquestioned fan favorite. You don’t give those guys away for nothing, no matter the cap.
Chicago was able to get a conditional first-round pick for him at the deadline when it traded him to Minnesota. Since Minnesota exited in the first round, the Blackhawks will get a second-round pick instead. Vegas was dealing from a position of weakness — the cap issue created by Foley, McPhee and McCrimmon — but losing Fleury took the heart and soul from the club.
Each move could be understood individually but collectively, they ripped the soul from the team and ended the love affair the fan base had with it. Empty seats were commonplace in the recently completed season, and there were more visiting fans than ever before.
The problem is that nothing has been adequately explained. Foley and McPhee didn’t appear at the season-ending recap news conference, nor at the one Monday to announce DeBoer’s firing. Both of them had huge shares of responsibility for the failure that was the VGK’s 2021-22 season, but neither answered publicly for their roles in it.
Foley did speak to the Review-Journal’s David Schoen for a story published on May 6, and said he believed the team had lost its identity. He also said he was going to be involved, which is a scary thought given his expertise is not in building a hockey team.
But it’s his team and he can do with it as he wishes, but if he’s going to take that role, he should have been available to all of the media on Monday to answer questions about the obvious scapegoating of DeBoer. McPhee treats the local media as an enemy and can barely contain his dislike for most of them. But he’s in a position of authority and none of these moves are being made without his buy-in, and he needs to answer for them, too.
The next coach is going to come in and be expected to bring a Stanley Cup to Las Vegas. The team is over the cap and is going to have to shed salary to get compliant. They also need to re-sign Reilly Smith, who is an unrestricted free agent, and both Nicolas Roy and Hague are restricted free agents who are going to cost considerably more.
McCrimmon said Monday that Stone is “likely” to have back surgery on Wednesday. Back surgeries are delicate and there is no guarantee that Stone will be anything close to the player he was. He’s also 30 now and there’s a very distinct dividing line in the NHL when players begin to decline, and it’s at 30.
Lehner, the nominal starting goalie, is coming off surgery and McCrimmon had no information on how that went.
It all conspires to make the job of the next coach incredibly difficult.
Then, there’s the question of who to bring in. McCrimmon said he hadn’t thought about that, but that is almost impossible to believe. You don’t make a decision of that magnitude without knowing who is available to bring in.
The popular choice is Barry Trotz, fired by the Islanders. There is some talk among fans and media about ex-Florida coach Joel Quenneville, but Quenneville isn’t allowed to coach in the league now because of his role in ignoring sexual abuse charges against an assistant coach in Chicago. If the Knights hire Quenneville as the coach, there will be a mass exodus of season-ticket holders.
It’s a mess, and it’s one wholly created by Foley, McPhee and McCrimmon. Two of the three aren’t willing to answer for their work and the third gives laughably incomplete or total non-answers.
It’s no joke, but that’s what’s starting to happen with this franchise. Rather than the model franchise it once was, it’s the team that others around the NHL love to hate, and with good reason.
Moving on from McPhee and McCrimmon might have helped to start to change that narrative.