Bill Foley fired the wrong guy, as Pete DeBoer pays for sins of others

Vegas Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon.

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.

Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon traded goalender Marc-Andre Fleury to Chicago for no return after the 2020-21 seaason.

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.

This image from the San Jose Sharks’ scoreboard shows the feeling about the Golden Knights around the NHL.

15 comments

  • Peter Poggione

    Perfect assessment Kevin. Sad to witness. I already decided not to renew months ago.

  • Kellie L Black

    You nailed it. My husband said that DeBoer deserves a team with a better front office

  • Barbara A Landes

    It’s sad for us STM to see what’s happened. Had faith in McP at the beginning but lost that after McK was promoted. The problem with sports teams now is that the management & owners forget that players are people, not pawns. Trading away players that give 100%÷ and bring excitement to the fans, really becomes a sore spot for the fans. It’s run too much like most corporations where the workforce are treated as a number. Foley should not have let our Misfit team lose the camaraderie that was the heat of the team. I love our players and feel for them as well.

  • Great article – not a fan of DeBoer but the problem clearly lies deeper than him, and you’ve nailed the reasons why. Only thing I’d say is the Stone trade was great but not a heist – he was weeks away from UFA status. If he’d been traded a year earlier by Ottawa, the haul would have been much bigger. In return Ottawa basically got Brannstrom, who was highly regarded and as a D takes longer to develop. And with Stone playing the way he does, it was only a matter of time before injuries started to be a factor, which they now are. So I’d argue they might have gotten more for him, but the trade is by no means a heist and VGK’s signing of Stone to a big contract for that long will hurt the team down the road. Love the player though.

  • I like facts not emotions. Fact powerplay was terrible and deboer + assistance were too blame. Fact the Deboer system of uses the boards to exit there owe zone was predictable and outdated. Deboer system never included dump and chase. And the puck moved slowly like the team. Good bye Deboer. Btw the statement that Quenneville being hired would result in fans not showing up. Maybe a few but nothing noticeable.

  • Nice read, I am always in favor of a coach that played the game but there are arguments both ways. But a player would know the game is dynamic and makes changes. Pete was very slow to make changes and just does not come off as a players coach. I don’t recall anyone supporting him as someone they enjoyed playing for. I think he got incredibly lucky when he got here and benefited from someone else’s foundation and work. When that luck ran out he never pivoted. I still think injuries be damn is a thing but I also think some injuries can be the result of poor coaching. For example, this team knew they had to score 4-5 goals every night – pushing recovery times etc extending injuries. The guys playing for contracts probably suffered more than Pete at the end of the season. Not everyone is a hall of famer and/or young without the benefit of previous stats.

  • Great article…agree with you completely. I would go farther an say Management made PDB THE SACRIFICAL LAMB…shame on you Mr. Foley.
    Obviously there are some areas of play that are coaches responsibilities. After the poor decisions made by McCrimmon/McFee overspending cap and then putting the onus on the coach to win now.

    In the military would the company commander lose his command if he was not given the resources to complete his mission. I don’t think so.

    I still will be a diehard VGK fan but lack of good and loyal leadership hurts.

  • Good breakdown to the situation with the VGK, their ownership, management and coaching.
    IMO something happened the previous season in the playoffs in the series with the Canadiens. The team almost seemed to quit playing. I wondered if there was an issue then. Maybe not but it seemed off.
    Personally I think trading Fleury was the worst move they’ve made since they started. There just didn’t seem like the energy was there at the games, from the fans or the players from the start of this last season. Marc Andre Fleury should’ve had the opportunity to retire here in Vegas as a Knight. He was a great face for hockey and the community and would’ve continued to do so after playing.
    Personally I don’t think the Knights would’ve been anywhere near what the achieved and endeared by the fans without him.
    I really doubt McPhee and McCrimmon have any real connection to the fans and community here.
    If it were my team (obviously not) I’d fire both of those guys before DeBoer.

  • Thanks for this Kevin – I think many VGK fans feel the same as you. We had something special during the first couple of seasons. While all fans want a winner, they also want a team and players they can relate to. Guys like Fleury, Schmidt, Reaves, Gallant – all were involved in the community and bonded with Vegas. I don’t get the sense that McPhee or McCrimmon have any commitment whatsoever to Las Vegas. This is just a job to them – they could care less where they’re doing it. The buck stops with Bill Foley. Everyone was singing his praises for bringing a NHL team to Vegas (deservedly so). But he’s ultimately responsible for the current mess on the hockey and business side of things. Foley is a businessman – I’m sure he thinks fans will keep showing up and paying some of the highest prices in hockey as long as the team wins. Maybe he’s right. But I (and many others I believe) no longer feel the same deep bond with the VGK as before. And that has nothing to do with winning.

  • Mc Kimmon needs to be shown the door. He makes alot of who stays, who goes deals. Bad choices this season. Lehner is spent. Was he ever unspent though? Eichel wasn’t such a great deal. Firing a coach on an away game in another country was a classless move. That showed VGK front office true colors. I’m done with VGK.

  • I lived in Vegas for two extended periods of time and would return multiple times a year every year until the pandemic. I still see Sin City as a transient fickle town. VGK management is playing with fire.

    I saw a tweet from a female employee saying that she was leaving VGK for a bank job. I wonder if the toxic work environment is because of Foley or McPhee?

    McPhee strikes me an an ego maniac that reads his own headlines.

    VGK is in no position to dis the local media. The honeymoon is over.

    I am not sure Quenneville hiring would cause mass cancelations. In the long run, he would pack the house with exciting and winning hockey. CBH settled with Beach and Q can get reinstated by Bettman.

  • Absolutely right on with this article! Foley and company have broken the promise to Las Vegas from day one! They got their team, got their arena and then priced the tickets so high that locals had a hard time paying for tickets. The tickets were higher than a Stanley Cup winning team in any other NHL city. Then they dismantled the team. It takes a few years to produce a winning team, we were lucky and broke records that had been held for over 25 years. Then you FIRE Gallant! Hire Pete DeBoer! Pandemic and trades and injuries happen for 2 1/2 years! So we have the highest percentage of man hours lost in the league plus a salary cap that is completely out of line! So let’s FIRE DeBoer! Filet group knows nothing about teamwork or how a team works. Thank you Kevin!!!

  • gerald dombrowski

    The problem is Foley should have gotten rid on McKinnon and Mcvee they don’t know good players when they see them ,, this team is gonna go from one couch to another ans sooner or later they are gonna run out of couches,then what ? all there of these guys don’t no dick shit about hockey , the couch can only tell the players what to do , they can’t make them do it , period

  • All most all of you have hit several nails right on the head.
    In the beginning, the front office looked like geniuses! Little did we know that they were a “ CLOWN CAR “ full of POS psychopaths !!
    James Neal’s performances in the first 2 games made OUR TEAM believe in themselves & it was on from there !
    The fans & the players became 1 in heart & soul & spirit ! We lived loved and died together & the heart and soul of it all was MAF !!
    There is no doubt in my mind that MAF would have went into the HOF as a VGK because of how the Penguins gave him away. To the Penguins credit, they just gave him away ! Our MFing POS front office just threw him away like a piece of trash ??? Hey Psychopaths in the FO, there would have been O playoff births without 29 !
    That 1st year team deserved & earned a second year ! And about half of that team was and is in the playoffs this year !! Oh & our coach is as well ????
    I wonder how the POS front office & owner can explain to us how they traded our beloved players for aged, over priced geriatric part time players ????
    We went from salary cap heaven, to SC HELL !!
    Keeping Lehner because MAF counted to much towards the cap ??? All RL has ever proven is that NO ONE has ever wanted him for very long ? While MAF is 3rd all time in several HOF categories ?? Forget about loyalty for a second.
    What kind of moron’s put those 2 goalies side by side & chose RL ??????
    I’ve lived in Vegas long enough to tell you about the original UNLV Running Rebels. The fans & coaches & players had the same love affair in those days as the year 1 VGK.
    When Tark the Shark was ran out of town, the Thomas & Mack turned into a ghost town for over 20 years. I still refuse to attend or even watch anything UNLV ever again.
    I advise the current Clown Car that is the VGK FO to learn a lesson from the past ! This town even today does not like cut throat corporate types betraying the coaches & players that we have come to love.
    TEAM CHEMISTRY ASS HATS !! You had it and pissed it away ! BTW in case you morons have never played a team sport, a team that loves each other will play for each other and kick the shit out of teams with better talent ! I think we have a recent example of that.
    Last years Montreal Canadian team ! Remember them ? They took our original game and shoved it up our asses !!! I’m done !

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