Golden Knights face uncertain future after big gamble goes bust

·4 min read
Jack Eichel's first season with the Golden Knights was a bust. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jack Eichel's first season with the Golden Knights was a bust. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the expansion Vegas Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, fans were enamoured by the brand of hockey and entertaining atmosphere on and off the ice in Sin City.

In subsequent seasons, Vegas continued to push more chips onto the table, trading draft picks and prospects in search of immediate success. Each season, the team looked on the brink of Stanley Cup glory, until their wild run came to a crashing halt this season.

Vegas, playing a pair of must-win games against San Jose and Dallas down the stretch, blew leads and failed to secure crucial points. As Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer said following their loss to Dallas, however, “our guys left everything on the ice.”

In DeBoer’s own estimation, it was the best the Golden Knights could do. Finally, it was a shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, another near miss that ended the Golden Knights’ playoff hopes.

Throughout the season, Vegas suffered injuries to key players including Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Alec Martinez and Robin Lehner, but as The Hockey News’ Adam Proteau explained, injuries aren’t solely to blame.

“[T]he injury bug is not the sole determinant of the Golden Knights’ disappointing season,” he wrote. “Vegas also has been hurt by its inability to play defense down the stretch.”

Proteau also pointed to disappointing special teams results as the Golden Knights ranked 21st on the power play and 19th in penalty killing.

Now, having missed the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s five-year history, Vegas’ all-in gamble could go bust, and plunge the organization into a long and painful stretch.

To be fair, the Golden Knights are still in a win-now mode and could challenge for a Stanley Cup next season. Their core, including Eichel, Stone, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, remains signed through next season and many are locked up long-term. If Vegas’ winning ways return and it can continue playing with house money, this long-term security might be a blessing. If this season turns out to be more than an aberration, the Golden Knights fan base will be in for a losing streak that no amount of luck will fix.

Next season Vegas has only 18 players signed at a combined cap hit of $83,866,667. With an estimated 2022-23 NHL salary cap of $82.5 million, Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon will need to shed salary before he can even attempt to field a team. McCrimmon sought to address this in part by trading Evgenii Dadonov at the deadline, which turned into an embarrassing ordeal involving an unknown no-trade clause.

Perhaps the most telling sign in Vegas’ gamble of its own future is the fact that as the 2021-22 season comes to a close, not a single active roster player was drafted and developed by the franchise. This season, Nicolas Hague was the only homegrown regular in the lineup until he suffered a season-ending lower body injury with a month remaining in the campaign.

In building their current roster, Vegas traded away four past first-round selections and another first-round pick, as well as several second-round picks. The four first-round choices they traded include Nick Suzuki (13th overall, 2017), Cody Glass (sixth overall, 2017), Erik Brannstrom (15th overall, 2017) and Peyton Krebs (17th overall, 2019), while the 2018 first-round pick they traded became Detroit Red Wings forward Joe Veleno.

Of that group, Suzuki could be the player who haunts Vegas the most, as he is currently the leading scorer for the Montreal Canadiens at 22 years old. He would have been the youngest player on the Vegas roster this season, and his scoring and ability to stay healthy would have been a major boost to the Golden Knights. The player acquired for Suzuki, Pacioretty was impactful when he was in the lineup but played less than half the season and will become an unrestricted free agent after next season.

Vegas’ remaining prospect pool is also shallow. It’s a group ranked 25th by The Hockey News in their recent Future Watch issue. Only a few players — notably Brendan Brisson, Ivan Morozov and Zach Dean — look like they’ll be able to replace aging veterans in the coming seasons, but none are elite.

This offseason, Vegas will need to find a new home for multiple players in order to have enough cap space to field a full roster. It will almost certainly involve moving out a valuable veteran who would benefit their playoff chances in 2022-23. Vegas' expansion plan was a gamble. While they rode the high of winning for four years, the Golden Knights' odds for future success are now far from a sure thing.

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