This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays.
Throughout this largely cursed Golden Knights’ season, there has been one constant. Just about anything bad that can go wrong in the 2021-22 campaign has, but that hasn’t impacted the one area which most directly correlates with the quality of their head coach: Their effort.
There have been games when they have been overmatched, most notably the 6-0 drubbing in Calgary on Feb. 9 and the 7-3 debacle in Winnipeg on March 22.
Through it all, though, the one constant has been that they played hard. That’s a credit to Coach Pete DeBoer. That was on full display, especially in the 3rd period, of Saturday afternoon’s pulsating 5-4 overtime victory over the Blackhawks. The Knights overcame a 3-0 deficit after 40 minutes to win in overtime, something that doesn’t happen if the coach has lost the team.
Whenever a team that is expected to win loses as much as the Golden Knights have lost this season, speculation mounts that the coach is going to be replaced. There is no denying that owner Bill Foley, president of hockey operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon showed a surprisingly quick trigger finger when they got rid of Gerard Gallant in 2020.
Particularly throughout the 0-5 road trip that saw them lose by a combined score of 23-11 to the Flyers, Sabres, Penguins, Blue Jackets and Jets, the anticipation that Foley and Co. would make a coaching change was intense.
Fans far too often believe a coaching change is the answer, when the truth is it’s usually a lot more subtle than that. This year, as the Knights have struggled to score — they entered Saturday’s game 12th in goals scored — fans have pointed to DeBoer’s system as a reason they’re not scoring.
That’s just a cop-out, an excuse, and has nothing to do with the real reason they can’t score. It has nothing to do with system. It’s far simpler: DeBoer had a lot better players to deal with last season.
Mark Stone led the team in scoring with 61 points, and played in 55 of the 56 games. That’s 98.2 percent of all games. After missing Saturday’s game, Stone has played in 28 of 68 games, or 41.2 percent. Max Pacioretty has played in 29 of 68 games this year, 42.6 percent, compared to 48 of 56 last year, when he appeared in 85.7 percent of the games. Jonathan Marchessault has played in 91.2 percent of the games this year after suiting up on Saturday, but was in 98.2 percent of their games last year after playing in all but one last season.
There’s more, but you get the point.
DeBoer has been replacing guys like Stone, Pacioretty, Marchessault, Reilly Smith and others on his scoring lines with the likes of Jake Leschyshyn, Jonas Rondbjerg, Paul Cotter and Keegan Kolesar. News flash: They’re not going to score as much, or at the same rate, as Stone & Co.
It’s DeBoer’s coaching or his Xs & Os. Most experts would rank the Islanders’ Barry Trotz ahead of DeBoer as a coach, and there’s no argument about that here. Trotz will be in the Hall of Fame when he’s done. But the Islanders have been ravaged by injuries this season and guess what: It’s going to take a miracle for them to make the playoffs.
DeBoer’s newly emerged critics ignore the fact that last season, when the Knights led the league in fewest goals allowed that they also tied for third with Washington for the most goals scored.
There are only two ways to judge DeBoer’s work during this most trying of seasons: Are the players competing hard and is their structure sound? The answer to both questions is yes.
They’ve gotten awful goaltending at times, and while Logan Thompson’s recent play has been a massive upgrade on what Laurent Brossoit had been giving them, the goaltending department hasn’t been stellar this year when viewed from beginning to end, either.
So DeBoer is coaching a team which has gotten less-than-optimal goaltending for most of the way, has most of its goal scorers in the stands and has played with half or more of his regular defensemen out for months
But they battle. They skate hard. They don’t look disorganized and confused.
They haven’t given up when it would have been understandable if they had. It’s why they were able to come back and win on another mind-boggling goal by Evgenii Dadonov in overtime Saturday.
They’re losing more often because, with the players they have in the lineup, they’re not as good as they were.
Jack Eichel played his 20th game on Saturday against Chicago, and is just now rounding into form after underdoing next surgery.
These geniuses in the NHL media keep talking about the Golden Knights trying to manipulate the salary cap, but that’s so far from the truth it’s laughable. They are far less likely to make the playoffs than they are to make Lord Stanley’s tournament. So why would they keep guys on the shelf to compete in a tournament they may not even qualify for?
They’re not doing that.
Now, in going after and acquiring Eichel, McCrimmon put himself into an almost untenable position because the Knights were at the cap when they got him. If Stone, Pacioretty, Smith, Alex Martinez, Brayden McNabb, et al, hadn’t gotten injured, there would have been several big trades to make them cap compliant.
But to suggest they’re holding out Stone or Pacioretty right now to save them for a playoff run would mean that DeBoer would rather have Leschyshyn and Rondbjerg in his lineup as he’s trying to jockey this team into the postseason. If you believe that, you’ll also believe that Ken is going to beat Connor McDavid in a fastest lap competition before next season begins.
DeBoer is no Scotty Bowman, but he’s a good, above-average NHL coach. He’s a good enough coach to win the Stanley Cup with the players on the VGK roster, if those players were actually playing and not wearing suits in the press box.
VGK fans have been spoiled by the franchise’s unparalleled success since its inception. As recent vintage Maple Leafs’ fans will tell you, the Stanley Cup is not your birthright. It’s hard to win even when everything is going correctly.
When things are going as they are this season, well, it’s easy to blame the coach. But that would be the wrong thing to do.