This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. Kevin’s back today to take a look at a position of depth, one that’s been notoriously thin in years past.
There’s nothing golden so far, particularly in the 2022 portion of the season, about the Vegas Golden Knights. Given the way they’re going, they’re perhaps best referred to as the Vegas Mediocre Knights.
Vegas has played 22 games in 2022 and gone 9-9-4. As playoff races heat up, the Golden Knights are all of a sudden at least a teeny weeny tiny bit in the Shane Wright Sweepstakes.
Forget about Wright for the moment, because this franchise will be shaken to its foundation if it misses the playoffs. I dare say if that unlikely eventuality comes about, none of the threesome of George McPhee, Kelly McCrimmon, or Pete DeBoer will hold the same jobs at the start of next season.
With that said, here are a series of thoughts and observations about the Knights at this stage:
• The Knights can’t score. The injury-ravaged group of 12 forwards that DeBoer iced in Friday’s 5-4 win in Anaheim had combined to score 36 goals in 22 games in the calendar year 2022.
The nominal first line of Jack Eichel (2), Nic Roy (3), and Evgenii Dadonov (2) has seven, which includes the two Roy scored in the second period Friday to end a 15-game goal-less drought.
If you eliminate ‘The Misfit Line,’ which has 16 goals in 2022, the other nine forwards Vegas dressed have 20 in 22 games. That’s not good enough to get it done.
Dadonov is the worst culprit of all, because he’s being paid the staggering sum of $5 million to score, which he isn’t doing.
• McCrimmon has maneuvered himself into salary cap hell and won’t be able to do much at the deadline unless he makes dollar-for-dollar trades. But despite what I noted above, if we assumed that McCrimmon could make deals and wasn’t handicapped by the cap, my belief is that the team’s No. 1 need is a defensive defenseman.
Even when (if?) Alec Martinez comes back — and he’s so badly missed — this team’s makeup is such that a shot-blocker/penalty-killer type is still a huge need. Vegas’ defense needs another shutdown guy in the worst way.
• We can’t rip McCrimmon for trading draft picks, because he’s done so in an effort to put the finishing touches on a talented team and turn it from a Cup contender to a champion.
But we can rip him for some of the deals he made. The move to send second and third picks out to acquire Mattias Janmark at last year’s deadline looks highly dubious.
And if he wants to get a team to take Dadonov’s $5 million contract off his hands, he’s going to likely have to throw in a high pick and perhaps even a prospect.
Trading Nick Holden and a third rounder for Dadonov last year looks worse every game Dadonov goes without a goal. And it’s looking like he’s going to cost them another high pick to get rid of him.
The Knights haven’t had years to build their farm system like other franchises because this is only their fifth season. And they’ve not only traded picks, they’ve traded guys they themselves drafted.
And now they’ll have to trade more picks to get someone to take our bad contracts off our hands.
• Robin Lehner was the team’s best player in, oh, the first six weeks. He’s been hurt a lot since then, but when he’s played, he hasn’t been good enough.
Is he good enough that a team could win a Cup with him in net? I believe so, based on how he played in the Bubble in 2020. He showed an ability to carry a team then.
But the Knights need to get Lehner fixed, and quick.
• The power play is a mess, and while Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone would help it immensely, assistant coach Steve Spott’s work with it has been, well, spotty.
A team with the offensive talent this one has should not be 22nd in a 32-team league in power play percentage. Vegas’ power play is operating nearly 11 percentage points worse than Toronto’s, which leads the league with a nearly 29-percent connect rate.
• William Karlsson is having the worst season of his Vegas career, which hurts because he’s costing the team $5.9 million against the cap. He’s not even as reliable defensively as he once was and his offense has largely dried up.
He’s scoring at a Keegan Kolesar-type rate, and that’s not enough for a guy who is on the No. 2 line and gets as much power-play time as Karlsson.
If they’d have even hinted at thinking of trading him in Seasons 1 through 4, I’d have lost my mind. Now, well, maybe not so much. I’d really worry about breaking up The Misfits Line, but the Knights don’t have the luxury of carrying $6 million players who are just OK.
I’m not advocating trading him, but depending upon the deal, I wouldn’t scream bloody murder, either.
• Chandler Stephenson needs to go back to playing center. He doesn’t fit on Eichel’s right wing. That’s obvious.
Let’s assume that on Game 1 of the playoffs all are healthy and none of them have been traded, these are the lines I’d use:
In that group, you’re giving more favorable matchups to Stephenson as a third-line center and Janmark as a fourth-line winger. A second and a third was too much to give up for Janmark, but playing on a fourth line, he’s a guy who could contribute. Plus, he’ll be playing for a contract, and that no doubt will impact his effort/performance.
• Healthy, I do believe this team as presently constituted is a Cup contender. But it’s not one of the top three or four as it was when the season started.
Colorado and Calgary are the class of the West, with the Knights a significant step below them. The East is going to be brutal to get through, and Tampa, Carolina, Florida, Pittsburgh, and Toronto are all capable of winning it. In the West, it’s Colorado, Calgary, a healthy Vegas, and maybe St. Louis and Minnesota, but I’m not sold those last two.
But if this team doesn’t win it this year, McPhee and McCrimmon are going to face a massive rebuild in the summer. Smith, Janmark, and Ben Hutton are UFAs, and Howden, Kolesar, Roy, and Nic Hague are RFAs and will take a good bit of money to re-sign.
The contracts of Stone and Pietrangelo aren’t going to age well, and you wonder if we’re already seeing the first hints of that now. Pacioretty will be going into the final year of his deal next year.
So Cup or not, the VGK may look massively different in October than they do at the end of the playoffs.