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Iole: VGK Offseason Agenda

This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. Today is the last column for the season from Kevin. We cannot thank Kevin enough for contributing to the site all year.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Trying to forecast what the Golden Knights’ will be like in the 2022-23 season is all but impossible. We don’t know who is going to manage the team, who will coach it, and if several of the key players on it will ever be the same physically.

From owner Bill Foley on down, VGK management has to be praying that Mark Stone’s back injury that kept him out of 46 games this year and left him a shell of himself when he did return for the final, ultimately futile, playoff run is healed and just a sad memory when next season begins.

That’s no guarantee, though, and without a healthy and productive Stone, it’s all but impossible to take this team seriously as a contender no matter what else they do in the offseason.

There are a number of free agents, though none more important than Reilly Smith. But with the Knights up against the salary cap, will they be able to find the money to bring him back? And even if they can, will he want to return?

The answers to those questions will play out in the next several months. But I’ve identified six areas whoever is running this team will need to solidify in the offseason if it is to have a reasonable hope of fulfilling Foley’s dream of a Stanley Cup title by Year 6.

Get younger and faster

The Knights were the third-oldest team in the league in the 2021-22 season, and at times it looked like they didn’t have the jump they needed. They certainly didn’t play with the pace of a championship team.

When the Misfits went to the Stanley Cup final in 2018, they forechecked ferociously and took time and space away from the opposition on virtually every shift.

The inordinate number of injuries they suffered through played a role in that, but they need to infuse the lineup with both young, hungry players and speed.

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Iole: It’s Not Just Playoffs Off The Line Now

This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. 

Before the Golden Knights had ever played a game, owner Bill Foley said his goal was to reach the playoffs in three seasons and bring a Stanley Cup championship to Las Vegas within six years.

On Sunday, his team begins a stretch of four games in six nights, with three of them on the road, likely needing to win each of them to qualify for the playoffs in Year 5 of the franchise’s existence.

The Knights are further from the Stanley Cup than they have been since those halcyon days early in the 2017-18 season when nobody truly appreciated what was about to happen. That team won the Pacific Division, won the Western Conference and won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018.

Washington, of course, swept those final four games, but the expectation among Vegas’ rabid fan base was that it was just a matter of time before a parade would be held.

George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon, who along with their scouts and staff did such brilliant work putting a team together during the expansion draft, have largely bungled their way through the next four seasons. Their heavy-handed approach has turned off many, and though the fans who were in T-Mobile Arena for the pulsating overtime victory over the Capitals on Wednesday nearly blew the roof off the building when Shea Theodore scored the game-winner against Ilya Samsonov, Knights’ fever in Las Vegas is unquestionably down.

McPhee and McCrimmon have made a mess of the team’s goaltending, among other things.

On Friday, journalists from both The Athletic and ESPN reported that VGK goalie Robin Lehner was undergoing season-ending surgery. An hour or so later, Coach Pete DeBoer shot that down and said Lehner is healthy, expected to dress and available to play for Sunday’s home game against San Jose.

Now, is it possible that The Athletic’s Jesse Granger and ESPN’s Emily Kaplan both got it wrong? Sure.

But I would bet everything I hold dear that they were each told about Lehner having surgery by more than one person either in the Knights’ organization, by Lehner’s agent and/or most likely by Lehner himself.

Meanwhile, the Knights’ record on truthfulness is not good.

This is the latest episode in the goaltending follies that has unquestionably put jobs at risk. What seemed unthinkable in September is now something that may be more likely than not: If the Knights miss the playoffs, Foley may well clean house.

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Iole: Big Problem Up Front

This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. 

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

There are six games remaining in the regular season for the Golden Knights and they still have a chance to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Considering the voluminous amount of injuries they’ve suffered this season, that is fairly remarkable.

Of those six, we can probably count on winning home games against New Jersey and San Jose and a road game at Chicago. If they lose any of the games against the Devils, Sharks, or Blackhawks then they don’t deserve to qualify for the playoffs in the first place.

So, while the Knights will need help, their fate will probably come down to Wednesday’s home game against Washington and road games against Dallas and St. Louis. They’ll probably need to win two of those three to get in.

Saturday’s 4-0 loss in Edmonton simply highlighted the issue this team has had going back to their two months in the bubble in 2020: They can’t score when it matters most.

The problem is they don’t have one of those players who is dominant in front of the net, ideally a big guy, who can tip pucks and put in rebounds.

The goaltending on this team remains a huge question mark. Even if they get into the playoffs, they’ll rely on two goaltenders who are unproven in the postseason. At his absolute best, Lehner is a good enough goalkeeper to win the Cup with, but he hasn’t been near his best after a solid first month and his health is questionable.

When — if — he returns this season, he’ll have zero margin of error.

Thompson is a rookie and while rookies have come in late in the season and led their teams to a Cup (think Ken Dryden long ago and Jordan Binnington recently), the odds that Thompson could duplicate those runs are massively against him.

And so, the Knights will need to score, which has been a significant problem for them in recent postseasons.

They cry out for what has traditionally been regarded in the NHL as a power forward. Guys like John LeClair and Brendan Shanahan years ago would clean up in front of the net. They’d make life difficult for both defensemen and goaltenders and they had an uncanny ability to either tip a shot while screening the goalie or grabbing a rebound quickly and jamming it into the net.

The heat map from the Edmonton game shows just how badly the Knights lack that quality. Everything was from the perimeter. Now, guys who are 6-3, 230 pounds, and have soft hands aren’t hanging around on the waiver wire, but it doesn’t need to be a behemoth.

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Iole: An Eye On The Future

This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. 

Many of my friends around North America who are hockey writers have dismissed this year’s version of the Vegas Golden Knights as a Stanley Cup contender out of hand. And while I’ll go on record here saying VGK shouldn’t bother making arrangements for a parade down the Strip in the summer, I think my colleague’s assessments are off-base.

Injuries are a part of hockey — of any sport, really — but the VGK’s injury bug this year has been far worse than what could realistically be expected.

This team if fully healthy has the capability of being a Stanley Cup champion. Oh, it has holes. Goaltending has been far too inconsistent. It could use size, particularly in the bottom six. Its speed isn’t what it once was and there are teams that can skate rings around even the healthiest version of the Golden Knights.

The Knights are technically still alive in the playoff hunt, and we’ve seen over the years teams that no one expected to come close get hot at the right time and win it. Remember a healthy Jim Valvano running around the court in Albuquerque, N.M., looking for someone to hug after his North Carolina State Wolfpack won the NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1983?

The Florida Marlins finished nine games out of first in 1997, their fifth season of existence, but made the playoffs and won the World Series. The New Jersey Devils had only a .542 winning percentage in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, but went 16-4 in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup despite finishing ninth overall in the regular season.

So it could happen for the VGK this year. But will it? As the late WWE legend Gorilla Monsoon often would say to his sidekick, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, “Highly unlikely.”

Given that, I’m thinking about next year already. With that in mind, I’m going to break down which of the current roster should return for next season’s run at the Cup, which shouldn’t, and then later, look at five players they might look at acquiring who shouldn’t cost a ton. They’re going to have salary cap issues next season, too, folks, so keep that in mind.

DEFINITELY SHOULD/WILL STAY

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

1. Jack Eichel: He should be the franchise player starting on Day 1 of training camp next season. He has been good mostly, great at times, maddening at others. But remember he’s playing with a new team after having a neck surgery no player ever had before and he had to adjust to a new system and new teammates. The first day the Knights step onto the ice at City National Arena in September, Eichel had best be the team’s clear best player. If he’s not, that will mean big trouble for years to come.

2. Mark Stone: He has a $9.5 million contract as well as a no-movement clause, so he’ll be back. That contract may look funky in the last couple of years of it, but if the Golden Knights are going to make a run at the Cup in the near future, they need Stone playing how Stone can play and can’t trade him.

3. Alex Pietrangelo: See above. Pietrangelo has an $8.8 million contract that probably won’t wear well, and a no-movement clause. But he’s an elite player still, a great leader, and someone they’ll need if they have a hope of lifting the Cup in 2023.

4. Zach Whitecloud: He’s a bargain at $2.75 million and he gets better every year. Teams that win Stanley Cups have plenty of guys like Whitecloud on the roster.

5. Jonathan Marchessault: This is a team with no shortage of players who could be captain, but Marchessault is among them. He’s made the most out of the talent he’s had, he competes ferociously, and while he may be due for a bit of a decline, he’s a heart-and-soul guy you can’t give up unless you’re overwhelmed in a trade offer. For a team looking to win the Cup, the Knights can’t afford to move him, nor should they.

6. Chandler Stephenson: He’s not as good as he looked at the beginning of the year when he was playing lights out, but he’s a very valuable guy who can play up and down the lineup, provides needed speed, and most importantly to this particular roster, has a salary-cap friend cap hit of $2.75 million.

PROBABLY SHOULD/WILL STAY

7. Shea Theodore: His lengthy goal drought is inexplicable but when he’s healthy and on his game, he’s a borderline No. 1 guy who fits well as a solid No. 2. He could bring a lot in a trade given his youth, but his skating is something the Knights will need with a lot of the core aging and slowing down.

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Iole: Blaming DeBoer Is A Fool’s Errand

This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. 

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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.

Duh.

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.

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Kevin Iole’s Deadline Blueprint

This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on usually on Sundays. Today, Kevin lays out what he believes is the correct course of action for the Golden Knights at this deadline.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The trading deadline is Monday and in the first four years of the VGK’s existence, it was a joyous time. We were like children waking up on Christmas morning to see what Santa left under the tree.

There was no question that the Golden Knights were going to add at the deadline in any of those four seasons. The question was how big would they go?

This season figured to be no different. But then, the Knights have gone 11-14-4 since Jan. 1 and just completed an 0-5 road trip largely against the dregs of the league. The win against Florida last night was great, but it doesn’t change what has happened over the course of the last three months.

This time, the trading deadline arrives and the Knights are a team in disarray, no longer a Stanley Cup contender and perhaps a team that may play its way into the draft lottery.

The deadline will still come, and it’s clear the VGK need a lot of work — for next season. The bulk of that can be done in the summer, but this trade deadline can give it a start.

Here are moves I would make if I were Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon to help fortify the team for a run at the 2023 Stanley Cup:

1. Shut down Alec Martinez for the remainder of the season: There is something seriously wrong with the guy, and it goes well beyond getting cut in the face by a skate in November. Nobody in the game is tougher than Martinez, and the fact he’s not playing five months later is an ominous sign.

This season is lost; even if they somehow miraculously sneak into the playoffs, they’re not winning the Stanley Cup this year. So shut down Martinez for the remainder of the year and hope he comes back in September fully health.

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Iole: Enough Bang For His Buck?

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.

As a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, I’ve often longed for a team that was aggressive in free agency, pursued the best players with vigor regardless of cost, and had ownership that almost seemed insulted if it didn’t win the championship.

But now, I have that in the Vegas Golden Knights, where owner Bill Foley has focused only on winning. He’s allowed his staff to trade for the big names who were available on the market. He’s permitted them to go after the elite free agents.

Like the late Jack Kent Cooke, the former owner of the Washington Redskins once said about his coach, George Allen, “He was given an unlimited budget and he exceeded it.”

Foley has to feel that way as Season 5 winds down with a Detroit Lions Super Bowl championship looking about as likely in a few months as a VGK Stanley Cup title.

Foley’s spoiled the fan base, and no doubt his hockey operations department, by his seeming eagerness to spend any sum, make any signing, in pursuit of that elusive championship.

Goaltender Robin Lehner is sidelined now with upper-body AND lower-body injuries, you say? The fan base simply calls for Foley to spend the millions it would take to bring old friend Marc-Andre Fleury back to town.

These are real dollars, people, that Foley is spending, not just Monopoly money that has no impact. Foley has done everything reasonably expected of an owner, and then some. Hell, he’s even sat down for an interview with Ken on multiple occasions!

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

In addition to the trades for Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, and Jack Eichel, and the free agent signing of Alex Pietrangelo and the extensions for Lehner, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, Alex Tuch (Remember him?), Nate Schmidt (Or him?), Foley went so far as to purchase an AHL team and build a new rink for it. The benefit? So the NHL club could fill fourth-line, third-defense pairings and backup goalie spots a bit easier.

He’s laid out an inordinate amount of cash — to be fair, the Golden Knights are also a pretty profitable franchise — and what does he have for it? Well, no Cups, and so they’re a failure if that’s the only standard you measure by.

But that’s not fair. The Golden Knights have become one of the destination franchises in the NHL and you don’t see any of the players, past or present, complaining about the way they’ve been treated while they’re here.

They’ve won two division titles, one conference title and have been among the league’s Cup favorites every year since the second season.

Foley’s done his part.

Now, do we blame McPhee or McCrimmon for what is going on here? Does Pete DeBoer, as coaches so frequently and so often unfairly do, pay for it with his job?

Do we simply blame the injuries and say, “Things will be better when everyone is healthy?”

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