It’s a sad moment for fans when a hockey season abruptly ends like it did last Thursday. Reality sets in when a Cup run is over and the 31st franchise will have to wait another year for a chance at the ultimate prize. Unfortunately, the truth is, this was another wasted season for the Golden Knights. For the second straight year, Vegas faced an inferior opponent and couldn’t find a way to force a game seven. Their leaders, coaches, and framers failed again and almost identically in back-to-back years.
Against Montreal, the Golden Knights outshot the Canadiens 193 to 165 yet had two fewer goals in the Semifinals. Keep in mind the Canadiens were the 15th lowest scoring team in the regular season and Vegas was 3rd highest. The Golden Knights fell down the same hole last postseason against the Dallas Stars. Like Montreal, Dallas was another low scoring team that found a way to outscore the Golden Knights in the conference finals. It was inexcusable in 2020, and even more so in 2021 after the organization retooled in the offseason.
So, who’s to blame?
Let’s begin with the leadership group. Captain Mark Stone has built quite the portfolio in Vegas, however, his stock continues to plummet in the playoffs. For three straight seasons, Stone has provided very little offense for the Golden Knights when they needed him late in a series. Going without a single point in the entire Semifinals was rock bottom for Stone. His failure to produce in the backend of a playoff series was evident again against Minnesota, Colorado, and Montreal.
In all fairness to the captain, he owned up to it.
I can praise (the Canadiens) all I want but ultimately it falls down on myself and the top players on this team. We had some guys that produced night in and night out. As far as myself I got skunked this series. That can’t happen. I’m the captain of this team, the leader of this team, I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred. -Mark Stone
Another concern was the continuous slow starts for Vegas. In six Semifinal games, the Golden Knights allowed the first goal four times, and were sluggish to begin the 1st period in several other postseason contests. In the final 12 games of the postseason, the Golden Knights trailed at some point in 11 of them.
Is it possible the team leaders for Vegas couldn’t motivate their teammates enough to kick off the game on time? It’s hard to comprehend why, but it’s fair to point fingers at the men with letters; Stone, Reilly Smith and Alex Pietrangelo.
It’s unfair to solely blame the players for the team’s slow starts in the playoffs. A big share should be directed at head coach Pete DeBoer. How come Vegas’ bench general couldn’t get his club to wake up earlier in postseason games? Was his message not loud enough, strong enough, or just tuned out? When a contending club like Vegas stumbles that many times out of the gate in the playoffs you have to look at the coach.
Also, DeBoer didn’t do enough to fix one of history’s worst postseason power plays. It failed over and over again and yet there were no major adjustments, corrections, or massive overhauls. Assistant coach Steve Spott was in charge of a listless man-advantage and DeBoer stuck with his ineffective plan throughout the entire postseason (and regular season before it). At some point, the head coach should’ve taken over the power play duties himself. There was no guarantee for success but allowing the status quo seriously impacted the Golden Knights chance at advancing.
Finally, coaching should take some heat for the late return of the goalie rotation in the Semifinals. The Golden Knights were three wins away from the Stanley Cup Final when DeBoer decided to flip flop Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. Instead of sticking with Fleury’s success, Vegas’ coach decided to use both like the team was in the middle of a regular season series with the Arizona Coyotes. It’s hard to believe that starting Lehner in Game 4 against Montreal was in DeBoer’s plans before the series began. It’s easy to read between the lines, the decision was made because of Fleury’s costly giveaway in Game 3. For a second straight postseason, DeBoer poorly handled the situation in net. And for the record, none of the blame falls on Fleury or Lehner. Nope, the department that shares the blame with DeBoer for the goalie wheel is the front office.
The Golden Knights front office built a well-rounded, prototypical Stanley Cup contender. Size, skill, and experience. The roster had plenty of forward firepower and a new, Cup-winning, Norris trophy caliber defenseman but ignored the wasted money in net. While many believe the two-goalie system worked, the truth is it didn’t work when the games mattered. Sure, Fleury and Lehner earned the Jennings trophy for the best goalie tandem in the NHL but that was a regular season award. To put it bluntly, the Jennings Trophy is an oversized cereal bowl compared to a Conn Smyth award.
"I think it worked really well. The Jenning's Trophy is a pretty good indicator of how well it worked. I think that it helped us in the playoffs as well. We were really fortunate to have two goaltenders as good as we had this year." -Kelly McCrimmon on goalie tandem
— SinBin.vegas (@SinBinVegas) June 26, 2021
In the postseason, having two goalies severely hurt the Golden Knights… again. While one goalie played, the other sat on the bench unable to contribute. Before the season began the front office accepted that they would be forced to waste $5M or $7M out of their salary cap per game in order to retain both goalies. In the long run, Vegas didn’t have problems in net in the postseason, they had trouble scoring. You know how much a reliable goal scorer(s) would have cost? Yep, $5M-$7M bucks.
The front office added two incredibly valuable Stanley Cup winners Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo, whom were two of the more reliable players in the postseason for Vegas. Management ignored the possibility of an offensive drought in the postseason. The club they built failed to score against Dallas in last season’s Western Conference Final but somehow felt the team needed an upgrade on defense and goaltending. It’s was a confounding decision at the time and it’s even more so in retrospect. It was clear then and it’s clear now, the Golden Knights were missing another scoring option. With more cap space a player or players could have been purchased before the season or at the deadline. If the team hadn’t been saddled with $12M in goaltenders Vegas’ front office could have used that financial wiggle room for more offensive assistance. And let’s face it, scoring goals is what they desperately needed.
It’s disappointing the way the season ended but it’s even more so when the club set such high expectations. Fans were told this was the best Golden Knights team they’ve rooted for since the team’s inaugural season. However, they reached the exact same place they did a year ago and bowed out the exact same way. Similar to VGK teams in the past, sure, but there’s nothing to prove they were indeed better.
Most teams would feel good about reaching the Semifinals but not this club. Vegas is one of a handful of teams that are built to win now. The championship window is wide open for the Golden Knights but if the franchise can’t get out of cap purgatory and fails to address the club’s scoring needs there could be more postseason exits in the future.
They clearly didn’t get the picture on the first go around, let’s hope they’ve figured it out with this second chance.