Four off-season questions for Golden Knights after shocking playoff miss

The disaster is complete: The Vegas Golden Knights are out of the playoffs.

It’s probably the most shocking on-ice story of the season. The 2017 expansion team shook the hockey world by making it to the Stanley Cup Final right out of the gate, and then sustained that excellence in the years that followed, returning to the playoff semifinals on two more occasions. They’re in on every trade, every notable free agent, every rumour.

The Vegas Golden Knights making a bold roster move doesn’t surprise us anymore. We expect it, even when we don’t know how they’ll make the dollars work.

That character comes down from the owner. Bill Foley has made no bones about his desire for Vegas to be a destination and to be trying to win the Cup at all times. They operate differently to any team that’s come before them.

And so now that they’ve missed the playoffs, we have to wonder what big changes will follow in the summer. We’re expecting upheaval and a big reaction to such a negative result.

“If this team doesn’t make the playoffs my gut tells me there will be a move of some kind,” The Athletic’s Jesse Granger told Real Kyper and Bourne earlier this week. “It’s up to Bill Foley to determine is the front office more to blame, is it Pete DeBoer, is it just the players not showing up? It’ll be a tough decision from Bill.”

The owner will dictate what happens next and how the team should react. Here are some questions he might be considering:

What is Peter DeBoer’s future?

On Jan. 16, 2020 the Golden Knights were 25-19-6, fourth in the Pacific Division, but just one point out of first. They were stuck with a bit of bad luck — first in expected goals at the time, but with a 24th-ranked team shooting percentage that kept their actual goal total way down. The goaltending wasn’t up to snuff either, with a team save percentage of .900 between Marc-André Fleury and Malcolm Subban.

That was the lowest point of Vegas’ NHL existence at the time. After reaching the Cup final in Year 1, their win total sagged from 51 to 43 in Year 2 (ending in a Round 1 playoff loss), and then Year 3 brought this even slower start. Of course, they were still hanging around the playoff picture mid-way through the season, and the underlying numbers indicated they could turn it around.

But that was the day then-head coach Gerard Gallant lost his job.

Under his replacement, Peter DeBoer, the Golden Knights did get back on track, won the Pacific Division (in 71 games), and then reached the conference final in the bubble playoffs. Last season, Vegas finished second to Colorado via tiebreaker in the one-off West Division realignment (and Vegas actually had one more total win than the Avs) and then knocked them off in the playoffs. Vegas again got to the semifinal and were upset by the Montreal Canadiens.

And now this. Whiffing on the playoffs entirely.

Sure, injuries did play a huge factor all year for Vegas, but they were getting some important players back for the stretch run and couldn’t pull off the must-have wins. Losing at home to New Jersey last week, blowing a two-goal third period lead at home to San Jose over the weekend, and then dropping Tuesday’s game in Dallas buried the Knights.

Vegas is facing an identity crisis after this disaster. Gallant was let go for less and now DeBoer could be next.

What is Robin Lehner‘s future?

It was such a strange end to the season for Vegas’ No. 1 netminder. Reports last week indicated Lehner would be getting season-ending surgery, which was denied by DeBoer right away. And then on Sunday, Lehner was on the bench backing up Logan Thompson.

The very next day, on Monday, it was announced Lehner was getting shoulder surgery after all, and that he wouldn’t be with the team for the final three games of its long-shot playoff push. Lehner was on the bench Sunday. It was a bad look and a questionable move.

Curiously, when Lehner was pulled from last week’s game against Washington after allowing one goal on 13 first-period shots, DeBoer said the goalie was healthy, fresh, and a had a lot of energy. He blamed Lehner for the loss to New Jersey.

“They’re clearly at odds,” Granger told Kyper and Bourne.

Could this be the beginning of the end for Lehner and Vegas?

Lehner still has another three years left on a contract that pays $5 million against the cap, which remains good value for him at full health. And while Thompson has shown well in 17 NHL games this season, it might be unwise to walk into next season with him as your No. 1. If Lehner were to leave, Vegas would need to find another veteran goalie, you’d think.

Lehner finished this season with a .907 save percentage that was below league average, and a minus-0.37 GSAA. Both Thompson and the departed Marc-André Fleury outperformed Lehner. But, Lehner will still be just 31 this summer and there’s reason to believe he could return to form in 2022-23 if surgery and recovery goes to plan. It’s key to remember he’s played through injuries for some time this season. He may have been shut down on Monday, but the first reports about a shoulder injury popped up in February, and he’s also been dealing with a knee issue, too.

“Just watching him on the ice he didn’t look even remotely close to the goalie I know he can be and the goalie he was when he first came to Vegas,” Granger explained. “He just wasn’t moving. Especially when he was down in the butterfly he just didn’t have any movement down there. A guy that made his career playing angles, being in the right spot, being a blocking goalie that takes away the net and lets the puck hit him in the chest, and all of a sudden he’s reaching for everything. It was pretty clear he wasn’t healthy.”

The Golden Knights just chose Lehner over Fleury and that’s a decision they may always regret. Not because Lehner is a bad goalie or anything — he’s not — but because he was always a luxury pick-up when they acquired him. For a team dancing around the cap ceiling and always looking for the shiny new star to add, having a $5 million 1B goalie next to the face of the franchise was quite bold and forced them into other uncomfortable choices. Someone was going to find a good pick-up when Chicago was shopping Lehner — it didn’t need to be Vegas.

It would seem a challenge to return both DeBoer and Lehner next season given how the season ended, but it’d be far easier to move on from the coach. Unless there’s someone else notable coming back, simply moving on from Lehner could create other issues. A team with high hopes would not want to start a new season with fresh goaltending concerns.

But, this is still an evolving situation. Details of what happened and why are bound to emerge. It will be interesting to hear Lehner’s perspective when he talks to the media and in 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman noted the “possibility this gets more flammable before it calms.”

How will they get under the cap for next season and who will be in charge of doing it?

Since the owner’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup every year and this team whiffed on the entire post-season, every part of the organization will face scrutiny. The coach and the players will be looked at, but so will the front office.

While it’s fun to have a team like Vegas in on every big move from the outside, it’s also created some headaches and strained the team chemistry. The tight cap situation forced Vegas to start short benches and, if not for the slew of injuries that mounted all season, the team would have been forced into cost-cutting moves at some point.

The Evgenii Dadonov trade/non-trade was an embarrassing moment for the front office. The Jack Eichel move didn’t really pan out this season (more on that next) and last summer’s botched handling of the Fleury trade enraged the fan base. For all the goodwill the team has built up in its first few years of existence, the recent months have raised legitimate questions about how effective the team is being operated. And it’s turned their feel-good story into one many folks are rooting against.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon will go into the off-season on the hot seat and we have to wonder about president of hockey operations (and former GM) George McPhee as well. How high will it go, and how much change does Foley think needs to happen?

While going all-in all the time is great theatre, eventually the Golden Knights need to start building an organization, and that means keeping some prospects to develop. Perhaps missing the playoffs will scare them into considering the future a little more.

And if not with regards to their prospects, will missing the playoffs change Vegas’ approach to team building? Instead of always trying to acquire the most notable name, will they instead look to settle in with more of what they have and keep a core intact to build on?

Of course, that question comes at a time when some sort of change is necessary, not only because this season ended in such crushing disappointment, but also because the cap is still going to need to be managed. Vegas is already projected to be right at next season’s cap ($83.8 million in committed cap hit to 2022-23) and that’s with 11 forwards and seven defencemen. That doesn’t include re-signing Reilly Smith, an original Knight. Dadonov, we’d think, would be a prime candidate to move to a place he has signed off on. That would be a cap move — what other changes could be considered, how much more can this roster endure, and who will be sitting in the front-office chairs to oversee it?

What of Jack Eichel?

Look, Vegas missing the playoffs isn’t all on Jack Eichel. He returned in February from a long recovery after getting disc replacement surgery in his neck, and that was his first game action in 11 months. It would take a little time to get back up to speed, to get a feel for the game and, this was never a full and healthy lineup anyway.

Twelve goals and 22 points in 33 games is a step down for Eichel though, and when the games got really important late in the season Eichel went pointless against Edmonton, New Jersey, Washington, San Jose and Chicago. In Wednesday’s must-win game, a careless pass up the middle in the defensive end from Eichel directly led to a go-ahead goal for the Hawks in the second period.

Buffalo, meantime, far exceeded expectations this season, even though they still finished off the playoff pace. The Sabres were at least showing signs of improvement, especially later on. In six seasons with Eichel on the roster, Buffalo topped out at 81 points (in 2015-16, Eichel’s rookie campaign) and their second-best finish was 78 points when Eichel was a sophomore. That’s when they peaked with him. This season, they’re at 73 points and have two games left — accomplished without their former superstar.

What’s startling is that since Eichel returned to action on Feb. 16, the Golden Knights have a 14-14-5 record and Buffalo is 15-14-3, with a slightly better points percentage.

It’s not that Eichel is the top player to blame in Vegas’ failure, but he was a factor. And the fact is that when you’re making $10 million against the cap and the team moved heaven and earth to acquire you… ya, you’re going to be in focus when things go wrong as much as when they go right.

We’re far enough along into Eichel’s career without any team success to wonder what the heck is going on here. And while the messy rebuilding situation in Buffalo gave him some cover before, there is no hiding from Vegas’ spotlight.

Eichel isn’t a player in danger of moving this off-season, but when he returns in 2022-23 as Vegas’ top centre again, he’ll have to be ready for a monster year and to help Vegas climb back in. Anything short of that and we’ll be having sharper conversations about his on-ice contributions.

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