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Las Vegas Golden Knights: The good the bad and the ugly

DeBoer: Golden Knights' loss to Kings 'not our finest effort' - Las Vegas  Sun Newspaper

Throughout their 5 years of existence, the Vegas Golden Knights have remained one of the most intriguing teams in the NHL.

The NHL was proud to have the opportunity of being the first out of the big four professional sports leagues to form a team in Las Vegas.

The success of teams like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Anaheim, had proven that hockey can thrive in the desert. Bringing hockey into a city like Vegas would be pivotal to the growth of the game.

It wouldn’t take long for Las Vegas to become a hockey town with frequent sellout crowds and a devoted fanbase.

The immediate success of the team seemed like the perfect scenario. But coming so close to the Stanley Cup so soon created a team willing to sacrifice anything to get over the hump.

Hockey in the Desert

Heading into the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, Vegas had a lot of factors going in their favor.

Before the expansion draft, the other 30 teams in the league had two options to choose from when making their protection lists. A: Protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie, or B: Protect eight skaters (forwards or defensemen) and one goalie.

With many teams having salary cap issues, Vegas’ GM George McPhee would use those cap issues to their advantage. But first, let’s go back to the protection list rules. No matter which other teams choose, they could only protect one goalie on their NHL roster. This put some big decisions on a lot of teams, including the Pittsburg Penguins.

The choice was to protect either 23-year-old Matt Murray who was the starter for their back-to-back Stanley Cup wins or 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury had been with the team since 2003 and was up with Crosby, Letang, and Malkin in terms of popularity and importance to the team.

The Penguins elected to protect Murray, and Vegas selected their first face of the franchise.

Back to the cap issues and the moves, Vegas made to take advantage. Teams had to resign their players and didn’t have the cap to afford them. So Vegas would trade for those players and part of the trade would include selecting another player with a less than ideal contract.

Two-thirds of the “Misfit Line” were acquired when the Florida Panthers wanted to shed the contacts of Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault to lock up other players. The final piece to that line came with the selection of William Karlsson from the Blue Jackets.

Vegas pulled similar deals to acquire other key players like Alex Tuch and James Neal.

In hindsight, the Golden Knights handled the expansion draft perfectly. Vegas got all the right players and were ready to take the league by storm. However, hardly anyone saw Vegas having any success in their first season. With the hockey world betting against them, the Golden Knights looked to prove everyone wrong.

The Misfits

Heading into their first season, the Golden Knights had a roster full of players with massive chips on their shoulders.

Dubbed “The Golden Misfits,” the Golden Knights players took their labels of players other teams gave away and ran with them. It would turn out that a team made up of players looking to prove doubters wrong would bring unimaginable success.

The Golden Knights didn’t just win, they dominated. Players thought to be just bottom 6 depth players had career years filling the scoresheets every night.

William Karlsson shattered his previous point totals scoring 43 goals and notching 78 points during the 2017-18 season. In one season with Vegas Karlsson scored more points than he had during his entire career up till that point.

Karlsson is just one of many players who shattered expectations that year. There’s also Fleury who finished the season with a record of 29-13-4 with a .927 save percentage.

Everything clicked for Vegas. By the time the regular season ended the Golden Knights had a record of 51-24-7 and 109 points. That record was enough for Vegas to finish 1st in the Pacific Division and 3rd in the Western Conference.

Vegas didn’t just stop at a historic regular season for an expansion team. They didn’t even stop at just the first round of the playoffs. Or the second. Or the third.

The Vegas Golden Knights, in their inaugural season, went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals facing off against the Washington Capitals. Despite their historic run Alex Ovechkin wasn’t going to let an expansion team deny him of his first cup, and Vegas was beaten in 5 games.

Regardless of the loss in the finals, it was obvious that Vegas hit the jackpot. The season was an undeniable success and the Golden Knights looked to finish the job the very next season.

So What’s Next?

Despite their early success, there were still some question marks around the team during the offseason.

Was this season just a fluke? Could players like Karlsson, Smith, and Marchessault continue to produce consistently?

While the tag of lovable misfits was what made the Golden Knights so much more entertaining to watch, McPhee and the rest of the front office knew the team needed a big name to bolster the offense. They decided their guy would be Max Pacioretty.

The Golden Knights would trade Tomas Tatar, who they traded a first-round pick to acquire during the past season, top prospect Nick Suzuki, and a second-round pick in 2019 for Max Pacioretty.

With another established 30-goal scorer on the roster, Vegas was poised to make another run for the cup in their second season. While they weren’t as dominant in their second go around, Vegas made the playoffs again with a 43-32-7 record, finishing 3rd in the Pacific.

Vegas had a good team but wanted to make another big splash. They did so by acquiring Mark Stone at the trade deadline, from the Ottawa Senators. Part of that deal included sending another top prospect, Erik Brannstrom to Ottawa. Vegas would go on to sign Stone to an 8-year contract with a $9.5 million AAV.

The Golden Knights were a powerhouse heading into the 2019 playoffs. They were set to face the San Jose Sharks in the first round, who were looking for payback after being eliminated by Vegas the season before.

The collapse of Vegas against the Sharks is worth its own article, so I’ll quickly sum it up. Vegas saw a 3-1 series lead become a game 7 in San Jose. Then a 3-0 lead in the third period became a historic comeback by the Sharks. Vegas lost game 7, 5-4 in overtime, and were eliminated in the first round.

Vegas wasn’t built to just get bounced in the first round. While the team was as talented as any other contender, Vegas isn’t a city where you can just play it safe.

Doubling Down

The 2019-20 season would begin a trend of odd, kneejerk decisions made by the Golden Knights.

First, on Jan. 15, 2020, the Golden Knights announced the firing of head coach, Gerard Gallant and replacing him with Peter Deboer.

Vegas wasn’t off to the right start that season, but Gallant was a big part of the identity of the team and brought a system that got the team to the cup finals in their first season.

The consensus around the league was that Vegas overreacted with their decision, and some fans believe Gallant should still be their coach.

In another head-scratcher of a move, Vegas traded for Robin Lehner. Lehner was already an established starter-caliber goalie, and Vegas still had Fleury in net. On paper, it looked like Vegas would have one of the best goalie tandems heading into the playoffs, but getting Lehner might’ve done more harm than good.

Trouble in Paradise

Regardless of the strange moves made by Vegas, they made the playoffs once again and were favorites for the cup.

Vegas played well during the early stages of the playoffs, but there were some issues brewing. As the playoffs went along it seemed Deboer favored Lehner over Fleury, and Lehner got more starts.

Fleury’s agent wasn’t a fan of seeing him on the bench most nights and Tweeted a controversial picture that spread like wildfire.

The picture detailed Fleury being impaled through the back by a sword with “DEBOER” spelled on the sword.

The controversy trending all over social media wasn’t doing the team any favors. On the ice, Vegas’ offense came to a screeching halt. The underdog Vancouver Canucks took Vegas all the way to game 7 before Vegas finally prevailed.

The offensive woes would continue in the Western Conference Finals, where Vegas lost in 5 games to the Dallas Stars. Another team they should’ve beaten.

Despite no support offensively, the Vegas fanbase placed most of the blame on Lehner despite him playing well throughout the playoffs.

For another offseason, Vegas had little cap space to work with when it came to signing/resigning, free agents.

Surprisingly, Vegas went after another big name and signed Alex Pietrangelo to a 7-year contract with an $8.8 million AAV. To free up the cap space Vegas would trade Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt.

Almost as quickly as they gained the title, Vegas would shed their identity of “misfits,” and wanted a roster of big names. This meant few players were safe from being traded away to afford more star players.

Vegas would also be quick to trade away picks and prospects to bolster the team now instead of having players in the pipeline for the future.

 Going All In

Entering the 2020-21 season Vegas was placed in the Honda West Division as the league entered a unique season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once again, Vegas remained a Stanley Cup favorite during the majority of the season. A deadly offense supported by a Vezina caliber season by Fleury placed Vegas 2nd in their division.

During the 2021 playoffs, Vegas defeated the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, leaving the Montreal Canadiens standing between them and a finals appearance.

But for the second year in a row, the offense was bone-dry, and Vegas lost to a team they should’ve beaten any other year. This time the loss was inexcusable. Vegas was all but guaranteed a finals appearance but failed yet again.

To add salt to the wound, Marc-Andre Fleury, the very first cornerstone of the franchise, coming off a Vezina winning season, was suddenly traded to Chicago for basically nothing in return.

To then pour lemon juice on the wound, Fleury wasn’t alerted he’d been traded, and found out on social media. The trade nearly caused Fleury to retire from the NHL.

If the message wasn’t clear before, it was now. No one is safe. Regardless of stats, or fan admiration, almost any player might get dealt while chasing the big names.

That next big name would be Jack Eichel. On Nov. 4, 2021, Vegas would send another fan favorite player, Alex Tuch, a former first-round pick, Payton Krebs, and their 2022 first-round pick to Buffalo for Jack Eichel.

Once again Vegas chooses a big-name player over a fan favorite player and promising prospects. The price was even steeper with Eichel needing neck surgery and only playing in 34 games.

Vegas dealt with injuries to their core players almost all season, and for the first time in franchise history, The Golden Knights missed the playoffs.

Present Day

The latest out of Vegas for the 2022 offseason is losing another great player for nothing. On July 13, Vegas traded Max Pacioretty to the Hurricanes for future considerations.

Losing Pacioretty for nothing also means Vegas has nothing to show for trading away Nick Suzuki. Suzuki has proven to be a great young player for Montreal and played a big role in their run to the 2021 cup final.

Vegas continues dealing with its cap issues along with a distinct lack of depth in the organization.

Going into the upcoming season, Vegas will still be a playoff-caliber team if everyone is healthy. But the question is, how long can they keep it?

As their core gets older the team lacks the top prospects to fill in the gaps. It’ll be very intriguing to see where this team ends up around five years from now.

Will they still be a contender? Will they have any decent young prospects? Once they reach the bottom will they have any cups to bring down with them?

Only time will tell the answers to these questions. But for now, Vegas has obtained a bad reputation for its treatment of players, and staff.

In their five years of existence, Vegas went from the lovable underdogs, to a team fans like to cheer against. They’ve soured their reputation, and haven’t shown signs of changing that.

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