‘Everyone understands what our goal is’: Can Knights return to contention?

    Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.

LAS VEGAS — Perspective can be everything. Look no further than the Vegas Golden Knights.

Missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last year has led to questions that had never really been asked about the team before. Then again, this is just the sixth season in franchise history, and the Golden Knights actually finished the 2021-22 campaign well above .500 while also posting the second-most victories in a season in their brief existence.

But lofty expectations have become the standard. That is what happens when a franchise reaches the Stanley Cup Final in its first season and the Western Conference finals in two others. Arriving at those heights only to fall short has since fostered a win-at-all costs culture. It has led the Golden Knights to change coaches along with significant portions of their roster at what might be considered a breakneck pace.

This is what happens when winning a Stanley Cup is the only goal that matters.

“I think when you come here to a team like this, your goal should be to win the Stanley Cup,” Golden Knights center Jack Eichel said. “I think we have the players in here to do it. I think that’s the standard this organization holds themselves to. … But it’s such a long way away. Nobody has ever achieved a goal eight months away tomorrow. You have to take care of your business throughout the year and give yourself a chance.”

Here is how perspective comes into play. Is it troubling that the Golden Knights have had three coaches since their first season in 2017-18? Or are they like every other franchise trying to win it all, given there are only three NHL coaches who were in their current jobs before the Golden Knights even played their first game?

Similar philosophical questions can also be asked of their roster. Is the discussion surrounding Eichel more about what impact he can have in his first full season? Or is it actually about asking how potentially dominant he could be in the lineup? The same approach could be taken with all the moving parts surrounding Phil Kessel, Mark Stone and their goaltending.

Also, is this a bit too much for Bruce Cassidy to handle in his first season as head coach? Or is his ability to manage expectations amid potential chaos exactly why the Golden Knights hired a coach who never missed the playoffs during his six seasons with the Boston Bruins?

The answer to all of those questions could depend upon perspective.

“We do have a good team and we had one last year but were always missing three or four of our really good players,” Golden Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault said. “We always had three or four guys on long-term IR. We held the fort as long as we could, got a lot of healthy bodies back by the end and we could not figure out how to win hockey games. … No one talks about us too much, so maybe it’s good that we go back as a little bit of an underdog team. Maybe we can be a surprise.”

The belief was the Golden Knights were going to win the Pacific Division last season while being one of the teams that challenged for the Cup. The reality is they missed the playoffs by three points and it led to the earliest offseason in their short yet largely successful history.

It has since led to discussions about the Golden Knights being strangers in a strange land when it comes to the Western Conference landscape. The Pacific appeared to become more difficult considering the Edmonton Oilers are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender after they reached the conference finals last season. Both the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, who also made the playoffs out of the Pacific, reinforced their rosters in the offseason. The Vancouver Canucks were five points shy of the playoffs. But the progress the Canucks made under Bruce Boudreau creates the belief they could at least challenge for a wild-card berth.

Now add the Central Division to that equation. Five teams from the Central made it to the 2022 playoffs, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. It is possible those same five teams could return to the postseason. And while the Winnipeg Jets must answer questions of their own, they appear to still have the personnel needed to threaten for a playoff spot.

So where do the Golden Knights fit into all of this? Or do they even fit in at all?

“People love to hate us,” Stone said. “People love to hate this team. But when you go to the Cup Final your first year. I mean, I was in Ottawa. I didn’t love seeing a first-year team going to the Cup Final! But now that I am on this team, I realize why they went to the Cup Final. We’ve had success and that makes people want to see us fail.”

But doesn’t this all seem a bit bizarre? Being a Cup contender that missed the playoffs does create cause for some concern. That is to be expected. Yet to hear some talk, it sounds like the Golden Knights are this team at a proverbial crossroads when all they needed were the points from two victories to make the playoffs.

They added Kessel on the cheap. They hired a coach who won the Jack Adams Award within the past three seasons. They were also flexible enough to trade for goalie Adin Hill so they could have another option upon learning Robin Lehner would miss the entire regular season.

Exactly how do players like Stone handle all of this when they have been in previous situations that have been far more dire?

“It is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and we didn’t make the playoffs last year,” Stone said. “So people are writing us off, and that’s fine.”

Nobody in the Golden Knights’ dressing room is ducking the fact they missed the playoffs. But they are also not hiding their optimism either. Veterans such as Marchessault and Stone are proud of the turnout they had for captain’s skates before the team broke for camp. Usually, they will have about 10 players who come in early prior to the preseason.

This year, the Golden Knights had 20 players on the ice for those informal skates.

“It tells me they like each other, otherwise they would not show up that early,” Cassidy said. “Once you are typically back to where you are playing from your offseason home, you are with the guys. … You are at the gym with the guys, at the rink with the guys and probably socializing with the guys. It tells me they are a tight-knit group that wants to settle in and focus.”

Cassidy maintained throughout camp that the lineups were subject to change. But he has kept Eichel with Kessel on a line that also has Reilly Smith. Chandler Stephenson is anchoring a line that has Marchessault and Stone on the wings. William Karlsson is the centerpiece of the third line, while homegrown players such as Paul Cotter keep adding to the belief the Golden Knights could have more bottom-six forward depth than most realize.

Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore are all back. So is Zach Whitecloud. Nicolas Hague remains on injured reserve. But there is depth in the form of Ben Hutton and others they can call up from the AHL. And similar to the situation with Cotter, there are homegrown talents the Golden Knights believe they can trust when called upon.

“I think there are probably a lot of teams in the NHL that look around the room and they have a lot of depth and a lot of good players and a lot of nice pieces,” Eichel said. “They feel like they can be competitive every year, but it’s about how you put it together. It’s about how your team jells. You gotta stay healthy. It’s important to do that. Obviously, as we found out last year. You need a lot of good things to go your way.”

Like, say, maybe goaltending?

The situation surrounding Laurent Brossoit, Michael Hutchinson, Logan Thompson and Hill comes with its own set of questions. Brossoit is still recovering from offseason hip surgery with the thought he could return at a later date. Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon recently said the team will carry three goaltenders to start the regular season.

“I’d say [goaltending] and the power play are what people are talking about here,” Cassidy said. “But the goaltenders and how we have handled it? We’ve discussed it with all of them who are here, including LB, who’s hurt: ‘This is probably the best opportunity you are going to have to be a No. 1 goaltender in the National Hockey League.'”

Cassidy explained to the group the Golden Knights did not lose Lehner and replace him with someone who has previously been a No. 1 elsewhere. They have told all four goaltenders that there is a competition and that they are the ones who will determine what happens next.

Does one of them emerge as the outright No. 1? Or could Cassidy be inclined to use a tandem approach? The way Cassidy views it, that all depends on how his goaltenders respond to what is in front of them.

“I don’t think it’s the issue everyone makes it out to be, but I understand why,” Cassidy said. “When you are not playing, how do you look at a team? You look at them on paper because you cannot look at them any other way. But games are not won on paper.”

So far, the Golden Knights have started the season 4-2. Thompson has started four games and Hill two. It’s a tandem that has stopped 92.9% of combined shots faced while posting a collective 2.17 goals-against average.

Eichel has seven points — three goals and four assists — while Kessel has just one assist. Stone has a goal and four assists to start the season while playing the sort of relentless hockey that has made him a Selke candidate in recent years.

Again, it all goes back to perspective.

Those who are optimistic will point out how it is a better start than last season, when the Golden Knights lost four of their first five games. That same crowd will say winning three straight games at the start of last season could have made a difference in the fight to reach the postseason only to miss out.

Skeptics will counter by saying a team’s identity is something that could be determined by American Thanksgiving at the earliest. That has become the de facto demarcation point for teams that are either playoff-bound or thinking about the draft. That group will also say while the four wins are nice, two of them have come against a potential lottery challenger in the Chicago Blackhawks and the Seattle Kraken, a team that was in the lottery last season.

But for now? Anything seems possible.

“Guys are on the same page, and everyone understands what our goal is and what it’s going to take to get there and the type of commitment and buy-in that we need,” Eichel said. “For us, it is important to stick together as a group, continue to jell, come together, and then when it comes time to do it on the ice, you have to out-compete who you’re playing against. I think that we are a confident group and we can win any hockey game [on] any night.”

Source: Read Full Article