George McPhee enjoyed the few days off he gave himself during the All-Star break. Then it was back to work on Monday for the Vegas Golden Knights’ general manager.
The bye week is normally a time for rest; a chance to unwind. Players are off on vacation in other countries, enjoying time with their loved ones and families. When I asked McPhee if he was at least somewhat enjoying his time off, he obliged and said he was.
“But it’s been a hectic couple of days,” McPhee told me.
What those past couple of days have entailed, we’ll never know. But for at least the next month, it will be a busy time for McPhee. He’s pirating the ship of a second-year franchise that is more than likely going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons. The situation isn’t as fluid as it was last year, though. The Golden Knights are third in the Pacific Division; three points behind San Jose and nine behind the red-hot Flames. But they’re 10 points clear of Vancouver for third place.
It’ll likely take a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-like collapse for Vegas to fall out of the playoff picture. The Golden Knights are in a good spot. McPhee took a Stanley Cup Final team and made it better with the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. Yet, he feels the Golden Knights are on the cusp of becoming the team they can be once the nicks and bruises heal.
“We’ve played well. We believe we can play better,” McPhee said. “If we can get a touch healthier, it’ll be interesting to see what we can do. We like the additions to our team this year — Pacioretty, Stastny, [Brandon] Pirri, [Nick] Holden — they have all been very good additions. We’re fine with how the season has gone to date, but we’ve got another 30 games here to see if we can play even better.”
The Golden Knights are starting to get healthy; defenseman Colin Miller just returned to the lineup after missing a month with a concussion. Stastny, who missed two months with a lower-body injury, has 18 points in 18 games and entered the break with a five-game point streak. Alex Tuch, the 22-year-old power forward who has become the best skater on the Golden Knights this season, missed eight games to start the season but has 40 points in 44 games.
Adding Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason was McPhee’s way of bolstering a second line that needed to play a better 200-foot game. Their veteran presence has impacted Tuch in such a way that he’s outplaying the seven-year, $33.25 million contract extension that McPhee signed him to in October. When Erik Haula suffered a potential season-ending leg injury in early November, Cody Eakin moved to second-line center and put forth the best month of hockey in his career (eight goals, seven assists in 15 games from Nov. 6 - Dec. 4).
“The young players learn important things from the veteran players,” McPhee said. There’s been a lot of learning and a lot of teaching from the veteran players. We just liked the way Tuch played last year. We liked his upside.
“We’ve had different players on that line that have played well together. It happens to be a very stable line right now and one that’s been effective for the club.”
“We like our club as is.”
The Golden Knights are in one of those weird positions where they can be aggressive at the trade deadline, but can stand pat at the same time. But if the Golden Knights strive for a top-two finish in the Pacific Division, going all-in at the deadline might be something Vegas goes for.
McPhee is going to use the time between now and Feb. 25 to evaluate his roster. Part of that, per his words, will depend on the health of the club. If the Golden Knights reach full health — with the exception of Haula — McPhee may not make a move.
“Over the next month, we’d like to see if our injured players we can get back in the lineup, and then assess how we are,” he said. “We like our club as is. We think we’re a solid club when we’re healthy. We’ll just monitor the injury situation over the next two, three weeks, and see what we get back and we’ll go from there.”
Vegas has been linked to names such as Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn for middle-six firepower. The possibility of adding another defenseman is a wildcard, but shipping Brad Hunt to Minnesota means a call-up from Chicago is more the direction for the blueline, should a move be needed.
McPhee holds the cards. How he plays them will be a situation to monitor over the next few weeks.
When the Golden Knights started the season 8-11-1, mass hysteria was expected. There’s hardly any patience when in the NHL. If things don’t go right, clean house is normally the first option.
But Vegas had to deal with more than just the absence of Nate Schmidt; Stastny’s injury, Haula’s injury, the worry of Marc-Andre Fleury being reduced to rubble by February. I asked McPhee how important it was to maintain patience during those first 20 games, knowing this wasn’t the finished product:
“It’s often difficult to pinpoint why you don’t think you’re meeting your own expectations. We did have injuries all over the lineup at that time. Tuch wasn’t in, Stastny wasn’t in, Pacioretty wasn’t in, Schmidt wasn’t in. You can look at it and say that may be a reason why we’re not playing the way we can.
“You can look at the schedule and say, ‘geez, it was a very difficult schedule. We played a lot on the road.’ It’s hard to know, really, why things aren’t going the way you want them to. With any season, you just focus on the next game and hope to get going. From a management standpoint, you have to be patient. They finally got into a rhythm and played some good hockey for a while.”
Vegas went 21-8-3 over its next 32 games entering the break. They resume play Friday at Carolina against a young and talented Hurricanes squad. That patience will be tested quickly and suddenly for McPhee.
He likes this team, though, regardless of how it looks in less than a month.
“We all know that every year is different, and this is a very good league,” he said. “The bottom line is, it’s a heck of a league. We’re in a tough conference and a tough division. We’re just focused on doing the very best with our club and trying to win the next game.
“Nothing has changed from management. We all focus on trying to win the next game. We believe this team is every bit as good, maybe better, than last year’s team, when everyone’s in and we’re all healthy.”