The Golden Knights returned home for the first time since their deflating five-game loss in the Western Conference Final. Now, comes what will undoubtedly be the most intriguing offseason in their three-year history.
Losing to the Dallas Stars wasn’t how the Golden Knights envisioned their Stanley Cup Playoff run — one that included a sweep of the round robin and two series victories, including a Game 7 for the first time — coming to an end.
While there’s plenty to be optimistic about for what was another successful playoff trip for the young franchise, Vegas failed to win the Stanley Cup for the third year in a row.
“I have a really renewed respect for this group,” said coach Pete DeBoer. “They were all-in from Day 1. There wasn’t one murmur or whisper from anyone in there. ... Their mental toughness and what they were committed to was very admirable.”
But this offseason that’s coming up could be franchise-altering for the Golden Knights. The NHL Draft is Oct. 6, with free agency following Oct. 9. By count, the Golden Knights have three weeks to concoct a plan to get ready for next season, whenever and wherever that may be.
There are questions to be answered between now and early October for the Golden Knights. We limited it to five.
Who’s the starting goalie next year?
Might as well get it out of the way now because we’ll be hearing about it until something happens.
Before the Golden Knights do anything in free agency, the domino line starts with Robin Lehner and his pending unrestricted free agency.
Multiple reports indicate the Golden Knights and Lehner are in agreement on a five-year contract that would surface around $5 million per year. Nothing has been finalized, obviously, but unless something hits a snag, the Golden Knights are committed to Lehner for the long term.
That leads into what happens to Fleury. It’s hard to imagine the face of the franchise taking a back seat to Lehner for a full year. Fleury has two years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $7 million. A possible suitor will be tough to find via the trade market without the Golden Knights retaining salary.
“When we traded for Robin, when you look at the stats the previous two years, he’s been an elite goalie for two different teams, two different situations, in almost every category,” DeBoer said. “Robin played at an elite level, and Flower played at a very good level. I went in with the idea that if both guys played at an equal level, we would’ve given Flower the starts out of respect and for what he’s done for the franchise here.”
DeBoer said Fleury coming into training camp with an injury and missing the first week of camp resumption played a factor into this
“We made that tough decision, and I don’t regret that,” DeBoer said.
Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon traded for Lehner at the deadline with the understanding he wanted to improve the goaltending behind Fleury, and he’s done that. Even though he said that he trusts DeBoer with all lineup and goalie decisions, it’s doubtful McCrimmon even expected it to come to this — with Fleury’s agent Allan Walsh tweeting the old sword photo.
It’s a bridge that might have been burned once Walsh hit ‘tweet.’ How the Golden Knights handle it will be a delicate situation for everyone involved. But it’s like DeBoer said: If Lehner gives Vegas the best chance to win, who are we to judge?
Is the core about to be broken up?
While the Golden Knights have experienced plenty of roster turnover since Year 1, the core has stayed intact. William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, just to name a few, have kept the identity of the Golden Knights through three playoff appearances and one coaching change.
Is the core’s time up?
This isn’t to say the Golden Knights should clean up shop and get players that best fit DeBoer’s style. But one has to wonder if the Golden Knights need to drastically change things up. It’s not just the fact Marchessault went without a goal in the final 11 games, how Smith had two goals in 15 games, or Karlsson with two goals in 14 games.
There’s even Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb struggling this postseason. What about Alex Tuch returning to form? All of these need to be addressed.
DeBoer and McCrimmon both agreed that it’s not so much that improvements need to be made personnel wise, but that playing better in the playoffs is the solution.
“When I took the job, the MO on this team was, great rush team but we didn’t have a lot of that 5-on-5 -zone offense,” DeBoer said. “That was something we continued to work on. Come playoff time, teams take away the rush. I thought our group definitely got better at the offensive zone game and getting used to that, but it’s something we’ve got to continue to work at.”
The offense was absolutely a work in progress and it showed in the playoffs. The Golden Knights averaged 3.75 goals through the first 12 playoff games, down to 1.5 goals in the final eight.
What about free agency?
We already talked about Lehner and what his impending unrestricted free agency, and that’s only one major question to answer.
There’s the matter of Chandler Stephenson and Nick Cousins entering restricted free agency. Tomas Nosek, Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill will also be unrestricted free agents all unlikely returning.
McCrimmon said he approached Engelland about a potential trade leading up to the deadline — due to Zach Whitecloud’s ascension to the NHL roster and the acquisition of Alec Martinez prior to the trade deadline — to give the veteran a chance to play on a Stanley Cup contender. Engelland chose to stay with Vegas to be a mentor for the younger players while being available whenever called upon.
As for what that means with Engelland moving forward, it’s highly unlikely the Golden Knights bring him back with the influx of young defensemen available for the Henderson Silver Knights.
Now, the unlikely scenario: How invested do the Golden Knights get in free agency? Vegas hasn’t been big spenders in two offseasons; outside of Year 1 signing Paul Stastny, Nick Holden and Ryan Reaves, Vegas has been too strapped to the cap of being able to do anything. CapFriendly has the Golden Knights at approximately $4.94 million in cap space.
Let’s say the Golden Knights do move on from Fleury — maybe Marchessault or Stastny. The cap space opens up for, say, Alex Pietrangelo, someone who fits exactly what DeBoer is trying to do. Maybe a TJ Brodie at the right price.
While the cap space may not be there, all it takes is a move or two to shake things up.
Did Mark Stone solidify the captaincy in the playoffs?
DeBoer confirmed that the Golden Knights will have their first ever captain next season. The clubhouse leader since he first mentioned this was Stone, and in fact, all signs point to him being the first captain in franchise history.
The way Stone played in Game 5 against Dallas was the moment that sealed the deal. After taking a puck to the foot in Game 4, while still playing through the third period, Stone was clearly laboring that injury in Game 5. He had five shots in 19:08, the second highest time for a forward only behind Karlsson.
“I was able to manage and feel as close to 100 percent as I could,” Stone said.
From the moment Stone was acquired by the Golden Knights, he’s been given the captain treatment and he’s run with it as best he can. He’s earned it, and he’s shown that even if he can’t score points, he’s got the toughness label this team has needed.
Get ready to wear your 61 jerseys with the ‘C’ patch.
When are we getting hockey again?
I wish we knew. I wish we all knew.
The 50-plus days we’ve watched hockey in a bubble has been an amazing reprieve from everything that’s happened the past six months. It’s been refreshing.
But as far as what happens for next year, or when the Golden Knights will play a hockey game and whether it’s in a bubble or T-Mobile Arena, that’s the great unknown.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said defenseman Shea Theodore. “I think the rough plan is sometime in December we’ve been told that’s when we’re going to start.”
The players might not have an idea for when we’re back to hockey, and neither do we, All we can do is be patient and make sure we provide the coverage that we can to get through another uncertain time.
The Golden Knights should still be a good team next season, whenever that may be.