During a news conference Feb. 14, Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon was asked whether captain Mark Stone, who the team announced that day was being shut down with a back injury, would be ready when the postseason started.
“We have to make the playoffs before we play games in May,” McCrimmon replied. “I don’t like to stand here and just assume that that’s happening when you look at how tight the races are and everything else.”
At the time, it seemed preposterous to think the Knights could miss the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They were first in the Pacific Division by points, the offense was producing and the penalty kill was ranked in the top 10.
But following a second-half nosedive, the Knights are left to sift through the rubble as they figure out why a team with more than $92 million on the payroll will be on the golf course when the postseason begins.
“This is a competitive league. There’s a lot of parity. You can’t take for granted playoff positioning, playoffs or playoff runs,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “It’s a hard league, and the tilting point sometimes is really small. Whether it’s injuries, execution, finding a way to win a game, hot goalie. Those things often separate everybody at the end of the day. We’re not the first franchise to go through this.”
Any examination of the Knights’ shortcomings this season must start with injuries. There were more than 500 man-games lost because of injury or illness, and a franchise-high 39 players appeared in at least one game.
Stone left during the second game with a non-contact injury and ended up missing 45 of the team’s 82 games. He was a shell of himself after being activated from long-term injured reserve with one goal and one assist in the final nine games.
The lengthy list of key players who missed significant time also includes defenseman Alec Martinez (56 games) and wingers Max Pacioretty (43 games) and Reilly Smith (24 games). The Knights were never able to develop chemistry or cohesiveness with their forward lines or defense pairs, as a result.
“A lot’s being said and made of the injuries we’ve had, but at the same time we have such great depth,” Pacioretty said. “You expect to at least get into the playoffs with that, with that adversity.
“We have it all. But at the same time, everyone knows that hard work beats that talent on paper and chemistry is probably what’s most important, on and off the ice.”
The Knights struggled on special teams and were unable to develop an identity. The switch in training camp from an aggressive 1-1-2 forecheck to the 1-1-3 didn’t have the desired effect, either.
DeBoer tried to turn a team that was built on an attacking mindset into a passive counterpuncher. Instead, the Knights’ high-priced offensive talent never seemed to buy in to the clog-it-up style of play required to thrive in that system.
As the goals dried up after the All-Star break, the Knights were forced to push for offense and frequently left themselves exposed in the back. A season after giving up the fewest goals in the league, the Knights ranked 15th and allowed a franchise-record 244 goals in 82 games.
Part of that falls on the goaltending. Robin Lehner struggled through an array injuries from the middle of December on, but also battled inconsistency.
All of those issues reached their boiling point during the final two weeks of the season when DeBoer criticized Lehner after a costly loss to New Jersey on April 18 and pulled him at the end of the first period against Washington two nights later.
The team announced Lehner was having season-ending shoulder surgery Monday and now face significant questions about the goaltending position for the third straight offseason after publicly mishandling the situation.
Ultimately, those distractions and the immense internal pressure to perform were too much, as the Knights buckled under the weight of expectations. Rather than playing loose down the stretch, the threat of losing their job if they came up short seemed to paralyze players in key moments.
The Knights dropped points against non-playoff teams Vancouver (twice), New Jersey and San Jose in the final month and lost three straight shootouts in the final week, failing to score on 17 straight attempts.
Despite finishing with 94 points, the second-highest total in franchise history, they’re on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Now, the Knights enter a crucial offseason that will shape the team’s immediate future. Does DeBoer return for his fourth season? Will there be a shakeup in the front office? What happens to the roster?
According to CapFriendly.com and PuckPedia.com, the Knights are projected to be more than $1 million over the salary cap with 18 players signed. That doesn’t include Smith, who remains an unrestricted free agent, or restricted free agents such as Nic Hague, Keegan Kolesar and Nicolas Roy.
In other words, expect plenty of changes before next season.
“We’re fortunate enough to have the chance to make the playoffs and have a team good enough to do it, and we didn’t cash in, so just learn from this,” leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault said. “Obviously, move on. Take the long summer to get ready, and (be) ready to go right off the get go.”