A puck shot by Vancouver Canucks left wing Tanner Pearson (not pictured) gets past Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner (90) during the second period of an NHL hockey game at T-Mobile Arena Wednesday, April 6, 2022.
Pete DeBoer has coached in the NHL for 14 years and has never seen a team this injured.
Not even close,” DeBoer said. “You hope this is an aberration.
There is a myriad of factors one could argue that ultimately decided the Golden Knights’ fate this season, missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history. But the one consistently held belief, as Vegas held its end-of-season availability at City National Arena on Tuesday, was if they fielded a half-healthy roster, the Golden Knights would have been one of the 16 teams playing for the Stanley Cup.
Instead, the Golden Knights — who lost more than 500 man games due to injury this season — will take the extra couple of months this offseason to get healthy and prepare for a run in 2023.
“The potential of the group sits as a pit in your stomach because at the beginning of the year, we all recognized what could have been,” DeBoer said. “When you’re watching playoff hockey last night, you know with a healthy group, we should be right there.”
The Golden Knights finished the season with 94 points, a number that in past seasons could’ve been good enough to get into the playoffs. Vegas had 93 points in 2018-19 as the No. 3 seed in the Pacific Division with a seven-point cushion.
While that team came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and added reinforcements like Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, this year’s iteration of the Golden Knights did the same following consecutive conference final appearances. They re-tooled with an offseason trade for Evgenii Dadonov and, ultimately, landing Jack Eichel from Buffalo in November.
But Vegas could not recover from missing Stone (45 games, back), Pacioretty (43 games, multiple injuries), Alec Martinez (56 games, facial laceration) and Robin Lehner (shoulder and knee injuries in the second half of the season), to name a few.
“I only played 39 games, and it was the most tiring year of my career,” Pacioretty said. “When you have those bone injuries, there’s not much you can do.”
Stone came back with nine games remaining and did not look 100 percent. He scored his first goal in the season finale in St. Louis, but finished with two points down the stretch.
“Definitely take positives from a negative season, and I’m going to have time to heal,” said Stone, adding he’s talked with players around the league that have gone through what he has. “It’s never easy to rehab injuries during the season. You always want to try and rush yourself, get yourself back in. I think I made a couple mistakes throughout the season trying to get back too quick. Obviously, [I] wanted to give it a try and help get this team in, but obviously disappointing.”
Continuity from an on-ice standpoint factored, from at least the Golden Knights’ perspective, into the team struggling to find a rhythm when the calendar turned to 2022. General manager Kelly McCrimmon said his goal was for Vegas to be a .500 team by the end of November (12-10-0 as of Dec. 1) with room for improvement at the end of December.
The Golden Knights were in first place in the division via points by the new year.
Despite the injuries and commending DeBoer and his staff for keeping the Golden Knights afloat, McCrimmon felt more need to be done in the second half of the season.
“To have a championship team, you need to get better over the course of the year. I’ve always been a believer that your team has to be better in the second half than it was in the first half,” McCrimmon said. “Our team didn’t do that because we never had the continuity in our lineup to grow as a group together.
“I want to be clear: I’m very disappointed we did not make the playoffs. I believe strongly that we could’ve and should’ve. As much as being realistic on the impact injuries had on our season, I believe we had it in our control to become a playoff team.”
That run went to Game 81 before the Golden Knights were eliminated from postseason contention, a stretch that saw three straight losses in a shootout where they went 0-for-17 combined and two of them went to the seventh round.
McCrimmon said forward Reilly Smith, an unrestricted free agent this summer who missed the final month due to an undisclosed injury, would’ve been available for the playoffs. Forward Brett Howden (upper body) and defenseman Nic Hague (undisclosed) would not have been available right away, but could’ve been options had Vegas advanced.
The Golden Knights played 248 games since the 2019-20 season, with only the two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning (256) having played more. Two postseasons were played in a seven-month span, with Vegas reaching the final four twice.
DeBoer said he won’t make the excuse that injuries were the main reason why the Golden Knights are not playing right now, but it’s a factor that can’t be ignored.
“The injuries bled into everything,” DeBoer said. “The injuries bled into our leadership because of who wasn’t in the dressing room. It bled into our special teams. It bled into being able to be a four-line team and play the way we want to play, take over in games with pressure and do those things, play the type of hockey Vegas is used to playing.
“I think there’s always things there, but I think everything bled from that.”