Oh, September of 2021 Me. So wide-eyed, full of hope and naive. Revisiting preseason predictions is a dicey exercise fraught with the potential for embarrassment at the best of times, but when the team you cover begins the season as a viable Stanley Cup threat and ends a bloated, battered and cap-handcuffed mess that misses the playoffs, it’s going to be ugly. Nevertheless, I’m not the type to only highlight my wins, so let’s get to my most dreaded post of the year.
Here are my preseason Vegas Golden Knights predictions, revisited:
1) Vegas Sets a New Franchise Points Record
Yeah, not a good start. For my prediction to have come to fruition, the Golden Knights would’ve needed to record 110 points and best their expansion season (109 points). Ultimately, they fell 16 points short of that mark. Their 94 points actually represented the club’s second-highest total ever, but that can mostly be explained by the two pandemic-shortened campaigns that preceded it.
If we measure by points percentage – which is really the only fair way to compare seasons of different lengths – then the 2021-22 campaign wasn’t even close. This past season produced a .573 mark, down precipitously from the league-best .732 they posted the year prior. They were still slightly worse in 2018-19 (.567), but I’m not sure that’s a win they want to hang their hat on.
In making this pick, I accounted not only for a better, healthier Knights team, but anticipated a weak Pacific Division. While the division certainly wasn’t overly strong (it was the only one that didn’t require 100 points for entry into the top three), the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings made unforeseen strides while the Edmonton Oilers gathered just enough talent around their otherworldly duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
2) Lehner Stays Healthy and Holds His Own
In short, no and no. Robin Lehner‘s numbers (2.83 goals-against average, .907 save percentage) were practically the definition of mediocrity. Of netminders that started 40-plus games, the Swede ranked 20th in GAA and 23rd in save percentage. Much of that can be blamed on the 30-year-old’s health, which held him to just 44 games. Then there was the strange mix-up over his late-season status that could signal a disconnect between player and team.
While the health aspect of my prediction is indisputably wrong (why would I ever make any kind of prediction about a player’s health?), the notion of Lehner “holding his own” is vague enough that I suppose I could get partial credit. As underwhelming as those numbers are, he was only about 1/10th of a goal off his career GAA and .01 off his career save percentage. Hey, I’m taking whatever small victories I can!
3) Stephenson Finishes the Season as No. 1 Center
Hey, I got one right! The Golden Knights’ final game of the season was a meaningless 7-4 win in St. Louis which did, indeed, feature Chandler Stephenson centering Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty on the top line. He didn’t hit the scoresheet, even though his linemates each recorded a goal.
That said, context is important here. Vegas was playing out the string here and it’s entirely possible that head coach Pete DeBoer was tinkering in a way he wouldn’t have been with something on the line. Jack Eichel, for instance, was assigned third-line duty where he produced two goals and one assist. Stephenson enjoyed a strong season (21 goals, 64 points) as one of the few lineup constants, but the No. 1 center job is Eichel’s to lose moving forward.
4) Theodore Enters the Norris Conversation
The Norris finalists have been announced and, no, Shea Theodore was not one of the three names mentioned. To his credit, Theodore’s impressive season did see him finish third in team scoring with career-highs of 14 goals and 52 points from the blue line. Still, that was only good enough to rank him 14th league-wide, a world away from the Norris-hopeful triumvirate of Roman Jose, Cale Makar and Victor Hedman.
In truth, Golden Knights fans will probably have to remain content with Theodore as a critical component of Vegas’ back end and, perhaps, a potential All-Star (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). There’s simply too big a gap between Josi, Makar and Hedman, who produced 96, 86 and 85 points each, respectively, and the 26-year-old. And if you are going to suggest that Theodore is still developing as a player, bear in mind that Makar is 23 and reigning Norris winner Adam Fox is 24.
5) The New Guys: Dadonov Thrives, Patrick Struggles
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say Evgeny Dadonov “thrived” during his first year in Vegas, a 20-goal season is pretty strong production from a player who spent much of the year on the third line. Of course, the 33-year-old Russian’s central legacy for the 2021-22 season (and possible for his career as a Golden Knight) will be his voided trade to Anaheim at the Trade Deadline after it was deemed to be in violation of his limited no-trade clause.
Nolan Patrick, meanwhile, continued an unfortunate career trend of proving unable to stay healthy for long stretches of play. The 2017 No. 2 overall pick sadly added to his long history of head injuries after being hit by Colorado’s Nathan Mackinnon during a February game. While he returned for a handful of games in March, he subsequently missed time with a mysterious malady that ended his season.
6) Pete DeBoer Breaks Up the Second Line
If only DeBoer had enough control over his active, healthy charges this season to actually have viable line options! The Misfit line of Vegas originals William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith were undone by injuries to Karlsson and Smith, leaving a steady diet of Dadonov, Eichel, Stephenson and Amadio to join the line at times.
Given Smith’s impending unrestricted free agency and Vegas’ cap situation, there’s a better than fair chance that the Misfit line has played their final game together. It would mark a sad end to a surprisingly enduring trio, albeit one that didn’t really carry its typical impact during the 2021-22 season.
7) Krebs Becomes an NHL Regular
Well, the final stat line on Peyton Krebs‘ season reads 22 points over 57 games, which represents more games played than Smith, Pacioretty, Stone, Eichel and Alec Martinez. One thing my prediction never mentioned was which team he would be an NHL regular for. Without a clear path to meaningful minutes in Vegas, Krebs became one of the centerpiece components in the Eichel trade, becoming a lineup regular for the Buffalo Sabres.
Given that the 21-year-old had played just nine games prior to the trade and then 48 after, it was clearly a beneficial move for Krebs’ career. The transition to the NHL wasn’t always smooth, as his minus-26 plus/minus would indicate, but the former Kootenay Ice star offered enough encouraging positives to leave Sabres management excited about his development and probably afford him an inside track on a spot among the forward corps to start next season.
8) The Golden Knights Stand Pat at the Trade Deadline
Welcome to our “unintentionally hilarious in hindsight” prediction. As we now know, the Golden Knights did stand pat at the deadline, although that had more to do with the NHL enforcing inconvenient things like no-trade clauses than Vegas’ decision to remain idle. McCrimmon’s attempt to ease the cap by trading Dadonov and his $5 million salary to the Ducks failed spectacularly, adding an embarrassing insult to the injury of a lost season.
For as much as a thing remains a black mark on McCrimmon and the Vegas front office for not properly accounting for Dadonov’s NTC, there remains the possibility that this doesn’t turn out so badly for Vegas. Dadonov managed five goals and 16 points in 16 games after the trade deadline fiasco and Golden Knights management still found a way to get Stone back from long-term injury reserve for a couple of doomed, end-of-season desperation games.
Of course, the Dadonov story has not yet wrapped in Vegas, as the Russian remains on the books for another year at $5 million. Accordingly, the club could resume its efforts to unload his salary this summer. Now, they just have to make sure they do it the right way.
9) Changes are Coming Next Summer
Even before the Eichel trade and this season’s disappointing performance, it was clear that the current roster simply wasn’t sustainable and that change would be needed. In my prediction, I cited the raft of impending free agents and the hoped-for emergence of prospects.
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Among those free agents, new deals have already been worked out with Brayden McNabb and Zach Whitecloud, while Michael Amadio and Ben Hutton received low-risk extensions for their depth roles. That leaves guys like Smith and Mattias Janmark as possible losses, while restricted free agents Nicolas Hague, Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar could be in for tough negotiations. Vegas hopes that guys like Brendan Brisson, Kaedan Korczak and Ivan Morozov are ready to challenge for spots soon.
Of course, Vegas’ cap problem looms larger than a few contracts for depth players. Pacioretty’s $7 million, Karlsson’s $5.9 million, Dadonov’s $5 million and even Lehner’s $5 million could all be moved in pursuit of flexibility. And if McCrimmon can find a taker for Laurent Brossoit and his $2.325 million cap hit, that would be some masterful GM work.
10) Vegas Returns to the Stanley Cup Final
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.