Courtesy: nhl
Photo Credit: NHL Rumors

Chris Gawlik’s New VGK Weekly Update – 9-21-2020 – Season 3 Wrap Up

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Las Vegas is different than any other place in the world. From dining, to gambling, to entertainment, and other recreational activities. There was one thing that was always missing, a professional sports franchise.

 

The Vegas Golden Knights continued the Vegas way of doing things differently by making it to a Stanley Cup Final in their first year and being a Stanley Cup contending team since inception. The first three seasons have been filled with every sports emotion imaginable. From jubilation to heartbreak, we have experienced it all; admittedly more heartbreak as of late.

 

Vegas Golden Knights
Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-2020 VGK campaign was a memorable one. The first big shakeup in franchise history occurred on January 15th, 2020, when former coach Gerard Gallant was fired and immediately replaced by Coach Pete DeBoer. VGK had just dropped three straight at TMobile Arena and the first game of the road trip against the Buffalo Sabres.

The front office felt the team was better than its record, and it was time for a change. Fans were extremely emotional over the decision. Little did everyone know, something more controversial was going to happen once the playoffs would start.

The team rallied to win the Pacific Division in a season that was shortened by Covid-19 and earned the number one seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. DeBoer got some roster help when VGK traded for Alec Martinez, Nick Cousins, and Robin Lehner after his arrival. The team had already traded for Chandler Stephenson in early December.

 

VGK had early success in their “bubble” in Edmonton. Wins against Dallas, St. Louis, and Colorado earned VGK the number one seed in the Western Conference.

 

The Chicago Blackhawks did not give Vegas much of a fight as that series only lasted five games. VGK stormed out to a three games to one lead over Vancouver; however VGK had issues scoring and would need to win game seven to advance. That was the moment something did not feel right about this VGK team.

Dallas made quick work of Vegas in the Conference Final, and that was that.

 

Golden Knights
Photo Credit: Allan Walsh Twitter

What went wrong in the playoffs? There was plenty of drama around the starting goalie, but I do not believe that caused a distraction amongst the players. VGK’s defense and goaltending was solid in Edmonton. Scoring was the biggest issue. VGK ran into two hot goalies in Thatcher Demko and Anton Khudobin. VGK scored twenty-six goals in their final twelve playoff games. VGK forwards happen to count for over fifty million dollars of our salary cap for those wondering. It is tough to advance when you only average 2.16 goals per game.

I always find the exit interviews interesting. VGK players and staff come across as very genuine. During Wednesday’s interviews, the players offered insightful answers and even took time to make sure they fully understood the questions being asked. Of course, there were moments when some of the players seemed a bit annoyed with what was being asked, which is just part of the game. Everyone on VGK gets a pass as the last fifty-plus days in the bubble have taken a toll.

Some of the common things I heard from the players were; “wasted opportunity,” “the best team I ever played on,” “never want to experience this again,” and many remarks eluding to missing playing in front of fans.

Note that Alec Martinez said this VGK team was the best team he has ever played on. Martinez was also a part of the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings teams. That is also what fueled the “wasted opportunity” comments. As far as players never wanting to experience the bubble again goes, that was not a shot by any means at the NHL for how they handled the pandemic. The players felt they were away from their families for too long.

 

Coach Pete DeBoer gave a lengthy explanation into “Lehner vs Fleury.”

 

To summarize his statements, Lehner played at an elite level upon his arrival. Fleury played at a very good level. Coming out of the pause, DeBoer had the mindset that if both goalies played at an equal level that Flower would start, out of respect. Flower came into camp and had an injury while Lehner played at an elite level. Each goalie got two starts during the round-robin, and Lehner continued at his elite level while Fleury was very good. “We made that tough decision.  I don’t regret that.”

DeBoer owes no one not named Fleury, Lehner, McCrimmon, McPhee, and Foley an explanation. Let us be clear about that. Now that we got our reason, how do we feel? Is the anger gone? Did Lehner cost Vegas the Stanley Cup? Do we trust DeBoer? Here are my answers to those questions; never had any anger, Lehner gave VGK the best chance to win the Stanley Cup, and yes, I trust Mr. DeBoer.

 

Shifting gears a bit, our first three seasons have been disappointments. Wait, the plan was playoffs in three and cup in six… and our first three seasons are categorized as disappointments?

 

This is the same team that was three games from winning a Stanley Cup, got screwed by a major that was not, and made it a Conference Final. Yes, every one of those seasons was a disappointment. Season one gets somewhat of a pass, given the extraordinary circumstances. I mean, how hard can we really be on “the best expansion season ever?” A little hard, as VGK was favored from an odds making perspective, and won game one. Season two ended with a horrible call by the referees.

 

Golden Knights vs Canucks
Photo Credit: Nucks Misconduct

However, VGK slumped down the stretch and coughed up a three games to one lead. Season three almost ended by coughing up a three games to one lead. It ultimately ended by getting outplayed by a team that was far worse on paper.

Teams are lucky to experience the level of success that VGK has in a single decade. For other franchises, it can be multiple decades until they see a three-year run like VGK has had. The hope is that management can keep the right pieces in place for VGK to continue to compete for, and eventually win, a Stanley Cup. It will be a shame if it is all downhill for the next few years.

 

That is a possible reality that must be acknowledged.

 

What will next season’s roster look like?

 

According to CapFriendly, the following players do not have contracts for next season; Nick Cousins (RFA), Chandler Stephenson (RFA), Tomas Nosek (UFA), Jon Merrill (UFA), Deryk Engelland (UFA), and Robin Lehner (UFA). We love Deryk Engelland, but there is no space for him on the VGK roster. The only way he is playing professional hockey in Vegas next season is as a Silver Knight, and I would not rule that out.  It would be a storybook ending for a career that will have gone full circle.

The price would have to be right for VGK to resign Jon Merrill and Tomas Nosek. Both have had excellent contributions to VGK, but there is only so much money to go around. Nick Cousins and Chandler Stephenson were nice acquisitions, and I think VGK finds a way for both to return.

Goaltending will be the biggest storyline in VGK’s offseason. Here are the possible scenarios in order of which I believe will happen:

  • Lehner stays, and VGK trades Fleury.
  • Fleury stays, and VGK does not resign Lehner.
  • VGK trades Fleury and does not resign Lehner.
  • Fleury stays, and VGK resigns Lehner.

Coach DeBoer used Lehner for nearly all the postseason games. Fleury magically becoming the starter again in Vegas seems unlikely. Not unimaginable, just not likely. It would tie up too much salary cap space to keep Lehner and Fleury both on the roster.

As odd as it seems, there is a backdoor chance that we do not see Lehner or Fleury in a VGK uniform next season. Let me explain; at the end of next season, there will be an expansion draft for the Seattle KrakenVGK will not have to give up any players in the expansion draft. That means teams may be willing to part ways with some incredibly talented players on the cheap that they are unable to protect.

Perhaps there is a path for VGK to be competitive with Oscar Dansk and one of the many goaltending free agents to hit the market in October? Teams will be shopping players heavily as the deadline gets closer for the 2020-2021 campaign. VGK would have a lot of flexibility to make some creative moves.

Having elite goaltending is important, but it does not matter who your goaltender is if you only score eight goals in five playoff games.

 

VGK vs Stars
Photo Credit: Knights On Ice

While the start date of the 2020-2021 campaign is unknown, what we do know is VGK is going to be busy this offseason making deals. There is a rumored handshake deal between VGK and Lehner that is five years at five million per. If that is true, the first domino that must fall is Fleury. It is anyone’s guess as to what happens next.

Does VGK shop players like Nate Schmidt or Brayden McNabb to add another forward? Could any of our top six or seven forwards be moved for a different type of defensemen? Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee are aggressive; we know that much. I think we see some shakeups that are unexpected to free up cap space. Look for Cody Glass and Peyton Krebs to be on the opening day roster. Nicolas Hague got great experience during this season and should take a step forward.

VGK has plenty of reinforcements should the team try to free up some cap space.

 

Season three is in the books. In true Vegas Golden Knights style, it was another memorable season.

GO KNIGHTS GO!!

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-Chris Gawlik – Franchise Sports Media

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