How did the Golden Knights become so unlikeable?
Not long ago, the Golden Knights were a model NHL franchise. But since they went to the Cup final, they've been constantly chasing the shiny new toy and it has hurt them
With the end of the 2021-22 season very, very near for the Vegas Golden Knights, the franchise is something of a mess. Expansion teams are supposed to start out as a tire fire and work their way to respectability by Year 5. In so many ways, the Golden Knights have done it in reverse.
It’s quite remarkable, really. Almost as quickly as they went from being the cute and cuddly Golden Misfits to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, they’ve morphed into the Evil Empire, one of the most despised teams in the NHL. They went from a franchise that seemed to put player welfare as a paramount concern – at one point the players had access to free car detailing at the practice rink – to one that has cast aside franchise icon Marc-Andre Fleury, violated Evgenii Dadonov’s contractual rights by trading him to a team on his no-trade list and gotten into a messy dispute with goalie Robin Lehner over his season-ending surgery.
It all gives the impression that the success the Golden Knights had early in their existence blinded them to their core values. The perception is players and coaches - remember Gerard Gallant? - are not members of a family, they are commodities to be disposed of when a shinier new toy comes along. As one person in the industry put it, “It seems as though (Vegas GM) Kelly McCrimmon still thinks he’s dealing with junior hockey players.”
Meanwhile, their on-ice fortunes have plummeted. Injuries have played an enormous part in that, which is something that nobody can control, but they have exposed some enormous flaws in this franchise. Just five years ago the Golden Knights started with a blank slate, no bad contracts on the books and expansion draft rules that allowed them to leverage their position to build a contending team right away. Now they find themselves in Salary Cap Hell™ and would have been well over the salary cap during the playoffs if they had managed to make it that far. Whenever someone new comes into the picture, such as an Alex Pietrangelo or Jack Eichel, it leaves other players to wonder whether they’re going to be the next one out the door.
The situation with Lehner has been beyond bizarre. After battling through a shoulder injury through much of the season, Lehner informed the Golden Knights last week that he was shutting himself down for the season to get surgery. Coach Peter DeBoer, however, maintained he knew nothing about it and was expecting Lehner to play on the weekend. Lehner served as Logan Thompson’s backup in a 5-4 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks that derailed their playoff hopes, then the team announced the next day that Lehner’s season was over. Lehner would have played had Thompson been injured, but to have him sitting on the bench because you don’t have the cap space to call up a goalie from the minors is a bad look.
The really good teams in the NHL get into salary cap jams all the time. In fact, it seems that if you’re not trying to manipulate the salary cap rules these days, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. But the Golden Knights are already more than a million dollars over next season’s salary cap. Man, that takes some doing.
This corner maintains that since the Golden Knights made it to the Cup final in 2018, they’ve been chasing the top players in the league and it has been to their detriment. It has resulted in chaos and calamity in Vegas, where nobody knows who’s coming and going. Players who believe they have a future there and are part of the solution are easily disposed of the moment a better option comes along.
Until the Golden Knights realize that there will be no success without some form of roster stability, they’ll continue chasing and chasing. And as they were this season, they’ll be on a path to nowhere. People talk about culture all the time in hockey. Now that they’re wearing the black hats, the Vegas Golden Knights are no longer the template for creating a culture. In many ways, they’ve become the direct opposite.