The Vegas Golden Knights have regressed after their strong start. Just 4-5-1 in their last ten games, the team has come back down to earth.
Amid their hot start, everyone has expected a reversion to normality sooner or later. Some are questioning their Stanley Cup Playoff credentials. However, the fact is, only two teams in NHL history have ever missed the Playoffs after earning 16 points in their first nine games. One of them was Montreal in 2015-16, who lost star goaltender Carey Price for most of the season with an injury. Thus far, Vegas have survived their own goalie misadventures, and sit second in the Pacific Division.
Should the Vegas Golden Knights Trade Now or Later?
As improbable as it looked a month ago, the Golden Knights have a realistic chance to be a playoff team. However, fans seem split as to whether or not they should be buyers or sellers come the trade deadline. A better question is should the Vegas Golden Knights look to trade now or wait for the trade deadline?
Unprecedented Early Success
Of the last nine teams to join the NHL, the San Jose Sharks, and Minnesota Wild were the quickest to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, both making it in their third season. These teams had a clear roadmap which they followed and capitalized on. At the other end of the scale, the Columbus Blue Jackets went through eight seasons before they saw playoff hockey. The Knights could do it in one, and people are confused.
George McPhee, the team’s general manager, built this team through the most favorable Expansion Draft format in NHL history. He took full advantage, even using his expansion capital to further bolster the team through trades. McPhee secured enough good players to put a competitive product on the ice, headlined by James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury. He acquired young talent and prospects for the future. He prioritized cap space. McPhee’s commitment to building his hockey team intelligently has paid off, and lots of smart hockey people at far more recognizable teams envy what he’s done.
The Golden Knights are also benefiting from puck luck to this point in the season. Their xGF% at 5v5 is 15th in the NHL at exactly 50%, but their actual goal differential is +4 in said situations. Special teams have been even better, moving them to a goal differential of +8 in all situations. A PDO of 102.2 certainly hasn’t hurt. All of this suggests that the team, while better than what most would have expected from an expansion team, is by no means guaranteed the playoff spot they currently occupy.
As of February 25 approaches – the NHL’s deadline day – all eyes will be on which of their epithets Vegas chooses to prioritize: contemporary or future competitiveness. While they may not boast any centerpieces or generational talents, the Golden Knights are a deep hockey club. They’ve already been through three goaltenders and continue to win, despite Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace combining for only two appearances in the League prior to this season. There is talent throughout this organization “real contenders” would love to get their hands on, if the Knights revert to resembling an expansion team.
Depending on Fleury’s return, one of the backup goaltenders may become available, if they find their way off the injury reserve list. Perhaps Vancouver could be in line for a partner for Jacob Markstrom while Thatcher Demko fills out. Pittsburgh is looking for a backup to Matt Murray. Will Ondrej Pavelec be good enough as the Rangers number two goaltender?
Defensemen Luca Sbisa and Griffin Reinhart, and left wing David Perron are others who could draw interest from others around the League. The team even has AHL players who could come at a cheaper price, including Brandon Pirri, and Teemu Pulkkinen.
There are a lot of different directions the Knights can go in. That’s the beauty of the roster flexibility McPhee has built. He is prepared for situations he may not have envisioned, such as his side winning nine of its first 14 games.
Come February, it is likely this team is not a traditional “buyer/seller”. After all, they’re still learning about their own team and what they have, as are we. There’s no rush to execute anything.
If McPhee sees a deal he likes, he should take it, especially if its payoff is clear and tangible. That’s what good NHL teams do, and they are a good team. It may frustrate fans to not be able to compartmentalize them as a buyer or a seller, but this is far from a typical NHL team.
Sticking to a plan and trusting the organization is key to achieving success in the NHL, but when it starts to rain, you use an umbrella. Good teams may not make wholesale changes to their plan, but they do tweak it according to the climate of League. McPhee may be confronted with a similar conundrum soon.
His plan has gotten him this far, and it’s likely to get him farther, but what’s best for the team may mean detouring from the Stanley Cup Playoffs this April. We will likely not know until the deadline in February, if then.
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