It’s official: we now know that the Pacific Division champion Vegas Golden Knights will clash with the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the NHL playoffs, with Game 1 set to get underway on Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena. But before we look ahead at what’s to come, it’s time to look back, specifically at my predictions from this past season and how they fared.
Heading into last season, an encouraging track record of success for the Golden Knights emboldened me to provide an optimistic outlook that blew up in my face when the club missed the playoffs for the first time. This time around, I saw a team whose roster wasn’t getting any younger and would be without their No. 1 goalie (Robin Lehner, lost to hip surgery) and a top-line forward (Max Pacioretty, traded to the Carolina Hurricanes), so I forecasted a postseason miss.
Wrong and wrong again. One of these days, I might just figure out this prognostication thing. In the meantime, enjoy another round of me being proven wrong — this time in a far more satisfying way.
1) Vegas Winds Up Outside the Western Conference Playoff Picture
At the 51-game mark of this season, the Golden Knights found themselves with an identical 29-18-4 record from a year ago at the same juncture, similarly clutching the second Pacific Division playoff slot while trying to fend off challenges from division rivals. But while 2021-22 saw Vegas collapse, 2022-23 featured an emphatic 22-4-5 finish to put any comparisons to bed.
In retrospect, I failed to properly account for the stabilizing impact that incoming head coach Bruce Cassidy would bring in holding players accountable and maintaining focus. Beyond the goaltending (which we’ll get to momentarily), I also didn’t acknowledge how much the blue line under-performed last season and how impactful some collective improvement from the back end would be on the rest of the team.
2) Thompson Makes the Most Starts in Net
While this prediction is correct for all intents and purposes, lauding Logan Thompson for making a team-high 37 starts doesn’t do justice to the season that he had, at least until injuries got in the way. For the first half of the season, Thompson wasn’t just a deserving All-Star and a Calder candidate, but was probably the biggest factor behind the Golden Knights re-establishing themselves as a Western Conference power.
It’s easy to forget that heading into the season, we didn’t know who among Thompson, Adin Hill or Laurent Brossoit would take the reins in net after Lehner’s season-ending hip surgery. While the 26-year-old would absolutely be the club’s top option in net to start the playoffs if healthy, his postseason status remains heavily in doubt amidst news that he won’t even hit the ice before the regular season wraps up.
3) Eichel Leads the Team in Scoring
Having each earned a point in Vegas’ season-ending 3-1 victory over the Seattle Kraken, one-time linemates Jack Eichel and Chandler Stephenson finished within a point of each other in the team scoring race. Eichel wound up coming out on top (66 points to 65), but I was probably going to count this one as a win regardless. The former Buffalo Sabre played in just 67 of the team’s games, producing nearly a point per game and vastly outpacing his fellow lineup regulars.
While Eichel leading the way was largely expected, the extent of the Golden Knights’ scoring balance wasn’t. Only four clubs (Anaheim, Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia) will finish with fewer points from their leading scorer, with none of the other four bound for the playoffs. It’s an encouraging sign to see Eichel leading the way with plenty of balanced scoring behind him, so long as you don’t peek over to check out the season that Alex Tuch just had in Buffalo.
4) Vegas Is Looking for a New GM Next Summer
Plenty could still change between now and the start of training camp next season, particularly depending upon Vegas’ playoff success. However, it’s pretty hard to see a scenario at this moment in which Kelly McCrimmon is not general manager of Vegas to begin the 2023-24 NHL season.
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Even with club originals like Shea Theodore and Jonathan Marchessault still playing a major role in the team’s success, McCrimmon’s fingerprints are still all over this roster. Eichel and Stephenson, the Golden Knights’ two leading scorers, were both acquired on his watch. McCrimmon also signed Thompson to an entry-level contract and landed Alex Pietrangelo in free agency, to say nothing of Cassidy’s hiring. At the moment, his job seems pretty safe.
5) Phil Kessel Returns to the 20-Goal Mark
Even with Phil Kessel firmly in his mid-30’s, it didn’t seem far-fetched to believe that the NHL’s “Iron Man” might have a bounce back in him. Kessel was, after all, leaving the lowly Arizona Coyotes to join Vegas, with a very real opportunity to play up along the likes of Eichel and Mark Stone.
Kessel missed the 20-goal mark this year, although finding the back of the net 14 times is nothing to sneeze at considering he has averaged a mere 12:49 of ice time this season. Of course, the two-time Stanley Cup champion’s dwindling skill set has contributed to his lack of opportunities. Looking ahead, it seems likely that Vegas will pass on re-signing Kessel in favor of affording opportunities to younger, less expensive forwards like Paul Cotter and Pavel Dorofeyev.
6) Vegas Adds Help on the Wing
The trade deadline addition of Ivan Barbashev makes this prediction a win, so let’s take a moment to appreciate the steadying, consistent influence that the former St. Louis Blue has instilled since being acquired. While his numbers (six goals, nine assists in 22 games) don’t jump off the page, the 27-year-old has been a reliable presence amongst a Vegas middle-six forward corps that need it.
Now with the postseason set to begin, Barbashev can really thrive. During the Blues’ 2019 Stanley Cup run, he played all 25 games in a depth role, scoring three goals and assisting on three more. As we’ve seen in Vegas, it has been his defensive work, particularly on the penalty kill, that has served as his calling card.
7) At Least Two Fringe Golden Knights Become NHL Regulars
While admittedly hard to properly quantify, I think we can count this one as a win. Cotter certainly fits the bill. The 23-year-old has played in 55 games this season after entering the year with just seven NHL contests under his belt. Furthermore, his 13 goals on the year place him 11th on the Golden Knights.
Though there is no clear second choice that indisputably made the jump, there certainly are candidates. One could certainly make an argument for Thompson, who nearly doubled his games played from a year ago while maintaining strikingly similar numbers. Then you have training camp holdout Nicolas Hague, who quietly provided reliable depth on the back end in 81 games once under contract. Meanwhile, Dorofeyev, Michael Amadio, Daniil Miromanov, and Jonas Røndbjerg all had varying degrees of breakout campaigns.
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8) Jonathan Marchessault Faces Trade Rumors
Vegas’ trade deadline involved a Jonathan, but it was Jonathan Quick joining the organization as much-needed goalie insurance. We’ll never know what was actually going on behind the scenes, but it seems safe to say that Marchessault’s name probably never came up in trade talks as the Golden Knights looked to add talent.
That being said, some kind of decision will probably have to be made on the 32-year-old Vegas original soon. Marchessault has one more year remaining on his contract on a team that — wait for it — continues to be tight up against the cap. While McCrimmon’s most pressing concerns this summer involve the situation in the crease and addressing a healthy dose of outgoing forward depth, Marchessault’s future with the club shouldn’t be far behind.
9) Golden Knights Finish Fourth in the Pacific Again
Nope! Although they held off the surging Edmonton Oilers by the narrowest of margins at the end, the Golden Knights still remained at or near the top of the division all the way through the season. The Oilers and Los Angeles Kings continue to be imposing divisional rivals, but the Calgary Flames, the reigning Pacific champs, stumbled amidst the losses of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk and missed the playoffs.
It’s a credit to Vegas that they thrived within a tough division. The Pacific is the only one to produce four teams that hit the 100-point plateau, thanks to the play of the emerging Seattle Kraken. Yet, even with stiff challenges from the Oilers, Kings and Kraken, the Golden Knights reign (and made me look bad).
10) Nicolas Hague Signs in Late October
McCrimmon and the Golden Knights got ahead of me by a couple weeks on this one. Hague’s signing to a three-year, $6.882 million contract was announced on Oct. 10, which isn’t quite late October.
Given all the hand-wringing back in the fall regarding when he’d sign and how much time he would miss, it’s ironic that the 24-year-old missed opening night and then not a single game the rest of the way. With 81 games under his belt, he appeared in more contests this past season than any Vegas defender not named Brayden McNabb. Hague did post rather underwhelming offensive totals (the same 17 points he had in 29 fewer games two seasons ago), but that can hardly be blamed on one game and a meeting missed.
Overall, I didn’t completely embarrass myself, but projecting a playoff miss for a team that wound up with a Western Conference-best 111 points has made these picks age like milk. Better luck next year!
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.