NHL Salaries

Western Conference contenders should fear the Golden Knights

The Vegas Golden Knights were licking their wounds three weeks ago, around the time of the NHL trade deadline.

After a failed and slightly humiliating attempt to dump Evgenii Dadonov on the Anaheim Ducks, Vegas was shut out on consecutive nights by the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets within 36 hours of officially finalizing their roster. Suddenly, the Pacific Division’s overwhelming preseason favorites found themselves in a precarious position well out of the playoff picture, and with the teams they were chasing in both the division and the wild card, with up to four games in hand.

In their effort to be big, it seemed the Golden Knights stretched too thin this time around. As a result, and for the first time in franchise history, the expansion team that became an immediate power broker would not be involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – APRIL 09: Max Pacioretty #67 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates after scoring a first period goal against the Arizona Coyotes at T-Mobile Arena on April 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images)

In order to reverse the momentum towards this, two things had to happen.

For one, Vegas had to start winning games. But above all, another team had to stumble. Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the closest teams — Dallas and Edmonton — are two of the eight hottest teams in the NHL since the trade deadline.

The failure had to come from a perhaps more improbable source, and from the only team that did not boast of benefiting from additional matches on the schedule.

Enter the Los Angeles Kings.

Los Angeles has lost three straight and six of its last nine since the Golden Knights suffered those shutouts after the deadline. For Vegas, that translated into a four-point swing and a secure game in hand, with the Golden Knights picking up six of seven wins — which included Dadonov’s exploits — in the same span.

Now the Kings cling to a two-point lead for third in the division with one game less to play, and with star defenseman Drew Doughty now out for the season.

Los Angeles might have a decidedly easier schedule down the straight, but fate is suddenly and now firmly in the Golden Knights’ control. We should expect Vegas to survive the toughest regular season in its short history and clinch a playoff berth.

Which is horrible news for other Western Conference contenders, especially Alberta’s two Pacific Division-leading teams and big favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

Mark Stone is set to join a Vegas Golden Knights team that has been among the best in the NHL since the NHL trade deadline.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

Mark Stone is set to join a Vegas Golden Knights team that has been among the best in the NHL since the NHL trade deadline. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

How is Vegas changing the image of the playoffs?

The driving force behind Vegas’ struggles was that the roster couldn’t be fully formed until after the playoffs, when salaries become moot. Management made serious sacrifices to get the best roster possible in the spring, which of course would include star center Jack Eichel this time around.

Since Eichel’s acquisition in early November, former Buffalo Sabers captain and current Golden Knights letter carrier Mark Stone has not appeared on the same roster sheet. Both had long injury-related absences, sure, but it was salary cap complications that kept the Golden Knights from being at their best in the playoffs in these uncertain times.

It is expected that Stone re-enter the program on Tuesday, which is not nothing in the last 10 games or so. However, this will force another sizable earner – or combination of earners – into the long-term injured reserve in his place. If not by Stone or Eichel, the money has to be buried somehow when you’re mining more than $10 million above the salary cap.

It may take a step toward optimization with Stone on the verge, but it’s not until he wins the race against Los Angeles that Vegas can be what Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee have always envisioned: a team unbound by the constraints of the salary cap, and therefore capable of doing great damage.

If Vegas succeeds, we should expect to attract an equally financially shackled team, but in a less advantageous way. The Edmonton Oilers are using the long-term injured reserve, but not in a way that will benefit them in any way in the playoffs. Edmonton would come as advertised: star-laden and heavy, but vulnerable in many key areas. If it’s not a draw, it’s extremely possible that the Golden Knights will be favored in this series.

While this is a big season for Edmonton, it was perhaps the Calgary Flames who spoiled the Golden Knights’ late-season resurgence the most. Calgary had a sensational turnaround behind Darryl Sutter and showed very few weaknesses overall. His top line was arguably the best in hockey, his defense is rock solid and Jakob Markstrom will likely be nominated for the Vezina Trophy.

This had established itself as the path of least resistance for the Flames, who would be overwhelming favorites to reach the Western Conference Finals. But with the Golden Knights in their parenthesis, the outlook looks less certain.

The last team that should notice the Golden Knights coming out of their own coffin, Undertaker-style, should be the future back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winner, the Colorado Avalanche, and the team that is most expected. to win the Stanley Cup. .

Vegas is, in many ways, the bugaboo of Colorado, having outscored the Avalanche in four games in last season’s playoffs to overturn a 0-2 deficit and reach the conference finals.

Even more than the Flames, what seems certain becomes less so with Colorado as long as the Golden Knights hide.

It can’t be an optimal postseason without a Vegas team that has made so many concessions to be at its best for the postseason.

While that’s bad news for any teams they might meet, it’s what every hockey fan outside of Los Angeles should strive to see.

More from Yahoo Sports