The Vegas Golden Knights are in deep trouble, and they’re still more than a month away from the start of training camp.
On Thursday, Vegas announced goalie Robin Lehner will miss the entire 2022-2023 season after he undergoes hip surgery. Injuries prevented Lehner from playing nearly half last season. Now, he’s gone for all of the upcoming one. The Knights’ modus operandi of mortgaging the future to win the Stanley Cup at all costs is coming back to bite them.
Without Lehner, Vegas’ goaltending situation is rough for a team with Cup hopes, never mind one that's trying to get back to the playoffs after missing them for the first time last season.
If you gave a regular NHL fan a pop quiz and asked them to name any of the goalies behind Lehner, chances are they would fail. Laurent Brossoit, Logan Thompson and Michael Hutchinson will compete for the bulk of the starts.
While Thompson’s numbers were very good for Vegas (10-5-3, .914 save percentage in 19 games), they represent 95 percent of his NHL experience. He’s been very good for Vegas’ AHL team in Henderson the past two seasons as well, so there’s reason to be optimistic, but if that sounds like it leads to more questions than answers, you’d be correct.
Free agency is of no help to Vegas. The Golden Knights are in salary-cap hell, with minus-$5.8 million in space, and although Lehner’s injury and the addition of Shea Weber’s contract ($7.9 million AAV) will eventually provide them with a boatload of LTIR spending, it won't do them any good on the open market.
Ten free-agent goalies played at least one game last season, and seven of them are unrestricted. Braden Holtby is the biggest name on the list, but he’s unlikely to play this year because of a lower-body injury, and his career may even be over.
The rest of the unrestricted goalies are career backups or minimally experienced, and restricted free agents are generally a no-go unless there’s a trade.
Vegas could try to deal for a No. 1 goalie, but which NHL team would uproot its situation to swing a deal? The Islanders have Semyon Varlamov, who has one year remaining on his contract, but Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello has made it a point to say they’re keeping the veteran Russian despite Ilya Sorokin’s dominant play last season.
San Jose has James Reimer and Adin Hill who could be had, but the Sharks and Knights are already bitter rivals, so why help an enemy unless you’re making them pay the iron price?
All that aside, trades have done more harm than good for Vegas in their short history. The number of future selections former GM George McPhee and current GM Kelly McCrimmon moved out for players who either haven’t worked out or have already moved on is staggering for a franchise that’s been around for five years.
Look back to February 2018 when they gave up first-, second- and third-round picks to Detroit for Tomas Tatar, only to move Tatar in September of that year along with Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick for Max Pacioretty.
They then moved Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan to Carolina a month ago for future considerations. Being able to take a major acquisition in which they gave up four total players, one a highly touted prospect who became a top-six center in Suzuki, and four draft picks while turning it into future considerations is staggering mismanagement.
Then there’s the Jack Eichel trade from November.
Vegas gave the Sabres Alex Tuch, prospect Peyton Krebs, a conditional first-round pick and a second-round pick for Eichel and a future third-rounder. Eichel needed artificial disk replacement surgery in his neck and was desperate to get out of Buffalo, which should’ve left the Sabres without a lot of leverage for a deal.
Instead, Vegas gave up a solid veteran in Tuch—who would’ve thrived with the extra ice time that injuries to Pacioretty and Mark Stone would’ve provided—and Krebs, who is on the verge of becoming a regular in the NHL, and two more top-60 picks in the expectation that Eichel, who may not be the same player he was, can put them over the top.
Even dealing Marc-Andre Fleury to Chicago last July was a mess of their own making after they acquired Lehner from the Blackhawks the year before as insurance. Adding another starting goalie when you’ve already got a multiple-time Stanley Cup winner between the pipes didn’t make much sense then and made much less once they were forced to move Fleury.
All those picks, all those prospects—all of them very well cost controlled on entry-level contracts—all in favor of experienced veterans with fat contracts. For each good deal they’ve made (Chandler Stephenson, Stone), there are so many that don’t mesh with how teams develop a starter organization.
Sin City is all about making gambles, but sometimes you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to walk away from the table.
Salary-cap info via CapFriendly.