NEW YORK — George McPhee took a sip from his cup of coffee and offered his brief assessment of the Golden Knights’ season to this point.
Or, he tried to, anyway.
“It’s been hard to evaluate because we haven’t been at full strength,” the general manager said. “We haven’t had our full lineup for a single game, I don’t believe. But we’re playing hard most nights.”
The Knights endured more adversity in the opening two months of their second season than they did throughout their memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
But with the midway point of the schedule fast approaching, McPhee is starting to see signs the Knights have turned a corner.
“It’s an adjustment when you come back from going to the finals,” McPhee said in an interview with the Review-Journal during the Knights’ current road trip. “It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re in the finals, early in the season everybody plays you hard because you’re a measuring stick.
“I think we’re beyond that phase now where we’ve settled in and we’re playing our game and we’re playing hard. As hard, or harder, than the other team.”
The Knights began the season without defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was suspended for 20 games after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
Center Paul Stastny was sidelined Oct. 8 with a right knee injury, while center/wing Erik Haula suffered a potentially season-ending injury to his right knee Nov. 6. McPhee confirmed during the interview that Haula underwent surgery last month and the Knights did not have a timetable for his return.
Wingers Alex Tuch and Max Pacioretty played their first game with Stastny, who missed 30 games, on Sunday against the New York Rangers. (Pacioretty missed Friday’s game at New Jersey for precautionary reasons with a minor injury, and Tuch was out for the first eight games.)
The Knights are 11-3-1 since Schmidt’s return on Nov. 18 and are as close to full strength as they’ve been all season.
That likely will discourage McPhee from looking for upgrades prior to the NHL’s holiday roster freeze, which runs from 11:59 p.m. Wednesday through Dec. 27.
“We like our team as is,” McPhee said. “When we’re healthy, we’re a good team. So, it’s not as if we’re actively looking for anything.
“We’d like to have all of our growth come internally. Whether it’s a (Alex) Tuch or a (Oscar) Lindberg or whoever — some of the young defensemen — you’d like to see growth in their play, and that’s where we hope it comes from.”
Newest Knights raise play
McPhee is excited by the development of Tuch and defenseman Shea Theodore, each of whom signed long-term contracts this fall.
He also praised the team’s other offseason acquisitions, including Pacioretty and defenseman Nick Holden.
“We like Nick Holden a lot. He’s been very, very good for us,” McPhee said. “There aren’t many people that can fire the puck like (Pacioretty). And (Stastny) we haven’t seen yet, so we can comment on that once he gets a bunch of games under his belt. But he should help us on faceoffs and on our power play.”
One other issue looming for McPhee is the contract status of first-line center William Karlsson, who is eligible to sign an extension starting Jan. 1.
Karlsson has a team-high 13 goals and is second behind Jonathan Marchessault in scoring with 26 points through 35 games.
Karlsson, who will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, signed a one-year contract worth $5.25 million in August and is in line for a long-term deal should he continue to produce.
McPhee shook his head and took another swig of coffee when asked if he expects to sign Karlsson and avoid a repeat of this summer’s drawn-out negotiation.
“I’m not sure,” McPhee said, “and again, we don’t talk about contracts unless there’s one to talk about.”
McCrimmon has OK if Seattle calls
The expansion team in Seattle doesn’t begin play until 2021, but could hire a general manager as early as the summer.
Golden Knights assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon has been mentioned as a potential candidate thanks to his experience with the expansion draft process. He’s also familiar with Seattle from his time in the major-junior Western Hockey League.
Should Seattle ask to interview McCrimmon, Knights GM George McPhee said he would grant permission.
“This organization doesn’t stand in anyone’s way,” McPhee said. “If there’s a promotion for somebody with another organization, we would always allow it.”