Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer equated coaching his roster to driving a luxury car after losing the 2020 Western Conference Final.
Then the team went out and gave him spinning rims for good measure.
Few teams have been as invested in winning as the Knights despite the fact that they’re only in their fourth season as a franchise. This year, they’ve stretched the limits of what the NHL’s salary cap system can bear, parted ways with beloved veterans and kept funneling money into the team despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Knights did all that for one reason and one reason alone: They thought it brought them closer to a Stanley Cup.
The postseason will help provide an answer as to whether all that maneuvering was ultimately worth it. The Knights left no stone unturned and no collective bargaining agreement bylaw unchecked when constructing this year’s model.
“We are in a competitive division,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “We’ve been in a race all year with really good teams. … We built our roster to give our team the best chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. That’s our objective: To compete for a Stanley Cup.”
Taking a swing
The Knights exited last postseason after reaching the NHL’s Final Four for the second time in three years.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if they didn’t make major changes. If they simply made a tweak and hoped things would break their way next time.
But that’s not how the Knights operated. Center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt, one of the franchise’s original members, were traded for midround draft picks. The team took that salary cap space and set its eyes on the prize of the free agent class: defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
The big, strong, two-way blue liner had already proved his playoff prowess by captaining the St. Louis Blues to the 2019 Stanley Cup. The Knights wanted him, so they got him.
The salary cap implications of Pietrangelo’s seven-year, $61.6 million deal were massive. In addition to costing the team Stastny and Schmidt, the Knights had to waive veteran defenseman Nick Holden before the season to become cap compliant.
The roster machinations weren’t done there.
The Knights played with 13 forwards and five defensemen several times early in the season because they couldn’t afford to roster an extra skater for a balanced lineup. They played with fewer than 18 skaters 10 times because they had no cap space for replacements.
“We live in the moment, certainly, but when you take a little bit bigger perspective, there’s always some challenges you have to overcome,” McCrimmon said. “The makeup of our team has done a pretty good job of that this year.”
The Knights think the ends will justify the means after jumping through salary cap hoops all season because their roster, once the cap stops mattering in the playoffs, is as deep and talented as any other in the NHL.
The Knights have one of the league’s best forward groups, led by an excellent two-way player in captain Mark Stone and a premier goal scorer in Max Pacioretty. The blue line boasts the players who finished fourth (Pietrangelo) and sixth (Shea Theodore) in last year’s Norris Trophy voting. It also has the NHL’s blocked shots leader in Alec Martinez.
Where the team shines brightest is in net. The Knights rank second in the league in the amount of cap space they’ve devoted to their goaltenders at $12 million. The investment paid off.
Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner were the NHL’s best goalie tandem. They helped the Knights finish first in team save percentage and first in goals allowed.
The team was so committed to getting talent that it even had two other clubs retain salary so it could add forward Mattias Janmark at the trade deadline. The Knights have stopped at nothing to make this roster all it can be.
“It’s a great message, and it’s a message consistent with what I’ve seen before I got here, when I interviewed for the job and obviously in my short time here,” DeBoer said after the trade deadline. “It’s been single-minded, one goal, and that’s to win a Stanley Cup.”
The Knights have as good a chance as they’ve ever had at reaching that goal.
They posted the highest winning percentage and points percentage in franchise history. They had excellent rosters in their first three years, but this one is unique because of its combination of star talent and depth.
The Knights made this collection a reality by being bold and unafraid to tangle with the salary cap. The approach created hurdles and headaches, but the start of the postseason means they are in the past.
The Knights are free to play their best lineups and will be disappointed with anything other than a Stanley Cup.
“The on-ice talent that we have is apparent,” said Martinez, a two-time Stanley Cup winner. “But the things that you don’t see are a lot of the intangibles, and one of that being guys genuinely like each other. … Any team that I’ve been a part of that’s been successful, there’s been a lot of chemistry in the room, and guys have genuinely liked each other and hang out and have that camaraderie. We have that across the board.”