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Golden Knights players hope to keep nucleus intact

Max Pacioretty walked out of the locker room Wednesday at United Center seemingly intent on delivering a message.

The Golden Knights left wing was aware that the team underperformed after being eliminated from playoff contention with a 4-3 shootout loss in Chicago. He knew that meant changes could be on the horizon. But he thinks the Knights’ core group, the one expected to be a Stanley Cup contender, still can achieve its goals.

“We believe in what we have on this team,” Pacioretty said. “We know we have what it takes in this room to win.”

The notion that the Knights could run it back and get different results isn’t laughable. The team had approximately 500 man-games lost because of injury, many to key players such as Pacioretty, and still was in the playoff hunt until its second-to-last game.

But the idea will be hard to pull off in practice because of the Knights’ salary cap restraints. It also doesn’t guarantee they will return to the upper echelon of the Western Conference or NHL.

“We felt like if we were able to squeak in we had a legitimate shot at winning it all,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “Definitely pretty bummed out, but we have a real bright future with the guys that we have in this room and can definitely get it done.”

The Knights had high hopes after four straight playoff berths and back-to-back runs to the NHL semifinals. Injuries, inconsistency in net and poor special teams then doomed them to missing the postseason for the first time in franchise history.

Several players don’t think that’s a reason to make major changes. Pacioretty pointed to the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example. The team missed the playoffs in 2017 after three straight postseason trips, including a loss in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning had 274 man-games lost that year with captain Steven Stamkos missing 65.

Coach Jon Cooper kept his job, and the core stayed intact. The same was true when the Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2019 and were swept in the first round. Now, Tampa Bay is looking for its third straight Cup.

The Knights want to follow that example and get back to contention next season.

“I think we can win the Stanley Cup for sure,” left wing Mattias Janmark said. “I signed here for a one-year deal just because I thought this was the best chance for me to go win a Cup, and obviously it didn’t pan out that way. I do not regret it, and I would probably do it again.”

The question is whether the Knights can enter next season with the same group. They’re already projected to be more than $500,000 over the salary cap’s upper limit. Janmark and right wing Reilly Smith are unrestricted free agents. Centers Nicolas Roy, Brett Howden and Jake Leschyshyn, right wings Keegan Kolesar and Jonas Rondbjerg and defenseman Nic Hague are among their restricted free agents.

The Knights will have to make moves to bring any of those players back. One possibility is attempting to trade right wing Evgenii Dadonov again after a deal to send him to Anaheim at the trade deadline was voided because of a no-trade clause.

The Knights finished 12th in goals, tied for 14th in goals against, 25th on the power play, 21st on the penalty kill and 20th in team save percentage, but they think better health can improve those numbers.

“I’ve believed in this group all along,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “We never had the opportunity to really get together for any extended period of time. We’d like to have that opportunity to see what we can do.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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