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Kelly McCrimmon thinks adversity made Golden Knights better

Updated December 24, 2021 - 4:15 pm

For general manager Kelly McCrimmon, the Golden Knights’ first 32 games can be divided into two seasons.

There’s the first one that was impacted by injuries, when the Knights surpassed McCrimmon’s hope of being at .500 by the end of November and were three games over.

“That for me was the survival portion of our season,” he said.

Starting with a 3-2 victory over Calgary on Dec. 5, when the Knights’ top six forwards were in the lineup for the first time since Game 2, it’s been more like what McCrimmon expected all along.

The Knights (20-12, 40 points) hit the NHL’s holiday break tied for first place in the Pacific Division with Anaheim and percentage points behind Minnesota for the top spot in the Western Conference.

With 50 games remaining, McCrimmon hopes the worst is behind the Knights.

“There’s always a different set of circumstances and different things that you’re dealing with. This season it was injuries,” McCrimmon said. “That was what we had to navigate, and I thought we did it well.

“I felt as we went through it that we’d be better for it once we came out of it. And I believe that we are.”

The Knights have used 33 players, two off the team record, and lead the league with 174 man-games lost to injury/COVID-19 protocol, according to NHLInjuryViz.

In order to remain within earshot of the division leaders, they leaned on goaltender Robin Lehner to keep them in games and handed increased roles to blossoming defenseman Nic Hague and forward Nicolas Roy. The adversity also opened the door for younger players to earn the trust of the coaching staff.

Jonas Rondbjerg, Jake Leschyshyn and Paul Cotter debuted and made positive impressions at forward, while Daniil Miromanov continued to climb the organization’s depth chart on defense.

Those evaluations could come in handy when injured center Jack Eichel is ready to rejoin the team and the Knights have to fit in his $10 million salary cap hit.

“We’ve been (salary cap) compliant every game we’ve ever played, and we’ll continue to be as we move forward,” McCrimmon said. “What exactly that looks like, how exactly we get there, those are all things that we work at internally, and we’ll keep it that way.”

Eichel is six weeks out from having artificial disk replacement surgery in his neck and continues to rehab in Charlotte, North Carolina. A video of him skating leaked three weeks ago, and Eichel is cleared to do weight training as well as other activities, according to McCrimmon.

The Knights will meet with Eichel and his medical team in January, after which he is expected to travel to Las Vegas to continue his rehab under the team’s supervision.

McCrimmon cautioned that while Eichel could join the team on a full-time basis for practices and off-ice training, there is no timetable for when he will be cleared for contact by his surgeon and the team’s medical staff.

“I think what will happen if I was to guess, he’s going to look more ready when he hits the ice with us the first time than he probably is because it’s the contact piece that’s going to take the time,” McCrimmon said. “There’s a lot more to it than just the ability to skate, to train and practice in a noncontact sweater. It’s going to be the last piece of it that likely is the hardest to define and may take the most time.”

The Knights were scheduled to play Thursday against Los Angeles, but that game was postponed when the NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed to start the holiday break early because of COVID-related postponements.

With 64 games postponed, McCrimmon expects many of them to be made up in February now that the league will not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Every team submitted available arena dates to the NHL for scheduling in February, though McCrimmon added he didn’t have an indication of what the Knights’ revised schedule might look like.

The Knights were scheduled to return from the break Monday against Colorado at T-Mobile Arena, but the game was postponed when the NHL announced Friday that it was extending the holiday break an additional day to analyze COVID-19 test results and assess whether teams are ready to play.

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and forward Evgenii Dadonov entered COVID-19 protocol Tuesday, and McCrimmon said they were asymptomatic as of Wednesday afternoon.

The NHL requires daily testing for COVID-19, a policy that was questioned by Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman after his team was shut down by the league Dec. 19 out of concern with the number of positive cases.

Yzerman said many of the Red Wings in protocol were asymptomatic and should not be tested unless they had symptoms of COVID-19.

Knights forward Reilly Smith said after Tuesday’s game he supported Yzerman’s stance and wished the NHL would take that approach.

McCrimmon also agreed with Yzerman and believes the NFL’s policy of not conducting regular testing of vaccinated players is ideal for professional sports.

“My thoughts would be if we have athletes that present symptoms they should get tested,” McCrimmon said. “There’s medical people that work for the players’ association and a lot of stakeholders that have a hand in where the test goes. But my own feelings would line up more with Steve Yzerman’s than what we’re doing today.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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