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Knights feel ‘best team we’ve ever had’ didn’t have time to jell

Updated May 8, 2024 - 6:32 pm

The Golden Knights’ first-round exit isn’t the only thing causing exasperation at City National Arena this week.

There’s also the giant “what if?” cloud looming overhead.

“I believe it’s the best team we’ve ever had in Vegas,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said Tuesday.

That statement says a lot.

The Knights won the Stanley Cup a season ago. They’ve also been to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final and the NHL semifinals in 2020 and 2021.

McCrimmon, though, did an impressive job keeping the group that reached the mountaintop together. Every player from the Knights’ Cup-clinching lineup returned except for left wing Reilly Smith. McCrimmon then added three players at the trade deadline in defenseman Noah Hanifin, center Tomas Hertl and right wing Anthony Mantha.

The only thing that worked against the Knights this season in McCrimmon’s mind was time.

“We needed more reps,” McCrimmon said. “I was really hopeful we could get through the opening round because I felt we could’ve gotten better and better.”

The Knights didn’t have much time to jell as a group after the deadline.

Hertl, recovering from left knee surgery when he was acquired from San Jose, only played in the team’s final six regular-season games. Coach Bruce Cassidy struggled to find the right fit for his newest forward. Hertl played on the first, second and third lines in the Knights’ first-round series loss to the Dallas Stars.

Captain Mark Stone also missed the final two months of the regular season after suffering a lacerated spleen. His absence added to the Knights’ feeling that they had a talented group that didn’t get enough chances to build chemistry.

“I think our players all believed, too, that we had a great group of guys that could do it again,” Cassidy said. “We just couldn’t quite get together long enough to do it. Maybe (Game 7) would’ve been a springboard going forward.”

Hanifin, for his part, didn’t have problems fitting in. He was tied for second on the Knights in scoring in the playoffs with five points and looked more than worthy of the eight-year extension he signed in April.

Hertl should have the opportunity to settle in next season. His knee will get more time to heal, and he’ll have a full training camp to integrate with the group.

Cassidy said he envisions Hertl, who bounced between center and wing this season, sticking in the middle full time next season.

The Knights now have to figure out what the rest of the roster looks like.

They have six pending unrestricted free agents — Mantha, right wing Jonathan Marchessault, center Chandler Stephenson, defenseman Alec Martinez, left wing William Carrier and right wing Michael Amadio — set to hit the open market July 1.

The most pressing concern is Marchessault, who scored a career-high 42 goals this season after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP during last year’s championship run.

McCrimmon said he has spoken with the representatives for all the pending unrestricted free agents. That includes Marchessault, who said Tuesday he would like to end his career in Las Vegas.

It will be difficult for the team to determine who stays and who goes. The Knights have $80.1 million committed to their top nine forwards, top seven defensemen and top two goaltenders next season with the upper limit of the NHL’s salary cap expected to rise to $87.7 million.

McCrimmon said there is expected to be turnover next season. But he believes the Knights can come back strong and chase another Cup.

“Certainly, the nucleus is going to be intact. The core is going to be intact. We’re going to have much the same team as what we had this year,” McCrimmon said. “Will it be 100 percent the same? No, not probable. But we’ll reshape our roster and be ready to have a good team again next season.”

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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