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Knights’ net remains in flux after winning Stanley Cup

The last month of Adin Hill’s life — from his iconic stick save in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final to the Larry Johnson UNLV jersey he wore at the Golden Knights’ championship parade — will forever make him a Las Vegas sports legend.

What the 27-year-old and the team have to decide is whether that story will continue to be written.

Hill is an unrestricted free agent after a career-best stretch that saw him prove his playoff mettle against three of the NHL’s top seven offenses in Edmonton, Dallas and Florida. So is the man he replaced during the postseason in Laurent Brossoit and his backup in Jonathan Quick.

How the Knights — who still have Logan Thompson and Robin Lehner under contract — address the position this summer could define their chase for a second crown. They dealt with inconsistency in the crease all season. It’s up to them to build another group with enough depth to carry them all the way.

“You have to have a good stable of goaltenders,” president of hockey operations George McPhee said. “It’s really hard to rely on one guy. I think that model is, it’s changed over the last five or six years. The tandem approach is probably the best way to go.”

‘Unprecedented’ year

General manager Kelly McCrimmon called the Knights’ experience with goaltending last season “unprecedented.”

They started a franchise-record five netminders. That total doesn’t even include Lehner, who missed the entire year after undergoing one shoulder and two hip surgeries. His readiness remains unclear. McCrimmon did say any potential talk of Lehner retiring is “premature.”

The Knights, despite the revolving door in net, were never held back by the position. Thompson was named an All-Star as a rookie. Brossoit was outstanding down the stretch. Quick went 5-2-2 after costing only a seventh-round pick and goaltender Michael Hutchinson to acquire, and even rookie Jiri Patera earned two wins when called upon.

All were helped by coach Bruce Cassidy’s defensive system. He refers to it as “goaltender friendly” because it’s supposed to limit opportunities in the slot and allow shots from predictable places. The Knights had a .911 team save percentage in their first year using it, the seventh-best mark in the NHL. The league average was .899.

“I just think it’s a system that shouldn’t be highly stressful night after night after night with high-danger chances,” Cassidy said. “It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s how it’s designed to be. We happen to have the right defensemen to play it as well. We’re very fortunate they mix well with it.”

That scheme — and having arguably the best blue line in the NHL to execute it — poses an interesting question for the Knights. Is it worth breaking the bank on a goaltender when they’ve shown they can succeed with different players?

It likely means the Knights have a limit in contract talks, even for Hill. They have about $79.25 million in cap commitments to 11 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies already. That gives the team about $4.25 million to play with in discussions with Hill and other free agents like left wings Ivan Barbashev (unrestricted) and Brett Howden (restricted).

The Knights would gain an additional $5 million in flexibility if it’s determined Lehner will begin the season on long-term injured reserve again.

The reigning No. 1

The first thing the team will need to figure out is what kind of offer Hill, who is coming off a two-year, $4.35 million deal, is willing to accept.

He may never have more leverage than he does now coming off a championship. He could use that to cash in, or he could find a compromise that keeps him in an enviable environment.

There are reasons for both sides to reunite.

From Hill’s side, he said multiple times during the playoffs he’s never had as much fun playing hockey. He could also begin to put down roots somewhere after playing for three organizations in the last three seasons.

Hill would know he’d be set up to succeed as well. Not just because of the players in front of him, but because fellow Calgary native Thompson would be under contract to help share the workload. Hill has never made more than 25 starts in a season. He needs to be somewhere with a reliable second option.

The Knights have their own reasons to try to meet him halfway. There may not be a better fit on the market.

Hill stood out for a number of reasons when the team identified options in August in the wake of Lehner’s injuries. The Knights did an analytic study that showed Hill’s strengths and weaknesses would pair well with Cassidy’s system. Goaltending coach Sean Burke also gave a strong recommendation because his son played with Hill in junior hockey.

The Knights decided to send a fourth-round pick to the rival San Jose Sharks, and the rest is history. Hill went 11-5 in his first playoff run and led all starters with a .932 save percentage. He finished third in the Conn Smythe Trophy voting for playoff MVP.

His performance, which McCrimmon called “unbelievable,” was even more impressive considering he missed the last month of the regular season with a lower-body injury.

Other options

The Knights will need to act fast if they can’t come to an agreement with Hill.

Thompson at least gives them one solid half of a tandem. The 26-year-old was 21-13-3 with a .915 save percentage last season and has two years left on his deal. He only made two appearances after the All-Star Game due to lower-body injuries, but Cassidy said Thompson is expected to be 100 percent for training camp.

Brossoit, 30, could be an easy fallback plan as Thompson’s partner. His .927 save percentage in 11 games ranked third in the NHL among goaltenders with at least five starts. His main question mark is health.

Brossoit has never played more than 24 games in a season. He spent most of last year in the minors recovering from a summer hip surgery, then suffered two separate lower-body injuries upon returning to the NHL in February.

The first caused him to miss a month. The second, which came in Game 3 of the second round against Edmonton on May 8, knocked him out for the rest of the playoffs. McCrimmon said Brossoit was close to ready when the season ended.

Quick, 37, may be an option if the Knights want an experienced mentor for Thompson. He is one of the best American goaltenders ever and is one of 21 netminders in NHL history with three Stanley Cups. It’s just a matter of what Quick has left in the tank. His .901 save percentage and 3.13 goals-against average post-trade were the worst on the Knights.

Quick’s agent George Bazos said his client plans to play next season. He said Quick loved his time with the Knights, but it’s a “wait and see” situation in terms of a possible return with the team sorting out its goaltending options.

Other pending free agents include Carolina’s Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, Los Angeles’ Joonas Korpisalo, the New York Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov, Ottawa’s Cam Talbot and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry. There are potential trade candidates as well like Anaheim’s John Gibson and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck.

Price will be a primary concern for the Knights heading into the start of free agency July 1. They can’t commit too many resources in net when the infrastructure around their goaltenders is what helped them win a championship. They also can’t leave themselves too vulnerable at one of hockey’s most critical positions.

“The most important thing is you have a team that plays well in front of these guys and protects them and gives them a chance to be good goalies,” McPhee said. “That’s really what matters, and this team did that.”

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

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