I was so excited when I was writing about the Vegas Golden Knights just a few weeks ago in Defector’s NHL preview, because this was a stacked, masterfully constructed roster befitting a team that’s spent its entire existence on the cusp of a Cup. It was hard to see a weakness anywhere, but particularly among the attackers, the lines were just totally overloaded with top-notch scorers who seemed primed to storm through the division with aplomb.
“On offense, the Knights finished third in the league with 191 goals pretty impressively spread out among guys like Max Pacioretty, Alex Tuch, Mark Stone, and Jonathan Marchessault,” I wrote, naively. “No one injury can truly hobble them.”
I was technically right. One injury did not do this. Here’s what the Vegas forward units looked like against Toronto on Tuesday.
That’s a solid seven out of 10 Girgensonses on the Buffalo Sabres Anonymity Scale! While the Knights are saved from total irrelevance by the presence, at the very least, of a top contributor like Marchessault, plus known commodities like Chandler Stephenson and Reilly Smith, the bottom half of this screen submerges you without warning in Replacement-Level Lagoon. The top center is Brett Howden, who scored once in 528 minutes of ice time for the Rangers last year. There’s Keegan Kolesar, a former third-rounder who’s scored three goals in 54 games spread out over three seasons for the Knights. There’s Peyton Krebs, the team’s 17th overall choice in 2019, who’s still waiting on his first career NHL goal. There’s Jake Leschyshyn, who as of this writing doesn’t even have a picture on hockey-reference.com. And there’s Michael “Eetsa Me” Amadio, who’s cycled through four different teams in 2021 alone.
Why were these guys all getting simultaneous opportunities to score (or, uh, not score) on Jack Campbell? Because, sadly, they are the best that Vegas can ice right now. The Knights have caught a ridiculous number of bad breaks this year, literally and figuratively. There’s no reasonable way to even run them all down without a bulleted list.
- William Karlsson, the franchise’s all-time leader in goals, broke his foot when it was hit with a shot on Friday against Anaheim. He’ll miss around six weeks.
- Max Pacioretty, the Knights’ top scorer last year, is week-to-week with what his coach called a “flukey” lower-body fracture.
- Team captain Mark Stone has a mysterious issue that’s kept him day-to-day since the second game of the season.
- Alex Tuch, a productive winger, is out until January because of shoulder surgery.
- Nolan Patrick, the recently acquired youngster who still has a high ceiling despite disappointing in Philly, won’t get a chance to step up as long as he’s on injured reserve.
- Zach Whitecloud, who just signed a lengthy extension, has been week-to-week with an upper-body issue after leaving the team’s fourth game.
That’s pretty rough for a team with 73 games left to go. For as much as players and staff want to trot out the old cliches about the next man up and pushing through adversity, there’s a point where the medical issues just get overwhelming. While the Knights limped into Tuesday on a bit of warm streak, having won their previous three to improve their record to 4-4-0, they were completely outclassed in Toronto by a Leafs team that seemed eager to put its early-season struggles in the past and beat a Frankensteined group of prospects, journeymen, and a few legit threats.
The Vegas forwards in particular played as you might expect, losing the scoring-chance battle 16-1 in the first period and extending the Knights’ power-play drought to 0 for its first 18 opportunities of the year. Toronto, on the other hand, had all of its stars ready to pounce on an overmatched Robin Lehner in net: Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander all scored as the Leafs won 4-0.
Complicating matters further for the Knights right now is that the Pacific might end up providing a tougher test that originally assumed. The Oilers are, of course, really good. But so are, more unexpectedly, the Flames, the Sharks, and the Ducks—though those last two in particular may not have staying power. As of this moment, the Knights sit in sixth place out of eight in the division, so if they can’t figure out a way to at least tread water with all their top guys out, they’ll have a slightly uncomfortable amount of terrain to make up later on in the year.
The bright side is that it’s only November, and the Knights could very well be back at full strength, and perhaps even better rested than their foes, by the time the Olympics are over. A team would much rather have these issues now than down the stretch, or into the playoffs—but that’s only if they have to have them at all.