Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023 | 2 a.m.
With 31 games left in the regular season and 24 days until the trade deadline, it’s about to be a hectic time for the Golden Knights.
Taking out the trash and forgetting what happened in the first half of the season would be a step in the right direction.
“If you could take a big garbage in the middle of the room, have everyone grab something and throw it in there and burn it, so we could get our mojo back,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.
That’s the mindset the Golden Knights are heading into this final stretch of the season with still plenty to play for.
Vegas resumes play in Nashville on Tuesday (5 p.m., ATTSN-RM) very much in the thick of postseason contention. The Golden Knights are second in the Pacific Division in terms of points percentage, trailing the Seattle Kraken who have two games in hand.
But this season has been a far cry from the 13-2-0 start that the Golden Knights breezed through to begin the year. They’ve gone 16-16-4 since that time and went into the All-Star break losing seven of eight (1-5-2). More importantly, that stretch came without captain Mark Stone, who is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery on Jan. 31 for the second time in less than a year.
“You can’t replace Mark Stone,” said defenseman Zach Whitecloud, who has missed the last near-two months with a knee injury but is labeled a game-time decision against the Predators. “But we have guys who have been leaders in our room before that we’ve been leaning on for the past couple of years.”
A lot of clarity will come by the time the NHL’s trade deadline comes and goes on March 3, but perhaps no team in the league is in need of answers more than the Golden Knights. Some storylines to watch for in the second half of the season:
The trek to the trade deadline
Stone’s absence creates two certainties: The Golden Knights are without their best player for the immediate future again, and they’re likely to be players in the trade market yet again.
The $9.5 million cap hit attached to Stone, who is surely to go on long-term injured reserve, means the Golden Knights will get some wiggle room to make some additions prior to the noon deadline in 24 days.
But will the Golden Knights do what they’ve always tried to do and go after the biggest name on the trade market? Or will they use that salary relief in adding forward depth that can contribute without hindering their salary cap situation going forward?
Of course, the Golden Knights will be linked to Timo Meier (28 goals, 20 assists in 51 games), but the cost to pry the forward from division rival San Jose would be too steep, and the Sharks would likely not want him to stay in the Pacific Division.
There are also Chicago mainstays Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Both are in down years, but both could also benefit from a move to a contender for one more championship run. Both have also dealt with ailments over the past couple of years, including this season, that bring concern over the immediate timeline.
The Golden Knights have 10 games before the deadline, plenty of time to evaluate what they have. Given how they went into the break with seven losses in eight games, the evaluation period isn’t off to a great start.
Which Jack Eichel shows up?
Eichel says he’s fully recovered from the lower-body injury that sidelined him throughout December. Since returning to the lineup, he hasn’t been the same player.
Eichel went into the break with one point — an assist — in his last eight games. Those struggles also come as a product of playing without Stone to his right.
While that shows Stone’s importance in this lineup, it’s also a reflection that Eichel needs to be better. He was on a career-season pace at 29 points in 27 games before getting hurt, but hasn’t looked that way since.
“There’s going to be ups and downs throughout the course of a season. Nobody plays 82 games straight perfectly,” Eichel said. “It’s frustrating. We want to be better.”
That starts with Eichel. It hasn’t helped that he’s been through a revolving door of linemates that aren’t Chandler Stephenson and Stone.
The latest combination, per practice on Monday, was Eichel centering Paul Cotter and Jonathan Marchessault. How long that lasts remains to be seen.
Can the goalies keep it up?
You weren’t going to find better goaltending than what the Golden Knights got from Logan Thompson in his last two starts.
Vegas’ All-Star goalie was too harsh on himself following the 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey on Jan. 24, making 33 saves and numerous stops to keep his team in the game. Next time out, he made 36 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Islanders.
It was the best two-start stretch Thompson has put together in recent memory, but the win-loss record shows he’s 1-4-2 in his last seven starts. Should he continue this pace, the wins will come.
As for Adin Hill, after two stellar starts at the turn of the calendar year against Pittsburgh and Florida, Hill has given up three goals in each of his last two starts, losses to Detroit and the New York Rangers.
While the Golden Knights continue to figure out their scoring problems, the onus is on Vegas’ defensive zone play and goaltending to win those low-scoring games. Thompson and Hill have done their part, when applicable.
Especially with Laurent Brossoit ready and able in Henderson at any given moment, eyes will carry over to the goaltending department.
Woes at home
The good news for the Golden Knights is that 17 of their final 31 games are away from T-Mobile Arena. The fact that it’s considered ‘good news’ is a sign of how bad they’ve been at home.
Vegas is 14-13-0 at home while playing as one of the better road teams in the league at 15-5-4. Though they’ve lost their last four away from home, their stellar start on road ice is the main reason why the Golden Knights have stayed competitive.
After this two-game trip to Nashville and Minnesota, the Golden Knights will play six of their next eight at home before the trade deadline with winnable games (Anaheim, San Jose) and standard-setting games (Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina).
Cassidy said the reason for the struggles at home boils down to not scoring. The Golden Knights scored more than two goals in a loss at home just once, and have been outscored 52-21.
“Why that is, we’ve got to find a solution,” Cassidy said. “We’ve got to find a way to stay in the game. We just need to play better and more efficient.”
Danny Webster can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Danny on Twitter at twitter.com/DannyWebster21.