Time will tell if the end of the Golden Knights’ 2021-22 season is one to remember. But the start sure isn’t one many will forget.
Injuries, COVID-related absences and a blockbuster trade for center Jack Eichel have led to an eventful first 21 games for the Knights. Their 12-9 record, tied for the 16th-best in the NHL, isn’t all that remarkable. How they got there is.
The Knights have weathered a storm of adversity to still be in the thick of the playoff race with December about to begin. They have work to do to get into a more comfortable position for the postseason, but the team isn’t unhappy with where it sits.
“I’ve never seen that many injuries and adversity that early in the season with any team I’ve coached,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “The league has an ability to bury you in a deep hole if you don’t handle it the right way. I think our group has handled it the right way. Hopefully a lot of it is in the rearview mirror here.”
Here are three things that stick out about the Knights at the quarter mark:
1. Depth scoring
Four of the Knights’ top seven scorers from last season — captain Mark Stone, left wing Max Pacioretty, center William Karlsson and right wing Alex Tuch — have appeared in a combined 21 games this year.
It would’ve made sense if the team’s offense cratered as a result. But it didn’t. The Knights are tied for 11th in the NHL in goals per game (3.1) and have had no problem creating scoring chances. They’ve generated the third-most high-danger scoring chances in the league per 60 minutes at five-on-five.
It’s taken contributions from all kinds of players to keep the Knights’ offense afloat. Center Chandler Stephenson is having a career season with 20 points in 21 games. Left wing Jonathan Marchessault has nine goals and 14 points in 16 games.
The Knights also have goals from three rookies in center Jake Leschyshyn, right wing Jonas Rondbjerg and left wing Paul Cotter and a waiver claim in center Adam Brooks. They’ve used 33 players, two off the team record, and gotten at least a point from 27 of them.
“We’re getting a little bit of resilience back in our game the last month,” Marchessault said. “We’re (becoming) a tougher team to play against.”
2. Goalie tandem working
They decided the NHL’s No. 1 duo was too expensive against the cap, so they kept Robin Lehner, added Laurent Brossoit as a free agent and got some extra money to spread across their roster. It had the potential to backfire if the drop-off in net was steep. So far, it hasn’t been.
Lehner and Brossoit likely won’t compete for the Jennings, but they’ve given the Knights a chance in almost every game. Lehner ranks 13th in goals saved above expected at 6.3 and Brossoit is 29th at 1.2, according to MoneyPuck.com.
The Knights are one of seven teams, along with Calgary, Carolina, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington, with two goaltenders in the top 30.
“They’ve been our best players,” DeBoer said. “With what we’ve gone through, I think our goaltending has been the backbone of our group so far. Almost every night we get excellent goaltending, which gives us a chance to hang around.”
3. Defense needs work
One of the reasons the Knights’ goaltenders have looked good is because they’ve had plenty of opportunities to excel.
Both netminders have been forced to make quality saves because of the coverage in front of them, or lack thereof. The Knights are allowing the fourth-most shot attempts, the third-most scoring chances and the second-most high-danger chances at five-on-five per 60 minutes in the NHL.
Those numbers have improved in recent weeks as the team has gotten healthier. They’ve allowed the 10th-most high-danger chances since the start of their six-game homestand Nov. 9, for example. But games like Saturday’s against Edmonton — when the Knights were doomed by the number of odd-man rushes they allowed — show they still have a ways to go.
“If we clean that up, I feel like we can go on a run,” Lehner said after the Oilers’ loss. “But it needs to be fixed fast.”