The crushing disappointment that was the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2021-22 season was not without consequences. On Monday, the club announced the dismissal of head coach Pete DeBoer who had held the role for the past three seasons. While not completely unexpected, the move does raise a new set of questions about the Golden Knights’ offseason and their direction moving forward.
Here are the takeaways from DeBoer’s firing.
Why DeBoer’s Gone
DeBoer’s arrival in Vegas corresponded with the club’s decision to move on from Gerard Gallant, who had guided the team to the Stanley Cup Final in year one, followed by a first-round exit in year two. Though the Golden Knights weren’t able to capitalize on their incredible inaugural season, Gallant’s firing was nevertheless shocking, seeing that he was just over 18 months removed from winning the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.
DeBoer’s termination doesn’t carry the same shockwaves. There’s no question that the veteran bench boss, who surpassed 500 NHL wins last season, has enjoyed a successful (98-50-12) run with the Golden Knights. But no amount of injuries can fully justify a roster that costs $92 million and features names like Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Alex Pietrangelo and yet wasn’t among the 16 playoff teams. The team even benefited from playing in the weak Pacific Division.
Questionable communication practices that dogged DeBoer throughout his tenure came to a head with the puzzling and embarrassing Robin Lehner fiasco. Late in the season, DeBoer refuted reports that the Golden Knights’ No. 1 goalie was set to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, only for the team to officially announce the surgery days later. Compounding the issue were thinly veiled criticisms from the coach about Lehner’s play and dedication.
While DeBoer’s fate may have already been sealed by that point, how he handled Lehner was probably reflective of other relationships he had with players and personnel. At the very least, it highlights the toxic environment that had manifested itself by season’s end and needed to change.
Who Replaces DeBoer?
Once DeBoer was fired, it didn’t take a team insider to connect the Golden Knights to legendary coach Barry Trotz, most recently of the New York Islanders. Not only is Trotz a brilliant hockey mind, but he’s the type of big ‘get’ that owner Bill Foley seems to love chasing (see Max Pacioretty, Stone, Pietrangelo, and Eichel, among others). For a veteran team in win-now mode that needs to put a painful season behind them, Trotz seems like a no-brainer.
It doesn’t hurt that the list of available coaches beyond Trotz is thin. Alain Vigneault doesn’t carry the same stature that he once did and seems like something of a retread, while Paul Maurice is a close friend of DeBoer and might be too loyal to fill the role he vacated, and Joel Quenneville and Mike Babcock come with no shortage of red flags.
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Another hurdle for Vegas is that assistants Steve Spott and Ryan Craig followed DeBoer out the door, leaving few viable internal coaching candidates to ascend to the head job. One interesting name that might warrant consideration is Henderson Silver Knights coach Manny Viveiros, who has led the organization’s AHL affiliate to a .589% points percentage over two pandemic-affected seasons, although it’s fair to wonder if a rookie NHL coach would carry much of a voice in a veteran locker room that holds plenty of security.
Pressure’s On McCrimmon
Rather than who management will chase for the head coaching job, the tougher – and perhaps more important – question is whether potential candidates will want the role. What was not long ago among the most coveted jobs in the league has lost some shine amidst the club’s public missteps (Lehner and the failed Evgenii Dadonov trade, to name two), not to mention a cap-strapped roster filled with long-term contracts. Do prospective coaches see a team ready to contend or a team in decline?
Much of that falls on general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who will likely keep his job, at least for the time being. While the former Brandon Wheat Kings owner might have earned some leeway given last season’s injury woes and a blockbuster trade for a player who had to spend at least some of the season getting his legs back, that won’t last long. Now, not only has McCrimmon used up his “blame the coach” card, but he will also face increased expectations for bounce-back campaigns from Eichel and the injured Knights.
Quite frankly, getting rid of DeBoer was the easy part of the offseason. Beyond choosing his successor, McCrimmon will now be tasked with navigating unrestricted free agent Reilly Smith and a host of restricted free agents, deciding on the future of Lehner, and maintaining a competitive roster while also achieving at least a bit of cap flexibility (which could mean finding takers for Dadonov and/or Laurent Brossoit). Things are already off to a bumpy start with the news that Stone will likely undergo back surgery.
To their credit, McCrimmon and the Golden Knights are not using last year’s rash of injuries as an excuse, and they certainly weren’t enough to save DeBoer’s job. Still, now comes the hard part. The front office must somehow find a way to maintain the club’s front-line talent and depth, all while gaining flexibility against a cap only set to increase by $1 million. Now, adding a fresh and effective voice in the room has been added to what promises to be a challenging summer.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.