In the last few weeks we’ve heard a lot of conjecture about the direction of the upcoming NHL season. Initial projections of a mid-December or January 1 start have waned. The AHL announced it will begin play on February 5, 2021 – meaning Henderson Silver Knights fans will have to wait a little longer for the team’s debut. That announcement combined with Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley publicly noting a potential February 1 start seem to indicate a later start. If the NHL does go with a shortened season, it will most likely be in the 48-to-56 game range. Does a shortened NHL season favor Vegas?
Last time the NHL had to go with a shortened season, I was with the Nashville Predators. A few things stuck out to me about that 48-game campaign.
What To Look For
First was the importance of every single game. Three-game streaks mattered in both directions. The intensity was definitely up with such a short runway. The players were well aware of how much each game mattered. Having so much post-season experience despite being a relatively young franchise will serve the team well here.
Second, teams with good depth had an advantage. I don’t buy the idea that players are more susceptible to injury in a shortened season because they’re still playing games at roughly the same rate. If you compress the schedule my opinion changes because of the extra stress and fewer opportunities to rest. If injuries do rise, I believe it has more to do with the competitive nature of every night as opposed to a lack of rest or similar issue. That said, injuries happen. The teams that were able to succeed were the ones who could look down the lineup for someone to step up and contribute in a bigger role.
I believe that the Golden Knights are still one of the deepest teams in the league. They have three lines that can score and another that can change the momentum of a game on any shift. Defensively adding Alex Pietrangelo just made the top four even more talented. In net, even if Robin Lehner isn’t ready for the start of the season Marc-Andre Fleury is more than capable as a starter. When both goalies are healthy I’m hard-pressed to name a better tandem in the league.
Third, special teams importance increases tenfold in a shortened NHL season. In the 2019-20 season, the Vegas Golden Knights were 21-8-1 when scoring with the man advantage. When not allowing a power play goal against, they were 26-5-3 on the season. While Vegas played 71 games last year, it’s still a strong statement. Vegas went 22% on the power play (9th) in the regular season, and finished 76.6 % on the penalty kill, 27th out of 31 teams. Shorthanded improvement has to come from “not Pietrangelo” as at 30 his heavy PK minutes are behind him. Even with St. Louis this past season he was not among the team leaders in shorthanded minutes played.
Also when I think back to that season, I remember the travel wasn’t quite as manic. This was due to not trying to wedge in every team on the east coast into the season, instead concentrating on division and conference foes. For teams with an easier travel schedule this will pay dividends as well. Vegas has a nice setup with close access to opponents in Arizona, California, and the Midwest. I also think this will play as a VGK advantage.
The other thing a shortened NHL season tends to do is reward teams that get out of the gate quickly. I remember Mike Babcock saying when he coached in Detroit that he believed where you were after 20 games was roughly where you were going to finish. That logic is especially strong when applied to a short season, because you’re 2/5 of the way through at the 20-game mark. Vegas’ biggest concern will be settling who is the 2C behind William Karlsson as quickly as possible, but once they do things should be settled.
So on balance, I think a shortened NHL season is to the benefit of the Golden Knights. Roster depth, travel and familiarity all point towards a team ready to once again charge towards a Stanley Cup playoff berth, if not division and conference titles.
What do you think? Would a shorter season be more to the Golden Knights advantage? Let us know in the comments.
Finally! Vegas Unveils Adidas Reverse Retro Jersey
The Vegas Golden Knights finally took the official wraps off the team’s Adidas Reverse Retro jersey today. Featuring a red body with the secondary logo on the crest and striping that harkens back to the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder, the jerseys will be worn on specially-chosen dates next season.
Every NHL team revealed a Reverse Retro jersey for next season, and we will take a look at all of them in a subsequent article.
Meanwhile, here’s the intro video for the new VGK threads: Reverse Retro Explained
While I suppose it’s easy to say when you’re the victor, the NHL actually allowing a reference to the IHL is impressive. For those who may not know, the International Hockey League attempted to go head-to-head with the NHL in the 90s, much the way the old WHA did. IHL teams boasted plenty of star power, many of whom were household names to NHL fans of the era. In Vegas, fans watched Curtis Joseph, Clint Malarchuk, Pokey Reddick and even Manon Rheaume in net. Big name skaters included Wes McCauley, Petr Nedved, Alexei Yashin and Sergei Zholtok. And a few interesting one-and-dones, including Danny Briere and Glen Gulutzan.
So to throw it back to that 1995 prime for the Thunder is a great tip of the cap to the rich fabric of Vegas hockey history. Starting with the 1968 debut of the Las Vegas Gamblers of the old PSHL and consistently since the early 90s, fans have had a team to cheer for. In a way it’s amazing to think there’s now two hockey teams in the Las Vegas area with the introduction of the Henderson Silver Knights coming this season.
The v-shaped stripes look completely at home with the Golden Knights color scheme. As I said previously, the red body of the jersey looks better in person than it might have in leaks. And I also love the secondary logo moving up front, because it’s unique to Vegas. While I’m not a fan of every RR jersey, the VGK and Adidas knocked it out of the park on this one.
Jerseys will go on sale December 1 through the Golden Knights retail outlets, Adidas’ online store and the NHL’s online store. Additional retailers will be able to carry the sweater starting December 6.
How Long Will Fleury Remain Happy Behind Lehner?
It’s happened to him before. Marc-Andre Fleury has been cast aside in favor of a younger goaltender, this time Robin Lehner. Last time in Pittsburgh, it was Matt Murray. But the Penguins knew Fleury was going to be an attractive target in the upcoming expansion draft and held onto him, leading to his selection by the Vegas Golden Knights. Will the Knights now do the same? Can they actually play the entire 2020-21 season with Fleury and Lehner wedged into the goal crease?
In short – how long will Marc-Andre Fleury remain happy behind Robin Lehner?
We know there’s discontent here. Your agent doesn’t tweet out a photo of you with a sword running through your back bearing the name of your head coach without your knowledge and/or consent.
Want proof? If your agent were to issue that type of statement and it really upset you, you’d change agents. Plus Fleury has been with Allan Walsh for so long it’s hard to imagine those two not being in lockstep on messaging. But as much as Fleury is going to say and do the right things, that’s why you have an agent. He or she is able to deliver messages to management without it being personal. It also allows what the law calls plausible deniability.
Just reading between the lines, it appears Fleury has not been happy with the coaching change as it pertains to his playing time. What athlete is ever happy about losing a starting gig? But politics aren’t the only thing at play here.
Let’s start with the most obvious and most talked-about elephant in the room. Marc-Andre Fleury is slated to be the backup this season. That wouldn’t be an issue if Fleury didn’t make a whopping $7M a year for the next two years. But that salary could easily net you three more players (or more) of an NHL caliber. Probably even one really good one and a couple of depth guys.
Heck, you could even get an NHL-caliber backup in that role behind Lehner if you’re not comfortable with Oscar Dansk yet. Given that Dansk was the player they chose to introduce the new Henderson Silver Knights jerseys, that tells me they see him as a Henderson fixture in year one.
But wait, didn’t VGK GM Kelly McCrimmon already say the team’s goaltenders moving forward are Fleury and Lehner? And isn’t Lehner having shoulder surgery?
Yes to both. But there’s also more to both.
There’s Only One Net… and More Money
It appears that Vegas is hedging its bets here. Clearly Lehner is the favored son over Fleury for head coach Pete DeBoer. But while McCrimmon said that Lehner should be ready for the start of training camp off his shoulder surgery, what happens if he’s not? Having Marc-Andre Fleury on the roster solves the problem. He’s a capable starter and fan favorite. Stashing Lehner on LTIR saves you $5M in cap room and allows you to start the season with a cushion. It also gives you time to shop Fleury. Teams will find that the solution they signed isn’t working, or an injury derails a team’s plans. Things happen, and if Fleury could end up in a situation where a team needs a starter and could flip another asset back to the VGK so much the better.
If Lehner is healthy enough to start the season and Fleury is second fiddle, regardless of what McCrimmon says it’s not a good situation for the team to have $12M tied up in its goaltenders. In fact, that $7M cap hit ties Fleury for the fourth-highest hit in the league with Tuukka Rask. Lehner’s $5M hit ties for 13th overall in the league. While it’s not quite the Montreal Canadiens $14.85M cap hit between Carey Price and Jake Allen, the Habs also have only one player making more than $5.5M on his cap hit (Shea Weber).
Without getting into the weeds here, it’s too much money in goalies. Especially considering Fleury makes more than every starting goalie in the league not named Price, Rask, Andrei Vasilevskiy or Sergei Bobrovsky.
Back In The Day
If we look back at the situation when Fleury was in Pittsburgh, he sat behind Murray for over a year. Make no mistake, Fleury will put the team first and be a good citizen. He says and does the right things. Fleury only had two appearances (one start) in the 2016 Playoffs when Murray became a household name and led the Pens to victory out of nowhere. Yet when he was called upon to take the reins back from Murray in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he did an incredible job until Murray’s return in the middle of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators.
In fact, if you go back and read this article from the start of the 2017 playoffs without context, you could be forgiven if you imagined it was written recently. Familiar themes from last year: a rough start to the season, losing his starting job, teammates still love him, people say they never lost confidence in his ability.
From the article:
“In the month of March, we played 16 games in 31 days,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We relied on both of them through that process. The fact we were able to share [goaltending] duties really helped our team in that condensed schedule down the stretch. Marc was a big part of that. He’s a great goaltender. He’s a terrific kid, he’s a great competitor, he’s a good pro. He’s a great teammate.”
Replace Sullivan with Pete DeBoer. Or McCrimmon. Or anyone on the Golden Knights staff.
Fleury played 15 games, won nine, and ended up earning his third Stanley Cup – but was a spectator for the Final against Nashville.
They couldn’t have done it without him.
Now Vegas finds itself in fantastic-yet-terrible situation of having two top shelf starters. The contract given to Lehner clearly indicates he’s the man for the VGK going forward. Will the financial gap be a cause of friction? How much of an issue will playing time become?
We know that Fleury is the man while Lehner recovers from shoulder surgery, however long that may be. It doesn’t make sense to move Fleury when you might need him to carry the load initially. And as the 2017 Penguins found, he can be an invaluable insurance policy. So it makes sense the Golden Knights will say they want to keep both players. Plus, the Seattle Kraken will be making selections in the expansion draft and if Vegas can somehow afford to keep him all season Fleury might once again be starting a new franchise.
But Fleury will be 36 when this season begins. His contract has two seasons left on it, and after that he’s clearly due for a salary reduction. This off-season hasn’t been kind to older goalies, with names like Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson and Ryan Miller wondering if they’ll play another NHL game. Expect that trend to continue in the cap crunched world. Fleury does have a leg up in that he has more Cups than those three put together. And he seems to be finding ways to defy everyone just when it appears his game is going to drop off for good. Finally, Fleury sits on 466 career wins and if he’s going to get to 500 he has to play games.
History tells us Fleury will go along with things and put on a happy face regardless of how he feels personally. The real question is how long it lasts.
Pressure Mounts for NHL Return Plan
COVID-19 is once again raging across the United States. Over 1 million cases have been reported since the start of November. Despite that, the NFL and CFB are playing. The NBA wants to and soon. What’s happening with the NHL return?
According to a report from ESPN, the NBPA has approved the December 22 return to play for the 2020-21 season. The expectation is that the season would include 72 games instead of the usual 82, with training camps to start December 1. The financial details remain to be ironed out including an amended CBA for the season, but it looks like a go.
The pressure is mounting on the NHL to do the same.
To this point, the NHL has been setting optimistic dates for a return and has moved them back. January 1 was the most recent date set but in recent discussions February 1 has been floated more and more often. Even Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley believes February 1 is a more likely target date. His reasons include needing fans in the building and giving more time to potential COVID-19 mitigation including any potential vaccines.
That said, the NHL reiterated (perhaps because of the NBA timeline) it wishes to resume January 1.
Today, Commissioner Gary Bettman came out with some potential NHL return to play plans including short-term hubs, a temporary realignment and a shorter schedule.
Bettman’s remarks came at the Paley International Summit during a virtual panel discussion. He made it clear there would be no full-season bubble requirement, but offered some modified versions. Bettman spoke of potential hubs, or a hybrid system, with teams gathering for 10-12 days to play games with no travel, then returning home to families for a week. He also mentioned the league is looking at playing with and without fans in attendance, something Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is against. He said it would be difficult for teams “including us” to make it financially without fans. It’s unclear how the NHL would convince owners to operate their franchises if they’re hemorrhaging money.
Another major issue is the Canadian border with the US is closed until at least January 1, which has led to rampant speculation about an all-Canadian division to at least start the season. This would also require the realignment of the remaining teams into different divisions. It’s unclear if this would last until the border opens for for the duration of a shortened season.
But now another travel issue is cropping up as COVID-19 rages across the US once again: certain states are not allowing citizens of other states to travel in, while others are requiring quarantines of up to two weeks. This lends credence to Bettman’s hub city approach in places where travel is either unrestricted or simply requires a negative test before entering. Either way, it’s an extra hoop to jump through in what already resembles a circus balancing act.
Tokyo Olympics Impact
The NHL really does have an end date for this season: the Tokyo Olympics. American broadcast rightsholder NBC Sports also hold the rights to the Tokyo games and would not pre-empt its coverage for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So the Cup has to be handed out prior to mid-July or risk being awarded in a vacuum.
Even the NBA acknowledged it needed to wrap up before opening ceremonies.
Truth be told, I’m sure everyone from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to Joe and Jane Golden Knights Fan would love to get the season started ASAP. But it has to be done with safety as the top priority. After that, profitability needs to be there too. That’s where it gets sticky for owners.
Whether the league plays 82 or 48 games this season, owners do not have a provision to pro-rate player salaries for this year. That means exactly what you think it does. Regardless of games played, each player would get his full salary for the season. So owners are rightly concerned about having fans in the building to help cover expenses, and why a few owners might have even quietly suggested not playing this year if there’s no fans.
The NBA expects that a restart on Dec. 22 that includes Christmas Day games in its 72-game schedule would be worth $500M to $1B in short and long-term revenues for the league and players. The league also expects to wrap its schedule up prior to the mid-July start of the Tokyo games.
The Real Question
The real question is one of economics. If you play, you pay full boat players salaries. You bear the cost of travel, all staff, and keeping the lights on. Does the broadcast revenue and ancillary sales (merch, etc.) come close to making you whole? Or at least outstrip the losses sustained from missing a year?
The hardest impact to measure would be missing the season and the effect on future income. Except the NHL has a real-world example in the 2004-05 season, lost to a cancellation amid labor negotiations. I realize a lot has changed in 15 years, but the sting is still felt by many on all sides. The players balked at accepting a deal they could have had a year earlier resulting in the current salary cap. Ownership hated missing a year’s worth of gate and other revenue, but NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told them to stand together and they did. But millions of dollars was lost in revenue and some fans checked out in disgust.
As I mentioned earlier, VGK owner Bill Foley has voiced – publicly – his financial concerns with no fans in the stands. If Foley, whose franchise is doing well at the gate, in merch and on the ice is concerned, can you imagine the pucker factor in cities where the playoffs and full houses are but wishful thinking? Foley is not alone on this. Not by a long shot.
Is There An Answer?
This is where transparency for an NHL return is important. How do you plan to go about making sure teams don’t fold or go up for sale because of financial duress caused by the pandemic? While those reasons are understandable, they are also something the league needs to be proactive about avoiding. What are the plans? How can you reassure fans of **insert team here** that it’s going to be ok? Information abhors a vacuum. The less said, the more rumors will swirl. The answer is for the NHL to step up and at least unveil some of its planning. I’m not asking for specific, team-by-team financial details. I do want a clear vision of leadership as to where the league is headed.
Will the NHL return on January 1? It’s not out of the question, but for that to happen a lot of things need to be resolved – and explained – before then.