Hockey isn’t generally known as the most predictable of sports, but this year has mostly seen the NHL stray from that rule. So far in 2021-22, favorites in our Elo model have won 61.2 percent of their games, their greatest success rate in any regular season since 2005-06 (and nearly as good as the normally far more predictable NBA’s 64.8 percent rate for favorites this season). Of the top 10 teams in our preseason NHL Elo ratings, seven have gone on to rank among the current top 10 in points percentage, and eight have at least a 98 percent chance of making the playoffs. The only exceptions are the New York Islanders — a team the metrics have been dubious about for years despite several postseason runs — and, in a true shocker, the Vegas Golden Knights.
Vegas is currently just out of playoff position, sitting a point behind the Dallas Stars for the second and final wild-card position in the Western Conference. Our Elo simulations don’t like Vegas’s chances: We give the Golden Knights just a 35 percent chance to make the playoffs, making them the West’s ninth-most-likely playoff team (in a conference where only eight clubs make the playoffs). During a year when the favorites have almost uniformly been as strong as advertised, Vegas’s struggles stand out, particularly if we consider how high a standard the franchise has set from the moment it came into existence.
Going into the season, the Golden Knights weren’t giving off the vibes of a team in decline. During the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign, Vegas led the NHL in goal differential with a plus-67 mark, tying the Colorado Avalanche for the league’s best record during the regular season.1 The Knights also beat the talented Avs head-to-head in a heavyweight playoff series before being upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinal, finishing two games shy of playing for the Stanley Cup. It was the third time Vegas had posted double-digit playoff wins in the previous four postseasons; only the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning (with 45 wins) have more playoff victories since 2018 than the Golden Knights’ tally of 38.
For 2021-22, the Knights lost stalwart netminder Marc-Andre Fleury in a trade with Chicago, parting ways with a Vezina Trophy finalist who had helped Vegas finish fourth in total goaltending goals above replacement.2 But otherwise, the Golden Knights were reloading with 10 of their next 11 best players by GAR returning, and the lone exception — winger Alex Tuch — was part of a deal that landed Vegas a 25-year-old former MVP candidate in center Jack Eichel. Provided that goalie Robin Lehner (who had been splitting starts with Fleury for the past couple seasons) could keep up the team’s goaltending, Vegas easily seemed poised to challenge for a second Stanley Cup Final appearance in its short five-year tenure as an NHL team.
Little of that formula has gone according to plan.
Up until his recent injury, Lehner was merely average in net (with a 100 adjusted Goals Allowed Percentage, or GA%-),3 while backup Laurent Brossoit has been one of the league’s worst dozen or so regular goalies. Now Brossoit is splitting starts with rookie Logan Thompson as the team is waiting for Lehner to return and potentially improve its 25th-place ranking in goaltending GAR. But although the situation in net has played a major role in Vegas’s decline — find me a disappointing club who wasn’t undone by shaky goaltending — it is far from the team’s only letdown this year.
Injuries have ripped through the roster all season. An offense that ranked third in scoring last season is down to No. 16 this year, with 2020-21 leading scorers Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty missing a combined 75 games to date. Although center Jonathan Marchessault has held up his performance,4 most of Vegas’s leading producers from last season have seen their numbers decline precipitously. Eichel made his debut only in mid-February, scoring a career-low 0.61 points per game so far. Meanwhile, a defense corps that ranked No. 1 in GAR last season has dropped to 10th, as Norris Trophy candidate Shea Theodore has slipped from a league-leading 21.4 GAR per 82 team games to a merely solid 10.8 (26th). Five of the team’s top six D-men from 2020-21 have declined in GAR per 82 this season; young blueliner Zach Whitecloud (who is seeing more playing time) is the only one of the bunch to improve.
Even Vegas’s secret weapon — its home-ice advantage — has been muted this year. From 2017-18 through 2020-21, the Golden Knights had the NHL’s fourth-best home record, finishing fifth in 2017-18 and fifth again last season. This year, the Knights’ home record ranks 17th. Add in a road record that also ranks 17th, and it’s no wonder Vegas is fighting for its postseason life in what has become a surprisingly crowded Western Conference playoff picture.
Maybe the most jarring part of Vegas’s up-and-down season is simply that it took so long for one of them to happen. After winning their first three games of 2017-18 as a prelude to the best expansion season in pro sports history, the Golden Knights have never had an all-time cumulative winning percentage below .554. (They’ve also never had a losing season.) Through 423 games, Vegas’s current winning percentage across its team history is .579; for comparison, the average mark for all nine other modern expansion teams through 423 games was .395. Relative to new-franchise standards — including the woeful Seattle Kraken this year — Vegas remains well ahead of the curve.
Even the fact that a 34-32 season qualifies as a down performance speaks volumes about the success Vegas has become accustomed to. The team has seldom ever gone 66 consecutive games with a .500 record or worse; before this month, the last time that had happened was in February 2020, after which point the team eventually rebounded to make the Western Conference finals.
This year’s Golden Knights have the talent to be better than they have shown, especially if they ever get fully healthy. (Right now, their injury list remains extensive.) Our Elo simulations still give Vegas a 1 percent chance of making the Stanley Cup Final, which would go up conditional on the team making the playoffs. But the Knights also had so little salary cap room this week that, even as fellow contenders were adding pieces at the trade deadline, Vegas’s only move was a cap-clearing salary-dump deal that has since been rejected because a player was inadvertently dealt in violation of his no-trade clause.
That’s just the kind of season it’s been for Vegas so far. While the Golden Knights still have the time (and talent) to salvage something special out of this year, the prospect of a playoff field that doesn’t contain them — nearly inconceivable before puck dropped on the season back in October — is now more likely to happen than not.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.