The Rangers have not hired a new bench boss since dismissing Gerard Gallant after their 4-0 defeat in game seven. The Rangers are searching for an identity and a winning philosophy, something Vegas has established through their four conference finals appearances and two Cup finals in their first six years of existence.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season, the Knights canned Peter Debor. Ironically, Debor found a new home with the Dallas Stars, who Vegas thrashed 6-0 in game six on Monday night to secure their berth in the Stanley Cup Finals.
They brought in Bruce Cassidy, who coached Boston for six years and made the Final in 2019. Cassidy is known as a “Barker” and no-nonsense coach. Gallant was seen as the opposite, and he only lasted two years before he. was given the boot.
In their exit interview meetings with GM Chris Drury, some Rangers players expressed their desire for direction and felt Gallant, known as a “hands-off and calm” coach, wasn’t giving it to them. Cassidy’s approach took a toll on the Bruins players, and it got to the point where 25-year-old Jake Debrusk requested a trade, only to rescind it once Jim Montgomery became the coach.
Cassidy refused to change his ways upon his arrival in Vegas, where a more seasoned group awaited his instruction. However, the “Barker” approach worked this time, and the Golden Knights took off.
Led by a healthy Jack Eichel (66 points in 67regular season games, 18 points in 12 playoff games), Vegas took the one seed in the Western Conference, blasted the Winnipeg Jets in five, ousted the Edmonton Oilers in six, and starstruck Dallas in six to reach the final. Eichel is at the forefront of a middle group that includes William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, Ivan Barbashev, Teddy Bluger, Brett Howden, and Nicolas Roy. Don’t forget winger Jonathan Marchessault (57 points, 76 regular season games, 17 points in 17 playoff games) or defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (54 points, 73 regular season games, nine points, 16. playoff games) either.
But it was the defensive aspect of the game and not the offensive that kept Vegas out of the playoffs last year despite the team running near the top of the league in man games lost. The Golden Knights averaged 3.20 goals per game. Goals against, however, came in at 2.98.
So, Vegas retained their scoring even with Eichel, William Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Riley Smith, and Mark Stone having extended absences this season. Players like Phil Kessel, Nicolas Roy, Michael Amadio and Keegan Kolesar stepped up with their exceptional two-way play.
But what about that subpar defense? What about their logjam in the crease? Those were the two questions that kept an abundance of the hockey world taking them seriously. So what changed? How has Vegas righted the ship?
The answer came in the way Cassidy went about his defensive systems. Rather than pick a strategy and stick to it, they defended based on the goaltender’s weaknesses. It didn’t matter who was in the net so long as they were defensively sound. Vegas finished the regular season with 2.7 GA per 60 minutes.
Still, come playoff time, the Knights needed to rely on a netminder that could steal a game or two and be the difference in a playoff series. They thought rookie Logan Thomson, who nearly single-handily put them in the postseason last year, would be the answer, but injuries ended his season early.
So Vegas acquired a declining Jonathan Quick at the trade deadline hoping for a resurrection of his hall-of-fame self, but that dream died quickly as his struggles continued. Ultimately, Laurent Brossoit started the postseason for Vegas and played well in the round one series victory over Winnipeg but suffered a lower-body injury in game two against Edmonton.
So the team turned back to 27-year-old Adin Hill, who they acquired from the San Jose Sharks last Summer, for a 2024 4th-round pick. Hill appeared in 27 regular season games and was steady in his 27 games of work, where he accumulated a .915 save percentage, a 2.45 Goals against average, and a +0.9 Goals Saved Above Expected.
But entrusted with the starter’s net for the last 11 games, Hill has elevated his play and enters the final 7-2-1 with a .937 save percentage, a 2.07 GAA, and a +6.4 Goals Saved Above Expected. It’s safe to say Vegas has found its man.
Despite mistakes, primarily in the goaltending department, which included dealing Marc-Andre Fleury following his Vezina trophy season in 2021, Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee have built a perpetual contender in Vegas that should be back in 2023-24. As it turned out, all they needed to be a contender again was a return to health and a fresh perspective behind the bench.
Led by star-studded head athletic trainer Jim. Ramsy, who was mysteriously let go by the organization after 29 years with them, the Rangers were one of the healthiest teams in the league throughout the season. So if Chris Drury is taking notes, hiring a “Barker” behind the bench seems to be the right fit regarding who the next coach will be. Vegas kept their players but changed the coach and are now in the Stanley Cup Final.