Bruce Cassidy recused himself from conversations involving Adin Hill when the Golden Knights began zoning in on the 27-year-old goaltender as a trade target before the season. Vegas’ first-year coach says he “knew very little about” the then-San Jose Sharks’ backup, whom Cassidy never encountered during his stint coaching the Boston Bruins, so he felt it would be better if the front office handled the pursuit entirely.
“I just remember an analytics sort-of [report on] strengths and weaknesses, and they thought in the system we were going to play, he would be good,” Cassidy recalled before a recent playoff game. “I don’t want to get into all the numbers, but he’d just be a good fit—big guy, controls rebounds, makes saves he’s supposed to, etc. We’d see if we could improve his game.”
Cassidy’s system has helped the 6-foot-6, 205-pound goalie shed the “raw prospect” tag he had carried since the Arizona Coyotes selected him in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Hill has ascended to a level where he doesn’t look at all out of place as the backstop on a team in the Stanley Cup Playoff semifinals.
Hill is actually a big reason the Golden Knights are close to reaching their second-ever Stanley Cup Final, having outplayed more acclaimed Dallas Stars goalie Jake Oettinger during a 2-0 start to the Western Conference Final.
Bringing in Hill should be regarded as another masterful move by a Golden Knights’ hockey operations department that has orchestrated many of them over the past year and a half. Such praise has been rare for George McPhee, president of hockey operations, and Kelly McCrimmon, general manager, after the pair seemed to fall out of favor with the majority of the fanbase last season, when the Golden Knights missed the playoffs for the only time in their history.
McPhee and McCrimmon might have made some mistakes in the past, particularly as it pertains to handling relationships with players and managing the salary cap. But they always explained that every decision was made to give the Golden Knights the best chance to win a championship.
Many questioned, and even mocked, their ability to do so, but no one should any longer. Whether the Golden Knights ultimately parade the Stanley Cup down the Strip this year or not, McPhee and McCrimmon have proven they can use their aggressive approach to build a championship-caliber roster.
Vegas’ personnel can’t be described at any lower tier than that after posting the Western Conference’s best record in the regular season—the top mark in franchise history—and looking even better so far in the playoffs.
And the real genius of the front office might have come in the way it has made on-the-fly moves this season that appeared marginal at first but have made a major difference in the playoffs. Fan bases are often critical of their teams’ trades, but there’s been an extra level of vitriol reserved for McPhee and McCrimmon lately whenever they’ve made a decision.
Some called a trade-deadline deal with the St. Louis Blues for Ivan Barbashev short-sighted and graded it as a loss after the Golden Knights shipped out one of their top prospects, former first-round pick Zach Dean. Detractors accused the Golden Knights of paying for a pending free agent scorer in Barbashev who wasn’t really scoring anymore.
But much like Hill’s ascent under Cassidy, Barbashev has thrived in his new environs. He has raised his shooting percentage drastically in Las Vegas—19% combined between the regular season and postseason, as opposed to 11% this year in St. Louis—and scored a pair of big goals to help Vegas to a 1-0 series lead against the Edmonton Oilers in the second round.
“It was a really good deal by McCrimmon at the deadline to add that element,” Cassidy said. “You need those guys in the playoffs.”
The player Vegas acquired a few days after Barbashev arrived, Teddy Blueger, has also already paid off the price the Golden Knights gave to Pittsburgh for him—a third-round pick and a prospect—with a big moment of his own. Blueger scored a go-ahead goal late in the Golden Knights’ eventual 4-3 overtime win against the Stars in Game 1.
At press time, he had only been active for four games after starting the postseason as a healthy scratch but has since centered the fourth line and given the unit the bite Cassidy craves for his depth to provide.
No discussion on recent Vegas personnel moves is complete without referencing the biggest trade in franchise history. Controversy really raged early last season, when Vegas landed superstar Jack Eichel for a king’s ransom—fan favorite Alex Tuch, top prospect Peyton Krebs and a trio of draft picks.
Those who disliked the deal might have felt momentarily validated by the Golden Knights’ disappointing finish last season, but a year later, Eichel is showing exactly why McPhee and McCrimmon went after him with such determination.
The hope was that the 26-year-old former No. 2 overall pick could fix the offensive woes that had held the Golden Knights back in previous playoff runs. In Game 2 against Dallas, Vegas was in an all-too-familiar offensive slog until about a quarter through the third period, when Eichel took over.
Down 2-1, the Golden Knights got an equalizing goal with under three minutes to play, when Eichel fired a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Jonathan Marchessault on a play that appropriately started when Barbashev forced a turnover. No single moment this postseason has been prettier—or a better illustration of Vegas’ roster-building philosophy paying off.
Of course, given the unprecedented amount of success the Golden Knights have had since entering the league for the 2017-2018 season, McPhee and McCrimmon shouldn’t need to prove their credentials to anyone. Reaching four conference finals in six years is an incredible feat. The coach has changed, as have many of the players, but the men at the top of the front office have remained constant the same throughout.
It might be uncomfortable, but they deserve a big share of the credit for the Golden Knights current heights.
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