The decision to replace Gerard Gallant with Peter DeBoer means Golden Knights president of hockey operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon are pot-committed to their roster.
Now they’d better hope the turn and the river make them look smart.
The Knights don’t just need a few new cards to go their way. They need their existing cards to look better. The team got a jolt last season by acquiring right wing Mark Stone, the best player moved at the NHL trade deadline.
No such addition is coming this year. The team’s limited salary cap space makes such a maneuver all but impossible. So while the Knights can find help on the market, improvement also needs to come from within if the team is to win its second Pacific Division title in three seasons.
Here are some Knights capable of providing that boost in the final 30 games:
1. Alex Tuch
The Knights need something — anything — out of their third line.
Gallant tried a multitude of combinations but seldom got results. That’s in part because one of the team’s promising young players hasn’t made an impact.
Tuch, 23, appeared to be on an All-Star trajectory last season. He was the Knights’ leader in points (43) and points per game (0.78) at the trade deadline, when Stone’s addition forced him to the third line.
Tuch has 22 points in 54 games since. DeBoer needs to find a way to get Tuch’s size and speed to flash consistently in a smaller role or else juggle his lines.
2. Cody Eakin
Eakin’s numbers are similarly underwhelming.
The 28-year-old pending free agent has seven points in 31 games. He has the worst shot-attempts percentage (47.47) among the team’s regular forwards.
Gallant demoted Eakin to the fourth line in his final two games on the Knights’ bench in search of a role that worked. DeBoer has since returned him to the third line, but the new coach needs to find a way to get the 22-goal scorer from last season going.
3. Cody Glass
One of DeBoer’s most important decisions will be where to play Cody Glass.
Will he continue to play the rookie at right wing, where he hasn’t looked comfortable at 5-on-5? Or will he play him at his natural center position, which could force Eakin back down the lineup and move Chandler Stephenson and Tomas Nosek to wing?
Those questions make Glass a key part of the Knights’ roster puzzle. The rookie, who is nursing a lower-body injury, has shown flashes of why he was the franchise’s first-ever draft pick. He has boosted the power play.
But the team needs to find a steady home for him in the lineup where he’ll be productive and noticeable every game.
4. Nate Schmidt
Schmidt, overall, has not played poorly.
Given that he and partner Brayden McNabb are required to check opposing top lines every night, his 50 scoring-chance percentage and 49.48 high danger scoring-chance percentage are fine.
Still, the Knights need more from Schmidt, and by extension the rest of their blue line. Schmidt’s numbers are lower than the ones he posted the first two seasons with the Knights.
He shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for a blue line that needs help, but he entered this season as the team’s clear No. 1 defenseman. He needs to play like it for the Knights to have a chance at a division title.
5. Marc-Andre Fleury/Malcolm Subban
Gallant was not immune to the plague that has stricken almost all coaches put out of work midseason: poor goaltending.
The Knights have the sixth-worst 5-on-5 save percentage (91.03) in the NHL. In a parity-driven league, if you don’t get saves, you don’t win. Period.
Marc-Andre Fleury has a save percentage (.907) and goals-against average (2.86) worse than his career averages (.913 and 2.57). Despite this, his age (35) and the heavy heart he’s carrying after the death of his father, Andre, the Knights continue to lean heavily on him.
Fleury is tied for the fifth-most games played in the NHL (36) despite taking a 17-day break between starts to mourn his father. The resulting sporadic playing time for Malcolm Subban continues to do him no favors.
The backup also has underwhelmed when he is in net (.898 save percentage, 3.04 goals-against average).
Getting the most out of both goaltenders needs to be one of DeBoer’s chief priorities.
He should know. The San Jose Sharks — who fired him Dec. 11 — have the worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the league.