The Golden Knights began the season a few cards short of a full deck.
They were plenty competitive and built for another run at a Pacific Division title. There was just some fraying at the edges after an offseason salary-cap crunch forced the team to part with four veterans and promising Russian scorer Nikita Gusev.
By Feb. 24, those gaps were filled. The Knights added four players via trade before the deadline and became one of the NHL’s most complete teams.
“Depth is everything come playoffs,” said coach Pete DeBoer, speaking specifically about the team’s acquisition of forward Nick Cousins. “That’s depth that you might not have during the regular season that you have to trade for at the deadline in order to add to your group anticipating a long playoff run and the injuries that go with that.”
The Knights brought in their first new face in December.
Forward Chandler Stephenson was grabbing coffee in San Jose, California, before a practice with Washington when he received a career-altering call. He wasn’t a Capital anymore.
Stephenson joined the Knights in New York and scored in his debut against the New Jersey Devils. It was the start of an incredible stretch for the 26-year-old. He scored a career-high 22 points in 41 games with the Knights and became one of the team’s main penalty killers.
He also plugged gaps all over the lineup. He played at center and left wing and proved adept at both positions.
“I think it’s just been nice to have both, whether it’s wing or center,” Stephenson said. “It’s not really a preference of mine. I don’t like one more than the other. It’s pretty similar to me, but for the most part, it’s fun just to kind of play with anybody on this team.”
Next, the Knights rounded out their blue line by adding Alec Martinez from Los Angeles. He had one goal when he left the lowly Kings, but the 32-year-old soon showed he had plenty of spring left in his step.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion scored two goals and recorded six assists in 10 games with the Knights.
The Knights added two more pieces on deadline day Feb. 24 in goaltender Robin Lehner and Cousins. Lehner gave the team a notable upgrade over previous backup Malcolm Subban and went 3-0 in the regular season.
Cousins lived up to his reputation as a potential pest. He also gave DeBoer cover as another versatile chess piece that can play any of the three forward positions.
When left wing Max Pacioretty was unavailable late in training camp with a minor injury, Cousins briefly filled in for him on the first line. He then moved to the third line for the team’s exhibition game against Arizona and had a three-point night.
“The reason we got Nick Cousins was (for) exactly this type of situation,” DeBoer said before the Knights’ first round-robin game. “(Pacioretty) is dealing with something and isn’t ready, so you have a guy that has the skill set to be able to jump into the top nine and play with offensive players.”
The four gave the Knights enviable depth. The only issue was the limited time they received to integrate themselves with the team. Martinez, Lehner and Cousins were on the roster less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the NHL season.
Martinez credited his new teammates for staying in touch throughout the pause so everyone could hit the ground running once small-group workouts were allowed.
“It was kind of a weird situation, not just for us but for everyone around the world,” Martinez said. “Phones and FaceTimes and texting went a long way in keeping in touch with guys.”