Everything was going smoothly in the Golden Knights’ return to the ice until one of their top wingers didn’t take the ice with the rest of the team for practice last week.
Max Pacioretty’s absence for a few days last week was shrugged off at first, but now that it’s been confirmed that he’s not with the team in Edmonton, concern has started to grow.
“He’s obviously a big part of this team and for him to go down in camp is unfortunate,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “It’s an opportunity for guys to step up, and hopefully he’s back sooner rather than later.”
This is a star player, one of the most valuable Golden Knights and a major key to a deep playoff run. Vegas is at a disadvantage in any game without its leading scorer from the regular season. The questions for the Golden Knights now are how long he will be out, and what they can do while they wait for him to return.
When Pacioretty returns
The disappointing truth is no one knows how long Pacioretty will be out. He first missed practice on July 20 with coach Peter DeBoer saying he hoped Pacioretty would be back later in the week before the team departed for the bubble in Edmonton.
Pacioretty never skated with the team again, though. He also didn’t travel with the team Sunday, all but ruling out his presence for Thursday’s exhibition game against Arizona.
Access to a controlled environment and unrestricted training could be part of the reason Pacioretty was left in Vegas. In Edmonton, ice time is limited as 12 teams share four sheets of ice at the Oilers’ practice facility for their own practices. At home, Pacioretty has full availability to the City National Arena ice, weight rooms, medical staff and anything else needed for injury rehabilitation.
“We didn’t know what this was going to look like,” DeBoer said of the setup in Edmonton. “It was more the unknown of where we were going that led to the decision to leave him back.”
The team’s understanding is that if and when Pacioretty is ready to join the team, he will be able to do so without much issue. As long as he does not fly commercial and reports multiple negative tests for COVID-19, he should not be subject to stricter quarantine rules than the rest of the team was upon their arrival.
If Pacioretty is healthy, he will return to his spot on the top line and first power-play unit. Pacioretty led the team with 32 goals and 66 points, and according to Evolving Hockey’s calculation of Goals Above Replacement, he was Vegas’ most valuable player by more than a full goal.
While he’s gone
The team does not seem to believe that Pacioretty will miss the entire postseason, which would be a major blow to their Stanley Cup hopes. DeBoer has continually stressed that the injury is minor without providing any further details.
But he’s going to miss at least one game, and unless he arrives in the Edmonton bubble soon, the round-robin games could be in jeopardy too. The Golden Knights are in the advantageous position of not facing elimination games right away, so the focus might be to have Pacioretty return before the round of 16 seven-game series scheduled to begin Aug. 11.
In the meantime, the Golden Knights will need to replace both his spots on the first-line left wing and on the power play. Luckily, two midseason acquisitions provide solutions.
When Pacioretty missed his first practice, Nick Cousins slotted onto the wing alongside William Karlsson and Mark Stone. Videos of Monday’s practice in Edmonton showed Chandler Stephenson wearing a first-line white practice jersey. Either of those two could fill the void.
And skating alongside players like Karlsson and Stone makes any transition more simple.
“The nice thing is those two guys are easy to play with and there’s a long line of guys jumping in line for that job on their wing,” DeBoer said. “It’s a good spot and we’ve got a lot of options.”
Neither Stephenson nor Cousins are top-line forwards, but the former particularly has plenty of experience in the role. He centered Pacioretty and Stone for large stretches of the season, and excelled.
Cousins is a more physical option. He seemed like a perfect fit between William Carrier and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line but the chirping winger could give a different feel to a line with Karlsson and Stone.
Slotting either onto the top line doesn’t hurt the team down the lineup either. The one who doesn’t ultimately slide up will go down to a third-line assignment alongside Alex Tuch and Nicolas Roy. Tomas Nosek goes from a potential healthy scratch to a fourth-line center, a spot he’s previously filled between Carrier and Reaves.
DeBoer hasn’t made a decision on who will fill Pacioretty’s spot. He plans on using the exhibition game to help him make the choice.
The play of Stephenson and Cousins is therefore something to keep an eye on in what’s otherwise a meaningless tune-up game.
Banking on a quick return
The team spent training camp excited about what it will look like with a healthy roster, and it turned out too good to be true, at least for now.
“As a coach you know there’s going to be injuries,” DeBoer said. “You know you’re not going to get through a camp without something or someone getting injured. You just cross your fingers that it’s not long-term and this isn’t with Max.”
Other than Pacioretty, Cody Glass is the only player in the organization unable to play, and the Golden Knights were aware of his status coming into the restart.
It was unavoidable that someone would get hurt but disappointing it happened so soon. It's part of the game, however, and the Golden Knights will have to respond.
They should be able to withstand his absence for a while and might be able to get him back before the games really start to count.