Sunday, April 9, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Not since the days of the Marc-André Fleury/Robin Lehner tandem has the Vegas Golden Knights’ goalie situation been so complicated.
The Golden Knights have started a franchise record five goalies this season, needing each to deliver as Vegas inches closer to a third Pacific Division title and top playoff seed. The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin April 17.
But here we are with one week left in the regular season, and the Golden Knights’ Game 1 playoff starter might as well be determined by a coin flip.
“You do have to have an idea going in,” coach Bruce Cassidy said of his plan with the goalies. “But this year has been different in terms of goaltending, so it’s not a must. Let’s get into the playoffs first, let’s have two healthy guys, hopefully three, maybe even four. Get two we can rely on, and then we’ll have to make a call.”
With some of the team’s goalies trying to return from injury, health will partially determine the plan. There’s a case to be made for four of the goalies on the roster.
Here’s how they stack up with statistics through Saturday:
• 21-13-3 record, 2.65 goals-against average, .915 save percentage (out, lower-body injury)
Thompson was making a strong case to be a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. Only Edmonton’s Stuart Skinner has more wins (26) than Thompson among rookie goalies this season.
Then came a lower-body injury that has kept Thompson out for all but two games following the All-Star break.
It looked like he was peaking at the right time before going down. In the three-game stretch on the road before he got hurt — versus New Jersey, the New York Islanders and Minnesota — he allowed just six total goals.
Thompson returned after a month and a half to make 37 saves in a win March 23 at Calgary, but left with six minutes remaining because of another lower-body injury. The team isn’t confirming whether the injuries are related.
Thompson has begun skating, and if he doesn’t reaggravate that injury, his return could be a jolt in the locker room.
• Why he should be the Game 1 starter: Thompson has been the starter since Day One and has earned the right to take this team into the playoffs. If he’s the goalie of the future, this is the chance for him to prove it. Seeing him in the postseason would be a perfect cap to his rookie season.
• Why he shouldn’t be the Game 1 starter: Because he’s the goalie of the future. It might be unwise to risk complicating that future by rushing back from a nagging injury that Thompson hasn’t been able to shake. And another injury could be a huge damper to Thompson’s morale.
• 16-7-1, 2.50 GAA, .915 SV% (out, lower-body injury)
Hill got his chance to be the No. 1 guy when Thompson went down. He took the ball and ran with it.
The 26-year-old went 5-2-0 in his last seven starts when he was thrust into the starter’s net out of the All-Star break, with a .927 save percentage. Health permitting, it was bound to be Hill’s net for the rest of the season.
Then came a lower-body injury he suffered March 7 at Florida, which validated management’s decision to acquire Jonathan Quick at the trade deadline.
Hill was brought to Vegas due to the uncertainty of Laurent Brossoit coming off offseason hip surgery, and he’s turned that into the best season of his career. He was recently assigned to Henderson of the AHL to ramp up conditioning.
Regaining that form prior to the injury, where he was a main reason why the Golden Knights stayed afloat in the standings, would be huge.
• Why he should be the Game 1 starter: Fully healthy, and considering the uncertainty of Thompson’s injury, Cassidy could feel comfortable with Hill in a playoff setting. Hill was at his best on the road against Colorado and Florida. There’s a lot of confidence in Hill to deliver.
• Why he shouldn’t be the Game 1 starter: Not that playoff experience is a huge factor, but like Thompson, Hill hasn’t been part of that environment before. For Hill, it’s about the consistency. Even when he started the season with five consecutive wins, there were times of shakiness. The Golden Knights have struggled to score in recent postseason appearances. They can’t avoid any shaky goaltending from anyone if they want to get back to the Stanley Cup Final.
• 5-0-3, 2.44 GAA, .921 SV%
With this small sample size, it might be safe to say Brossoit is the best, most consistent goalie on the roster.
He also might be the one who fits Cassidy’s system best. Brossoit, 30, has always had a calmness about him that the two younger goalies don’t have. He hasn’t tasted playoff success yet, but he’s been on a playoff roster with a Winnipeg team that reached the Western Conference Final in 2018.
“Regardless of who’s in, we’ve showed that this group has a lot to offer. That structure makes it nice for any goalie who goes in,” Brossoit said. “Obviously I want to be the guy. I’m just going to look to keep performing like this and keep building.
For Brossoit to come back from hip surgery and perform at this level has been a fulfilled dream for the Golden Knights. His run with the Silver Knights on his conditioning stint (8-11-3, 2.72 GAA, .909 SV%) was a precursor to what has been a surprising, and unexpected, run as the starting goalie.
• Why he should be the Game 1 starter: Why not? Should Brossoit continue playing well, it would be difficult to not have him start Game 1. Also, if the standings stay pat, is there anything better than Brossoit facing one of his former teams, Winnipeg, in the first round?
• Why he shouldn’t be the Game 1 starter: It’s difficult to find a reason why not. Brossoit has arguably looked the most comfortable in Cassidy’s goalie-friendly system. While he gave up two goals Thursday against Los Angeles, they were products of a power-play goal from in front and a short-handed breakaway. The only “bad” game was giving up four goals against San Jose on March 30.
• 5-2-2, 3.13 GAA, .901 SV%
Quick’s run with Vegas has been a roller coaster.
There’s been the good: Wins at Tampa Bay and Carolina where he looked fantastic. He was the reason why the Golden Knights added two wins against two of the league’s best teams, including a 33-save shutout March 11 in Raleigh, N.C.
“I think we’ve been fortunate that whoever’s been in net has played well,” Quick said. “The guys have played well in front of me. Just got to keep that going.”
But there’s the bad: He’s allowed at least three goals in all but two of his starts and has given up six goals on two occasions. The two times he did were against division opponents Edmonton and Calgary, whom Vegas could see in the playoffs.
It’s been an adjustment for Quick to learn a new system with a quarter of the regular season remaining.
• Why he should be the Game 1 starter: The Golden Knights would be banking on Quick’s experience and hoping he’d turn back the clock to the Cup-winning years of 2012 and 2014. Quick started all seven games in Los Angeles’ first-round loss to Edmonton, with 15 goals allowed in the losses. Should the Golden Knights catch lightning in a bottle for potentially the last deep playoff run of Quick’s career, it would be the ultimate storybook.
• Why he shouldn’t be the Game 1 starter: The signs are there that Quick, 37, is just not who he used to be anymore, and that’s fine. He won some big games when he arrived, but the goals allowed are a concern. Cassidy is confident any goalie can win in this system so long as the guys in front of him play well defensively. Is that a gamble that Cassidy is prepared to make? Early returns would say no.