By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
William Carrier glanced around the Vegas Golden Knights locker room at all the talent around him: leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault, first-line center Jack Eichel, captain Mark Stone and more.
He marveled at the team’s depth and what it has meant.
“It makes a good team, right?” Carrier said. “It makes you win a lot of games.”
And, ultimately, the Stanley Cup.
The Golden Knights are NHL champions for the first time thanks to the deepest roster in the league, which allowed them to withstand injuries at every position and sustain a long playoff run. They got production from 20 players over four rounds, vanquishing Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas and then Florida in the final with waves of talent that overwhelmed each opponent.
“Our depth has been a strength all year,” first-year coach and first-time Stanley Cup winner Bruce Cassidy said. “(Opponents) might have some better players or a better penalty kill or power play or goaltender — now we’re starting to see that our guys are pretty good, too. I do believe it’s been the big strength of our team. I just think it’s been really good for us.”
Cassidy said in the middle of the final he thought Vegas had the best team in hockey “from player 1 through 20.” That’s hard to argue with now, after the Boston Bruins (the team Cassidy coached to six playoff appearances before firing him last year) lost to Florida in the first round following their record-setting regular season.
The Golden Knights eliminated the Panthers in five games, taking advantage of their four strong forward lines and three big defenseman pairings who made life as easy as possible on journeyman goaltender-turned stalwart Adin Hill, himself a prime example of that depth after being a second-round injury replacement. With only 12 forward spots to fill, Phil Kessel — a two-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh — and trade deadline pickup Teddy Blueger were healthy scratches.
“You have enough good guys here to make five lines,” said Carrier, one of six original Knights players left from their inaugural season in 2017-18 that ended with a loss in the final. “We just roll them. Some nights, some lines will have better nights than others, and they step up their games and it’s great to have. Anyone can score at any point, and everyone plays well.”
Vegas is just the fifth team since the salary cap era started in 2005-06 to have three players score 10 or more goals during a postseason. It’s the only team this year to have four player with eight or more.
But it wasn’t just about scoring. The Golden Knights allowed less than three goals per game and punished opponents with calculated physicality, a benefit of the depth that ensured no one player had to be overextended.
“Everyone’s got to give a little bit,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, now a two-time Cup winner after captaining St. Louis to its first championship in 2019. “We’ve all done that, and we all understand that maybe giving up a couple minutes to each other’s going to keep the energy up throughout the game.”
Pietrangelo, the most important free agent signing in franchise history on a $61 million, seven-year deal in 2020, called this the deepest team he has ever been on.
How deep? Hill was one of five different goalies to win a game this season for Vegas. Since replacing injured starter Laurent Brossoit in Game 3 against the Oilers, Hill has gone 11-4 with the best goals-against average and save percentage in the playoffs.
“He’s played well all year for us,” Pietrangelo said. “All of our goalies have played well regardless of who’s in here. It’s a credit to him for being prepared when he did come in there a few series ago.”
Five years after a loss to the Capitals allowed the visiting locker room to be the scene of a Cup-winning celebration, president of hockey operations George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon, his assistant who was promoted to run the day-to-day show as general manager, have been working toward this moment. McCrimmon said the front office knew the inaugural season success was “lightning in a bottle” and took big swings to add Pietrangelo, Stone, Eichel and others in building a championship-caliber roster.
That process involved saying goodbye to beloved goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and making some tough decisions along the way.
“If you have these jobs and you want to avoid the hard decisions, you probably shouldn’t have these jobs,” McCrimmon said. “But it’s been a process that’s, I think, been calculated. I think it’s been based on good decisions made for the right reasons.”
The reason, the end goal, was to win the Stanley Cup. Depth made it happen.