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Knights’ DeBoer: Playoff miss ‘fuel’ for return

Pete DeBoer doesn’t know that he’ll return as coach of the Vegas Golden Knights, but he hopes that is the case.

“I want to be back,” DeBoer said during his end-of-season media availability Tuesday. “I want to coach this team again. We never got a chance to do what we’re capable of doing. This type of season has to fuel you for next year.”

DeBoer is under contract with Vegas next season. But he also has had a few days since the Golden Knights’ stunning late-season collapse to reflect on his position within the organization.

Now in his third year behind Vegas’ bench — he took over from the fired Gerard Gallant midway through the 2019-20 campaign — DeBoer had guided the Golden Knights to the postseason twice before. This was the first year in franchise history that Vegas, which started playing in the 2017-18 season, failed to be playoff-bound, a fate few would have predicted this past winter.

The Golden Knights had been a Western Conference powerhouse for much of the year, sitting atop the Pacific Division in mid-February with a 28-16-3 record. Then disaster struck in the form of compounding injuries. Mark Stone, Alec Martinez, Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, Robin Lehner and others all missed significant time. Even getting a healthy Jack Eichel back in late February, after November surgery on a herniated disk, wasn’t enough to keep Vegas afloat.

Add to those problems the Golden Knights’ mystifying power-play issues (they were 25th overall with the extra man at 18.4%), and Vegas’ prospects grew steadily worse.

The team went 15-15-5 to finish the year. Vegas tumbled down the standings but still had multiple chances to clinch a wild-card berth. Missing those chances has left DeBoer feeling as if he’s in some sort of limbo. He plans to meet with Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee to discuss what’s next.

“I was disappointed with the results,” DeBoer said. “I wasn’t disappointed with the efforts. I think our group had a ton of adversity thrown at them. I really felt they gave me what they had every night.”

DeBoer had his own challenges to navigate. Not only was he missing key pieces of the lineup for much of the year but the team’s salary-cap constraints also made it difficult at times even to put four lines and three pairings on the ice.

McCrimmon & Co. finessed Vegas’ cap space situation by moving Stone to long-term injured reserve in February and attempting to trade Evgenii Dadonov to Anaheim at the March deadline — a move that was disallowed due to the Ducks being on Dadonov’s no-trade list — but cap issues haunted Vegas all year long.

“The reality of this season, when I look back 10 years from now, is [we had over] 500-man games lost [to injury],” DeBoer said. “That bled into everything. If we had average health, we could have had 105 points and if we had [better than] average health, we’re competing for a Presidents’ Trophy. I’m not using injuries as an excuse. But we never had an opportunity to get the whole group together. At the end, we had a little stretch where I thought it looked dangerous.”

Then there was the Lehner issue. Vegas’ starting goaltender suffered a shoulder injury in early February, then rehabbed his way back into the crease by March, but he was never fully healthy this spring. His situation hit a boiling point April 20, when Lehner allowed one goal on 13 shots against Washington and was pulled after the first period.

DeBoer said after that game that Lehner was “healthy, he’s fresh, he’s got lots of energy,” but ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported that Lehner had informed the Golden Knights that he was going to have season-ending surgery. DeBoer denied that was the case, and Lehner did in fact dress as backup for Logan Thompson against the San Jose Sharks on April 24. The next day, Vegas confirmed Lehner was being shut down to have surgery.

When DeBoer was asked Tuesday whether Lehner’s choice to go under the knife caught him off guard, DeBoer said “nothing surprises me anymore.” He also said that Lehner has yet to undergo his surgery but that he believes it’s happening in the next week.

At the same time, DeBoer clarified his own comments about Lehner’s status.

“When I used the word ‘healthy,’ that was the wrong word to use. That’s on me,” he said. “I have no doubt about Robin Lehner’s ability.”

Also on the injury front, DeBoer said goaltender Laurent Brossoit will undergo a “medical procedure” in the offseason. Brossoit had been sidelined with an undisclosed ailment since March 15.

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