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Golden Knights would be nightmare playoff opponent (if they make it)

Vegas Golden Knights

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 06: Jack Eichel #9 of the Vegas Golden Knights skates during the third period of a game against the Vancouver Canucks at T-Mobile Arena on April 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

When the 2021-22 NHL season began the Vegas Golden Knights were one of the league’s top Stanley Cup favorites, and for good reason.

They were coming off another trip to the Conference Final/Semifinal round, had a great roster on paper, and were considered a favorite to land Jack Eichel from the Buffalo Sabres in a trade (which they eventually did). In what looked to be a watered down Pacific Division they should have been a shoe-in to cruise to the top spot and go on another lengthy postseason run.

It has not at all played out that way.

They enter play on Thursday on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, right on the bubble in a three-team battle for two playoff spots. They are three points back of the Los Angeles Kings for the third spot in the Pacific Division and three points back of the Dallas Stars for the second Wild Card spot. Either one seems attainable as they have one head-to-head matchup remaining with the Stars and still have two games in hand on a Kings team that is fading fast and dealing with the absence of its top defender (Drew Doughty) for the remainder of the season.

The playoffs are far from a lock, but they seem way more possible than they did just a couple of weeks ago. Especially as the Golden Knights have gone on an 8-3-1 run over their past 12 games and are starting to get healthy with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone both back in the lineup.

[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Toronto Maple Leafs climbing; Los Angeles Kings struggling]

The rest of the Western Conference better hope a healthy Golden Knights team does not find a way to sneak in, because they might again become one of the top favorites just based on the roster they are going to be putting on the ice.

The biggest problem for the Golden Knights this season has been a matter of health, and then eventually a salary cap crunch (much of which was their own creation). But let’s start with the health, because we have not really seen a fully healthy Golden Knights team at any point this season.

Stone has been limited to just 29 games due to injury. Pacioretty only 31. Reilly Smith has appeared in just 56. It has only been 59 games for William Karlsson.

Those four players -- all of whom have been among the Golden Knights’ best and most productive players the past few years -- have been in the lineup, at the same time, for just 13 games this season. Vegas is 10-3-0 in those games, and looked every bit the Stanley Cup contender they were supposed to be.

If you want to include starting goalie Robin Lehner -- who has been in and out of the lineup all season due to injury -- with that group, the Golden Knights have only played 10 games with all five of them. They are 8-2-0 in those games.

Then there is the Eichel factor, who has yet to play in even a single game with all of them. He has only played in five games with at least three of the them. We just have not seen this team at its full complement of players.

In advance of Thursday’s game against Calgary, Flames coach Darryl Sutter pretty accurately summed up the challenge the Golden Knights are going to present for teams in the playoffs.

“When they have the full squad, they’re the favorites to win the Stanley Cup,” said Sutter. “Other than the team that has the Stanley Cup [Tampa Bay], they’re the favorites. They have a $100-million payroll, so they have to figure out how to keep 20 (million) out.”

As we know the salary cap goes away in the playoffs, and if Vegas can get to a point where it can have Eichel, Pacioretty, Stone, Karlsson, Smith, and Lehner all together with the rest of the roster the payroll is going to be well north of $90 million. The league’s salary cap for the season is $81.5 million. We saw last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nikita Kucherov how LTIR can be utilized to ice a super team in the playoffs and how much of a difference that can make, and as of this moment there is nothing stopping teams from doing it.

[Related: NHL invalidates Golden Knights-Ducks Evgenii Dadonov trade]

Vegas had attempted to fix its salary cap issue at the trade deadline by trading Evgenii Dadonov to the Anaheim Ducks in a salary dump trade. But even that had a crazy way of working out in Vegas’ favor. The trade was ultimately invalidated by the league because of Dadonov’s no-trade clause that was still valid and included the Ducks. The result has been Vegas still having a productive player on its roster for the stretch run and (hopefully) the playoffs. Since he rejoined the team Dadonov has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the seven games he has played. He is still a very good player and could play a significant role in the playoffs.

So now we are looking at a situation where the Presidents’ Trophy winning Colorado Avalanche, or the Edmonton Oilers with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, could go into the First Round of the playoffs and be rewarded for their seasons by getting a First Round matchup with a fully healthy Vegas team with its $93 million payroll and playing its best hockey of the season.

The Golden Knights still have a lot of work to do to make the playoffs, but if they do make them it could significantly change the entire outlook for the Western Conference and the NHL as a whole.