Will McCrimmon get the last laugh?

Kelly McCrimmon helped craft the Vegas Golden Knights' roster believing it was good enough to win a Stanley Cup. He's four wins away from realizing his goal.

LAS VEGAS — It’s a bit unfortunate that the finalists for the Jim Gregory Award, which the NHL gives out to the league’s top general manager at the end of the year, doesn’t include the postseason when evaluating who’s deserving of being a finalist.

If that were the case, Kelly McCrimmon’s name would have been placed into nomination.

But I’m pretty sure McCrimmon is fine that he’s not being talked about for the award, while Bill Zito, his counterpart with the Florida Panthers, is one of the three finalists along with Don Sweeney of Boston and Jim Nill of Dallas. McCrimmon would rather see his name on another trophy — the Stanley Cup. Now how’s that for vindication?

The Vegas Golden Knights’ GM has crafted a roster that will play for the Cup beginning Saturday in what will be a frenzied atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena. He hasn’t been real popular with the VGK fan base for prior transactions that saw some of the team’s most popular players get shipped out. He dealt Marc-Andre Fleury, Ryan Reaves and Nate Schmidt, moved on from high-scoring but oft-injured Max Pacioretty and brought in goaltender Robin Lehner, who has not even played this season after undergoing two hip surgeries and a shoulder operation.

He has also overseen the team’s draft over the past six years, one that has seen more players exit the franchise than stick around as McCrimmon constantly tinkered with the roster by moving those assets to bolster the lineup.

Honestly, are you sad Cody Glass, Erik Braanstrom and Peyton Krebs are no longer skating in a Golden Knights sweater? Aren’t you glad Nic Hague is? The only player McCrimmon might have wished he retained was center Nick Suzuki, who has thrived in Montreal after being dealt for Pacioretty in September 2018.

“It’s been a six-year journey,” McCrimmon said Friday during the NHL’s Media Day at T-Mobile Arena. “We felt we caught lightning in a bottle in Year One but we knew we had to improve our team.

“It’s been a process that has been calculated. We think we’ve built our best team. We have top players at key positions to help us compete for and win a Stanley Cup.”

The acquisitions have been big (Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo and Jack Eichel), small (Teddy Blueger, Michael Amadio, Brett Howden) and somewhere in between (Chandler Stephenson, Nic Roy, Ivan Barbashev, Alec Martinez and Adin Hill). Six original Golden Knights are playing against the Panthers, including two former Panthers in Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. The other Golden Misfits from the inaugural season include William Karlsson, William Carrier, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb.

Stephenson, who had won the Cup with Washington in 2018 over Vegas and was dealt to the Knights in December 2018 for a fifth-round draft choice in what may have been one of McCrimmon’s best deals, is glad he’s still a Golden Knight.

“I saw it as a new start,” said Stephenson, who had a career-high 65 points during the 2022-23 regular season and has eight goals and 14 points in 17 games during this year’s playoffs. “It’s been amazing and I’ve loved being here. So yeah, I’m grateful (McCrimmon) brought me here.”

Being a GM in any sport is a tough job. Look no further than down the street from T-Mobile Arena where Dave Ziegler is being tasked with rebuilding the Raiders into a successful NFL franchise. McCrimmon was promoted from assistant GM to the big chair after George McPhee, the team’s original GM, was promoted to president of hockey operations back in 2018. It was McPhee who brought McCrimmon on board as one of his early hires after Bill Foley brought GMGM into the fold to run the organization on the hockey side of things. 

It was McPhee who along with McCrimmon crafted the roster that made it to the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise’s inaugural season in 2017-18 and he still wields tremendous influence over all things Golden Knights.

But he has let McCrimmon do his job without micromanaging him. The two are close and have a strong relationship and McPhee has had McCrimmon’s back throughout the team’s six-year history, even when those head-scratching deals were consummated that sent the fan base into a tizzy.

I can’t imagine it’s easy working for Foley, who established the “Knights Culture” from the day he was awarded the franchise from the NHL in June 2016. As a West Point graduate, Foley, who has referred to himself as “a benevolent dictator,” has been willing to invest in putting a successful team on the ice and, to use an old Navy term which he won’t like, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” in building the franchise’s competitiveness.

He has a Patton-like mindset of “Always advance, never retreat” a slogan you see before you enter the team’s dressing room at its City National Arena training facility along with other inspirational slogans.

It was Foley who made the bold prediction of “Playoffs in three, Cup in six” before the inaugural season and nearly hit the exacta in Year One. Now we’re in Year Six and here we are, the Knights are four wins away from making Foley’s prophecy come true and if it comes to pass, McCrimmon rightfully deserves a lot of credit for making it a reality.

Think about the hand he was dealt this season. Lehner, his projected starting goalie, was on long-term injured reserve. He would use five goalies and was forced to trade for veteran and two-time Cup winner Jonathan Quick at the trade deadline in early March. His captain, Mark Stone, missed nearly three months after undergoing a second back surgery in a nine-month span. Several other players missed significant time with injuries. And the hire of Bruce Cassidy, the team’s third head coach in six years, was a reach into the unknown. Yes, Cassidy had achieved success in six years in Boston. But he had also failed in Washington, where McPhee, then the Capitals’ GM, had to fire him.

Many in the hockey world were crying foul as the Knights found themselves $14 million over the salary cap at one point and accused McCrimmon of malfeasance and manipulation of the cap as the Knights added Barbashev and Blueger at the deadline along with Quick to provide some depth at forward and in goal.

But what nobody was talking about was the depth that the team had with its AHL affiliate in Henderson was reaping rewards. Paul Cotter made the team out of training camp. Pavel Dorofeyev and Daniil Miromanov contributed until both were hurt. Jiri Patera came in and won a couple games in net after Logan Thompson had won the starter’s job only to get hurt shortly after the All-Star Game which he had participated in. Brayden Pachal and Ben Hutton made contributions on the blue line and once Laurent Brossoit was ready to stand in the goal crease after bouncing back from a hip surgery of his own, that goaltending depth turned out to be critical.

Now, it’s Hill, who had played at Arizona and San Jose before coming to Vegas, and who replaced the injured Brossoit in the Edmonton series in the second round.  He’s being asked to win four more games tending the VGK net and fulfill the owner’s prediction and validate the GM’s faith in him when he was acquired for a fourth-round pick in 2024 in late August by McCrimmon to provide depth after Lehner and Brossoit weren’t ready to start the season.

“We had a clear vision of what a championship team should look like,” McCrimmon said. “So we felt pretty confident. When you look at the cost of all the moves we made on a human level, it’s damn tough. But at the same time, if you have these jobs and you want to avoid the hard decisions, you probably shouldn’t have the job.”   

Stephenson said as he looks around the team’s dressing room and sees the caliber of player and person in it, it speaks to McCrimmon’s ability to build a roster.

“I think it shows that he’s very smart,” Stephenson said. “He knows a lot about players — big and small. He does his homework and he knows how to build a winning hockey team.” 

Billie Jean King once said that “Pressure is a privilege.” McCrimmon will tell you that he has embraced that philosophy and has put together a roster that has proved to be talented as well as deep. And if the Knights can finish the job, it will be McCrimmon who gets the last laugh.