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Golden Knights focused on playing better with new coach DeBoer, GM says

McCrimmon expects improvement after replacing Gallant during tight playoff race

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- Expectations are astronomically high for the Vegas Golden Knights, abnormally high for a team in its third season.

The Golden Knights went to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season of 2017-18. They returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and had a 3-1 series lead -- and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 -- before losing to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference First Round.

They fired coach Gerard Gallant and replaced him with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer on Jan. 15 even though they held a playoff spot. General manager Kelly McCrimmon said in the press release they did it "for our team to reach its full potential," believing DeBoer can "help us achieve our ultimate goal."

That, of course, means the Stanley Cup. 

But now is not the time to think about the Cup, let alone talk about it. The focus must be much more immediate, from their game against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, SN, TVAS, NESN, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV) through the stretch run.

This is how tight the standings are: the Golden Knights are one point behind the first-place Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific Division, but they're fourth in the division and hold the first wild card into the playoffs from the West while tied in points with three division rivals: the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes. The Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks each are three points behind in the wild-card race.

"Our focus is on getting better, day by day, week by week, putting ourselves in the discussion to be a playoff team, hopefully be a playoff team, and then we can have this conversation [about the playoffs]," McCrimmon said while scouting the BioSteel All-American Hockey Game at USA Hockey Arena on Monday.

Video: Rosen on what DeBoer will bring to Golden Knights

The Golden Knights made the coaching change when they did because they felt it was needed, not because of the schedule. They had lost four straight and were one game into a four-game trip.

"There's no timing attached to these decisions," McCrimmon said. "They evolve when they evolve."

But by doing it when they did, DeBoer had three games to evaluate the team, and for he and the team to get to know each other, before the All-Star break and their mandatory five-day break. They defeated the Ottawa Senators 4-2 on Thursday and lost to the Montreal Canadiens 5-4 in overtime Saturday. After their game against the Bruins and their time off, the Golden Knights embark on another four-game trip, starting at the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 31. 

"That's where I would expect Peter to have more of an opportunity to put his fingerprints on what he expects to see from our team," McCrimmon said.

This also gives management more than a month to see how the team responds to DeBoer before the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24. You never know. They acquired forward Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators last season.

"A year ago at 9 o'clock the morning of the trade deadline, we thought we were going to be quiet," McCrimmon said. "Three hours later, we had traded for Mark Stone. You do your work. You be prepared. Whether that translates into activity, that remains to be seen."

McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee have little experience working directly with DeBoer, but they have known him in hockey circles and have competed against him for a long time. They know his strengths.

"He's for many years been in the upper echelon of NHL coaches," McCrimmon said. "He's had success. He's worked with some real good teams, some real good organizations. And you know, his special teams have traditionally been strong. I believe that he's always been a guy that has respect from his players. I think he understands today's player.

"And none of these things that I'm saying are strengths of Peter's are suggesting that we didn't have that. A lot of good coaches have similar strengths in terms of their ability to connect with players and implement team play and those types of things.

"And playing against Peter's teams, always felt that they were well coached. His teams were well prepared, and we expect that he'll do a real good job with the team that we have in Las Vegas."

Asked what he wants to see beyond more consistency, McCrimmon said: "The margins of victory are very tight in the NHL. We need to be a little bit better. That's, at the end of the day, how we feel. We expect that we will be."

History says DeBoer can take Vegas deep in the playoffs. In five playoff appearances in his NHL career, he has won nine of 14 rounds, made the conference final three times (with the New Jersey Devils in 2012 and the Sharks in 2016 and 2019) and made the Stanley Cup Final twice (with the Devils in 2012 and the Sharks in 2016). 

But first things first.

"We've got to make the playoffs," McCrimmon said, "before we start counting rounds."

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