Golden Knights face questions after missing NHL playoffs

Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez talks about the 2021-22 season during a news conf ...

Alec Martinez didn’t hesitate when asked about the Golden Knights’ potential.

“A Stanley Cup-winning team,” the defenseman said Tuesday.

That was easy to believe when the Knights made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and the NHL semifinals twice in the following three years. But they missed the playoffs this season for the first time in franchise history.

Still, numerous players said in their exit interviews with the media Tuesday they can be contenders again next season.

“We felt like we were a team that if we were able to squeak in the playoffs, that we had a strong chance of winning,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “I don’t think that changes going into next year. That doesn’t change our mindset. We’re going to be ready.”

It won’t be easy. The Knights have a lot of work to do to put themselves in position for another deep playoff run. Here are three remaining questions the team will have to tackle this offseason:

1. Who stays?

The Knights got ahead of their offseason business by agreeing to midseason extensions with right wing Michael Amadio, defensemen Brayden McNabb, Zach Whitecloud and Ben Hutton and goaltender Logan Thompson.

But other decisions await.

Right wing Reilly Smith and left wing Mattias Janmark are unrestricted free agents. Centers Nicolas Roy and Brett Howden, right wing Keegan Kolesar and defenseman Nic Hague are restricted free agents. So are center Jake Leschyshyn, right wing Jonas Rondbjerg and defensemen Daniil Miromanov and Brayden Pachal, players who were called up to provide depth.

The team probably won’t be able to bring back everyone because of a tight salary-cap situation. Left wing Jonathan Marchessault advocated for Smith, an alternate captain and one of the Knights’ original members, to return.

“He’s a huge part of our group,” Marchessault said. “He’s not just a great hockey player. He’s just a great guy to have around. We’ve been lucky to have him here. He’s been one of our most consistent (players) since Day One.”

2. Who goes?

The Knights begin the offseason $566,667 above the salary cap’s $82.5 million upper limit.

They will need to find space to bring anyone back. That probably means someone will have to leave for the team to start making other moves.

The Knights haven’t been shy about trading players in their five seasons in the league. Left wing Tomas Tatar was moved after their first season to get left wing Max Pacioretty. Center Erik Haula and defenseman Colin Miller were traded after the second. Center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt left before the fourth season, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, right wing Ryan Reaves and defenseman Nick Holden were traded after it.

One candidate will be right wing Evgenii Dadonov, who has one season left on his contract with a $5 million cap hit. The Knights attempted to trade him to Anaheim at the deadline, but the deal was voided because of a no-trade clause.

3. Who’s healthy?

Injuries played a large role in the team’s fall from grace.

Goaltender Robin Lehner was scheduled to have shoulder surgery Wednesday. The team was expected to get a timeline for his return after the procedure.

Captain Mark Stone’s health also will be a focus after he missed 45 games with a back injury. He said he’s confident it won’t be an issue next season but didn’t rule out surgery.

“I’m still researching everything,” Stone said. “I don’t want to just make a rash decision and do a procedure that’s not going to help. I want to make sure I’m doing something that’s going to benefit me.”

Contact Ben Gotz at Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.