The Vegas Golden Knights set the bar impossibly high in their debut season and returned to the playoffs in their sophomore outing, which makes their third year all the more important. Last year, they lost to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. Blowing a 3-0 lead in Game Seven was certainly not part of the plan, but there are lessons.
For the most part, this is the same roster. Vegas secured forward Mark Stone to an eight-year deal on March 8 of 2019, which fleshes out one of the better top sixes in the NHL. Stone skated with Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny and the trio really came together in the playoffs. The Golden Knights are also betting big on William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.
“We’re certainly motivated to have a good season, try to be a playoff team again, which is very challenging in the NHL,” said new general manager Kelly McCrimmon. “We’re now at a point organizationally where we can legitimately look at our prospect pool as players who may be ready to make our team.”
McCrimmon took over the GM post from George McPhee, who remains as president of hockey operations. The shuffling of the deck comes with Vegas making some minor moves over the summer: Colin Miller, Ryan Carpenter, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Erik Haula are all out. Nicolas Roy, a potential fourth line centre, is in.
Stone has to be looked at as the top offensive draw for the Golden Knights. He put up a career-high 73 points in 77 games between the Ottawa Senators and Vegas last season, plus he delivered a dozen points in seven playoff games. That’s where he meshed with Pacioretty and Stastny – and that’s where he should see tremendous growth in his first full season with the team.
Pacioretty had his season interrupted by injury and put up just 40 points in 66 games, but he’s also a threat to rebound this year. He was a minus-13, but he did put up solid numbers in terms of shots-per-game and hits-per-game. And, like Stone and Stastny, his performance in the playoffs was strong.
Marchessault had 59 points in 82 games last season, a fair shade off his breakout campaign in 2017-2018. Still, he covered for 25 goals and had a career-high 278 shots on goal. That dipped his overall deficiency, but there’s nothing to suggest any adverse effects long-term. And Marchessault should have some pressure off this year, with a more stable unit to work with.
The Golden Knights have most of their offensive locked up for the next few years. Karlsson signed an eight-year deal in June and could be due a bounce-back season this year. He put up 24 goals last season, a dip from his 43-goal debut in Vegas. He still had 14 points on the power play, including seven goals. This season, permanence on his line should bolster production.
The Golden Knights allowed 230 goals against last season, putting them among the top six defensive teams in the Western Conference. The Calgary Flames allowed just three fewer. Nate Schmidt will be a major player this season. The 28-year-old signed a six-year contract in October of 2018 and posted 30 points in 61 games, a small step back from his first year in Vegas.
Schmidt probably made the most headlines because of his suspension last season. That kept him out of the first 20 games of 2018-2019, a violation that sent the blueliner on a mission to reform the NHL’s approach to testing. Through this issue, Schmidt proved his spirit and commitment to the team. And the contract confirmed Vegas’ commitment to their D.
Shea Theodore put up career-highs in points last season and impressed in the playoffs, particularly on the power play with Stone and Co. The Golden Knights will shuffle the deck somewhat on the blueline, which pushes Theodore to an even more pronounced role. That, subsequently, gives the club more flexibility.
Marc-Andre Fleury set the bar almost impossibly high in his first year with the Golden Knights. Last season was a small regression, but he did have a heavier workload. Still, the vet tied for fifth overall in wins and put up a solid 2.51 goals against average with a .913 save percentage over 61 starts.
Fleury will see plenty of starts again this season, probably in the neighbourhood of 60, and that means great coverage. 25-year-old Malcolm Subban is the backup. He signed a one-year deal in July, after which he’ll become a restricted free agent. The Golden Knights are hoping he’ll provide adequate support.
With two established top lines and a strong D, the Golden Knights have what it takes to make the post-season for the third consecutive season. If Fleury continues to perform at a high level, they could push past the first round. Vegas may not remake the glory of their debut season just yet, but the crowds will be there and the fanbase is ready to rock.
Photo credit: RDS