Crazy things happen in Las Vegas. Million-dollar spins on a slot machine. Random celebrity sightings at nightclubs. Hockey teams nearly winning a championship in their first season of existence.
The Vegas Golden Knights are a three-year-old franchise in win-now mode. The team’s shocking appearance in the Stanley Cup final in their inaugural season paved the way to grandiose expectations for Year 2, which wound up being a sizable letdown when the Golden Knights were submarined by San Jose’s Game 7 comeback in the first round of the playoffs.
Entering Year 3, the Golden Knights are tight against the salary cap, but they have a roster that’s as stocked as any team’s west of Tampa Bay. The group features a top-flight goaltender, puck-movers on defense and plenty of scoring prowess up front. The trick for the Knights is to turn their wealth of assets into a second chase for the Cup and not have another run dramatically cut short.
The $81.5-million salary cap was lower than expected, and it impacted Vegas more than most teams. But the Knights were still able to retain their top five scorers from last season, and they’ll get a full season’s service out of Mark Stone as his new eight-year contract kicks in.
The Knights were hoping to get a newfound source of goals with the arrival of Russian standout Nikita Gusev, but contract talks came to a screeching halt and he suddenly became a tradeable asset.
Alex Tuch hit the 20-goal mark last season and is a player who could strike for more with the right linemates. With the cap crunch, the Knights will need some scoring depth from a bottom-six group that should include 2017 first-round pick Cody Glass and streaky sniper Brandon Pirri.
There will be at least one new face on the blueline. With Colin Miller traded to Buffalo to clear cap space, Vegas is looking for a rookie to step up. At least three candidates are in the running, with Nic Hague the
favorite ahead of Zach Whitecloud and Jimmy Schuldt.
The Knights have two prominent offensive talents on the back end in Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, as well as defense-first types in Brayden McNabb, Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill.
Unquestionably the team’s most popular player, Marc-Andre Fleury owns the Golden Knights’ crease. And coming off an eight-shutout season, there is every reason to expect more top-tier play from ‘Flower.’ The key for Vegas will be Fleury’s load management. The 34-year-old played 61 games last season. That’s a good half-dozen more than what’s ideal to keep him rested, but the team didn’t have the cap space this off-season to improve upon incumbent backup Malcolm Subban.
For a team with as much offensive punch as the Golden Knights, they didn’t have a single player in the NHL’s top 50 in power-play points, and they ranked 25th on the man advantage. With Schmidt quarterbacking and William Karlsson as a go-to triggerman, the power play should make a bigger contribution. Stone will count not only for some power-play help but also be a central character on the penalty kill with Paul Stastny.
Many view Ryan Reaves as overpaid, but to the Golden Knights, he is worth every penny. Last season, he set career highs in goals and points and nearly a career low in penalty minutes while still being a feared enforcer. The last of a dying breed of player? Perhaps. But his presence sets a tone few others can match, and his offensive contributions have a knack for being rather timely.
The first draft pick in Golden Knights history is going to get a long look in training camp. Glass, the No. 6 overall selection in 2017, paid a year-end visit to AHL Chicago and promptly finished second on the Wolves in playoff goal-scoring as the team advanced to the Calder Cup final.
Gerard Gallant guided the ‘Golden Misfits’ to the Cup final two years ago and had an even better lineup last season, but Vegas fell short in a colossal flop against San Jose. The pieces of a Cup-chasing puzzle are all present and accounted for. It’s up to the coach to complete the assembly.
Besides working his club out of cap-space peril, George McPhee made a key move to keep the Knights’ brain trust in order. With at least two NHL teams eying Kelly McCrimmon for a GM position, McPhee promoted him from assistant GM to the big chair, while taking on the title of president of hockey operations for himself.
– Scott Zerr
Stanley Cup Odds: 9/1
Prediction: 2nd in Pacific
Because the Knights have been so good, they haven’t needed help from kids, but Cody Glass and Nic Hague are the top candidates once reinforcements are required. Befitting his roots, GM Kelly McCrimmon went heavy on western talent in 2019, starting with Peyton Krebs. A partial Achilles tear meant Krebs had to wheel himself over to his media podium at the draft, but once he’s healed, the Knights will have a top-end center with smarts, work ethic and a quick release.
1. Cody Glass, C
Age 20 Team Portland (WHL)
Two-way player with great hockey IQ. Excellent puck-mover who rarely makes mental mistakes.
Acquired 6th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
2. Peyton Krebs, C
Age 18 Team Kootenay (WHL)
Dominant offensively. Uses his puck skills to create space for himself and his teammates.
Acquired 17th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
3. Nikita Gusev, LW
Age 27 Team St. Petersburg (KHL)
Dynamic winger with dominant playmaking abilities. His 65 assists last season were a KHL record.
Acquired From TB, June, 2017 NHL ’19-20
4. Nicolas Hague, D
Age 20 Team Chicago (AHL)
Intimidates opposition with his size and physical play. His skating is still a work in progress.
Acquired 34th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
5. Jake Leschyshyn, C
Age 20 Team Lethbridge (WHL)
Hard worker who found his scoring touch last season. Plays on the penalty kill and checks.
Acquired 62nd overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
6. Kaedan Korczak, D
Age 18 Team Kelowna (WHL)
Strong defensive defenseman who is fast for his size. Passes the puck efficiently out of his zone.
Acquired 41st overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
7. Stanislav Demin, D
Age 19 Team Denver (NCHC)
Smooth skating and physical play make him a presence in defensive end. A sophomore.
Acquired 99th overall, 2018 NHL ’23-24
8. Ben Jones, C
Age 20 Team Niagara (OHL)
Exploded offensively to become 100-point player after being a seventh-round pick two years ago.
Acquired 189th overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
9. Jack Dugan, RW
Age 21 Team Providence (HE)
Power forward was two points shy of being a point-per-game player in freshman year.
Acquired 142nd overall, 2017 NHL ’22-23
10. Pavel Dorofeyev, LW
Age 18 Team Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Gifted offensively. High-end hands and vision. Cuts through opposing defenses with ease.
Acquired 79th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24