The Golden Knights took the NHL by storm in their inaugural campaign and all signs point towards a successful encore performance in Vegas.
It stands to reason that the team with the toughest act to follow at the beginning of every new season is the defending Stanley Cup champion, which is to say that the Washington Capitals, who may be faced with the most literal Stanley Cup hangover in memory if Alex Ovechkin’s exploits are any indication, are looking ahead to a 2018-19 campaign in which hopes will be as high as ever.
The good news for Ovechkin and the Capitals, however, is that this coming campaign may be the rare instance in which the current Cup holder will be provided some shelter in the upcoming campaign. That’s because the encore with the most outsized expectations may well be the Vegas Golden Knights, the very team Washington had to defeat to take home the franchise’s first title.
The story of the season that was in Vegas has been written a thousand times by now, of course, but there’s time for a quick refresher. The expansion franchise, built from the castoffs of other organizations, took the league by storm with an improbable and unthinkable run to begin the season, battled through a string of injuries in goal that would’ve sunk most teams, yet managed to stay afloat en route to winning the Pacific Division and earning a playoff berth. From there, the Golden Knights made their unlikely march through the Western Conference. They dismantled the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1, felled the San Jose Sharks in Round 2 and grounded the heavily favored Winnipeg Jets in the conference final. So, sure, the run came to a halt in the Stanley Cup final, but Vegas’ success was inarguably the season’s biggest story.
But that is what has set the bar so high in Vegas and left one question in big, bold, Strip-style bright lights: have the Golden Knights done enough this off-season to maintain the same level of success in Year 2?
In an attempt to answer that, let’s begin with the Golden Knights’ own bits of housekeeping. When it comes to rights-controlled free agents, Vegas has already begun to put in the work, as noted by the re-signing of restricted free agent defenseman Colin Miller, who had filed for arbitration, to a new four-year, $15.5-million pact. One way or another, a new deal is in the offing for breakout star William Karlsson, too. On the heels of a standout 43-goal campaign, Karlsson is due a hefty raise and he’ll get it. He’s filed for arbitration, but Vegas may be able to hammer out a contract before the two sides have their day in court. In the meantime, it goes almost without saying that GM George McPhee is at work on contracts for remaining RFAs Tomas Nosek, William Carrier and Shea Theodore.
It should be noted, too, that all of McPhee’s summer signings do come on the heels of the Golden Knights taking care of some important business mid-season. As Vegas was in the midst of their unexpected success, Jonathan Marchessault was re-upped before he could hit the market. Likewise, contracts were taken care of for Brayden McNabb, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill and, hours before signing season began, Ryan Reaves. There were also minor deals for on-the-cusp talents such as Brandon Pirri, Tomas Hyka, Stefan Matteau and Brooks Macek.
When the market actually opened, though, is when the Golden Knights made the most noise. Signed to a three-year, $19.5-million deal was center Paul Stastny, a talented, two-way pivot who is destined for top-six duty. The signing was one of the big splashes as free agency opened, incredibly not one that came at all that exorbitant a price, either. It’s a reasonable contract and a nice fit, the perfect addition for a team that could use some depth down the middle. As far as improving the team goes, Stastny gives Vegas a reliability at center that they didn’t have prior, not to mention playmaking ability that stands to greatly benefit his wingers.
The addition of Stastny didn’t come without some painful goodbyes, however. Two important pieces of last season’s success, James Neal and David Perron, departed this summer via free agency, and one has to wonder if the lone big-name acquisition can make up for the lost offense. While Stastny comes with offensive upside to the tune of 15-goal, 50-point potential, in Neal and Perron the Golden Knights lost a combined 41 goals and 110 points from their lineup — and that’s regular season only. The two scored another seven goals and 20 points in 35 combined playoff games, finishing fourth and eighth in team scoring, respectively, during the post-season.
Effectively, the addition of Stastny in the place of Neal and Perron stands to see Vegas lose 20-plus goals and somewhere in the range of 50 points from their lineup. But one variable that could temper the loss up front is what Stastny’s presence does for Tomas Tatar. Brought over at the trade deadline from the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar’s performance was disappointing in Vegas last season. If he skates alongside a puck distributor like Stastny, though, Tatar could find his touch and chip in the 25 goals and 45 points he’s been good for over the past few seasons. That would nullify the loss of, say, Neal, while Stastny is all but certain to replace the offense lost with Perron’s exit.
And it’d certainly be difficult to assert Vegas has made anything that even resembles a misstep on the blueline. Exiting this summer have been Luca Sbisa, Jason Garrison and Clayton Stoner, though the latter two rearguards were non-factors and the former a third-pairing defender under Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. And if Nick Holden, inked in free agency, is considered the replacement for Sbisa, it’s difficult not to view it as an upgrade. He can move the puck well and that’s a tremendous asset in Vegas’ up-tempo system.
What really puts Vegas in position to replicate their success, however, is the variables that exist throughout the roster. Gallant’s success with Marchessault, a former fringe NHLer who has blossomed to become a legitimate top-six threat under the coach, doesn’t have to be a flash in the pan. We saw last season that Karlsson, too, found another gear under Gallant, and there are potential for some of Vegas’ glossed over signings to succeed next season. Curtis McKenzie has long been a top AHL producer who has never had it translate to the NHL, but the 27-year-old could be primed to be a fit under Gallant. Daniel Carr has a similar potential for offensive upside, too, given his 0.36 points-per-game production across 94 games with the Montreal Canadiens over the past three campaigns. He could just be waiting for the opportunity and the right fit. It might come in Vegas.
Without question, though, the greatest variable for the Golden Knights comes on the trade market. Vegas has long been mentioned as a frontrunner in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes, connected to the Ottawa Senators since before the trade deadline last season. And what the Golden Knights may be able to offer the Senators that no other team truly in the mix can is the ability to take on Bobby Ryan and his considerable contract as part of any trade. If that’s the one element that finally gets a Karlsson trade complete and the Golden Knights can bring the all-world rearguard into the mix, Vegas will almost certainly vault to a position as a top-tier contender next season.
And at that point, the foolish thing wouldn’t be betting on the Golden Knights. Rather, it’d be betting against them again.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.