The Golden Knights are set to hit the ice as the NHL’s 31st team, and despite the excitement surrounding the franchise, few would be surprised if Vegas ended up at the bottom of the heap.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights kick things off.
Stanley Cup odds: 200-1
Key additions: James Neal, RW; Reilly Smith, RW; Jonathan Marchessault, RW; Vadim Shipachyov, C; Cody Eakin, C; Erik Haula, C; William Karlsson, C; David Perron, LW; Nate Schmidt, D; Jason Garrison, D; Shea Theodore, D; Colin Miller, D; Marc-Andre Fleury, G; Calvin Pickard, G
Key departures: Marc Methot, D; Alexei Emelin, D; David Schlemko, D; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D; Marcus Kruger, C
Is Vadim Shipachyov ready for duty as a top-line NHL center?
There’s a lot to wonder about when it comes to the Golden Knights, particularly when considering this is a ragtag group built through the beefiest expansion drafts in league history. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the roster comes not from Vegas’ 30 selections during the expansion draft, but from the team’s biggest splash in free agency: the signing of 30-year-old Shipachyov.
In some ways, Shipachyov is the true X-Factor of the roster, even more so than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defensemen Shea Theodore or Nate Schmidt or wingers James Neal or David Perron. Reason being is that Shipachyov has potential to suit up next season and translate his considerable KHL success — he netted 55 goals and 190 points in 153 games over the past three seasons — to the NHL. If he succeeds, the Golden Knights will have hit a minor free agent jackpot, landing a player to fill the coveted first-line pivot role by convincing him Vegas was the place to be.
There’s no guarantee there, of course, and if Shipachyov isn’t capable of handling first-line NHL duty as the Golden Knights are hoping, Vegas’ lineup will be entirely devoid of a player who can step into that role and every pivot, from Cody Eakin to Oscar Lindberg, could be asked to punch well above their weight.
BEST CASE SCENARIO:
You know what they say about all the distractions going on in Las Vegas. Can the Golden Knights pick up on that and use it to their advantage? It’s human nature for individuals and teams to play down to the level of their competition. Not intuitively, of course, but maybe it won’t always be the ‘A’ game coming to town. Will visiting teams come into Vegas and think an 80-percent effort is good enough against a collection of castoffs? If the NHL’s 31st franchise, under coach Gerard Gallant, can execute on creating a team-first model and bring it night after night, maybe they won’t finish last overall.
Marc-Andre Fleury has gone on runs in the past decade where he’s the best goalie in the league, regardless what the shot count is. He’s bound to do that again in Vegas, at least in fits and starts. And the Golden Knights picked up some steady, reliable defensemen in the expansion draft – almost enough to staff two teams. So there are sure to be games when if Vegas can score just a couple of goals, it’ll be competitive for a full 60 minutes. It’s not likely to happen every game, but that’s the best-case picture.
WORST CASE SCENARIO:
Since the start of the NHL’s salary cap era in 2005-06, only one team has averaged fewer than two goals per game – the Buffalo Sabres, who did it twice, in 2013-14 and 2014-15. It would surprise no one if the Knights scored fewer than the 150 and 153 goals Buffalo got in those two years. There’s not a lot of firepower in the Vegas lineup. James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault are the best bets to top 20 goals, but they could get 30 apiece and the team may still average fewer than two goals per game.
Compounding Vegas’ bleak offensive outlook is the fact there’s more parity in the NHL than any previous era. The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning both had 94 points last season, yet missed the playoffs. Boston had 96 and 93 the two seasons previous and missed the post-season. Los Angeles won a Cup one year, then followed up with 95 points and didn’t make it. So 30 other NHL teams will look at the Golden Knights and know they have to get the full two points against them just to tread water. Forget the notion about Vegas distractions. Opponents will be lining up at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
THN’s Prediction: 8th in Pacific. The thin forward group and blueline leaves the Golden Knights without the requisite depth to fight their way out of the Pacific basement. If Vegas is shooting for a top selection in next year’s draft, though, they should be right on target.