Pacific Division Preview of Pain: Vegas Golden Knights

Pass it to Bulis

I liked Sean McIndoe’s prediction for the Vegas Golden Knights: “The Golden Knights will open their season by hosting the Flyers on Thursday. Sorry, I just want to know what it feels like to get a prediction about this team right for the first time in my life.”

Anything seems possible for the Golden Knights. They could once again excel, dominating the rest of the Western Conference enroute to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in as many years. Or they could collapse completely, showing that their inaugural season was a flash in the pan, instead of a sign of things to come.

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If the Edmonton Oilers are a cautionary tale for the Vancouver Canucks, the Golden Knights are a beacon of hope. “The Canucks could surprise everyone; just look at the Golden Knights,” was a take I heard from many people over the summer.

The other side of that is, “Look at the Golden Knights; that’s another obstacle for the Canucks to clear if they want to get back to the playoffs.” The Golden Knights should be good again this season, providing another source of pain for the Canucks.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

OFFENCE You wouldn’t expect the scraps available in the expansion draft to turn into one of the best first lines in the NHL, but Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith managed that feat.

Some might say that favourable expansion draft rules gave the Golden Knights a Cup contender, but it’s not that simple. The Golden Knights were gifted Marchessault and Smith, and got extremely lucky with Karlsson. Will that top line be as good this year? I have my doubts.

Karlsson rode an absurdly high 23.4% shooting percentage to 43 goals. If that shooting percentage regresses to his career average of 14.6%, you can expect him to be closer to 25-30 goals this season. 70 points seems like a reasonable expectation for both Marchessault and Smith: good, but not best-first-line-in-the-NHL good.

The team lost James Neal and David Perron, but added Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, which is arguably a slight improvement. Along with Alex Tuch and Erik Haula, that’s a pretty decent group at forward.

While I expect the top line to take a step backward, the Golden Knights still have the superior top-six compared to the Canucks. Stastny and Pacioretty have the potential to click given their Team USA chemistry and I’m a big believer in Marchessault.

Advantage: Golden Knights

 

DEFENCE Things look a little dicier for the Golden Knights at defence thanks to a 20-game suspension for Nate Schmidt for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Colin Miller, who led the Vegas defence in scoring with 41 points, is capable of picking up his minutes, but can Deryk Engelland repeat his resurgent performance from last season?

Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore can hold down the fort on the left side, while Nick Holden and Brad Hunt will play on a more sheltered third pairing. Theodore has the potential to be a true top-pairing stud and should thrive after having to start last season in the AHL due to a logjam on the blue line.

While Schmidt’s absence in the first quarter of the season will be a blow, once he returns, the Golden Knights should have an above-average defence corps. If Theodore breaks out, they could legitimately be among the league’s best.

Advantage: Golden Knights

 

GOALTENDING Marc-Andre Fleury was lights out for the Golden Knights in both the regular season and the playoffs. The big question is if he can do it again.

Fleury finished the season with a .927 save percentage, after a .909 in a backup role in Pittsburgh the year before. It’s reasonable to expect something in between the two this season; let’s go with the exact average between .927 and .909: .918. That’s still well above league average.

Behind Fleury, the Golden Knights have Malcolm Subban, who had the tough task of filling in when Fleury was injured to start the season. His .910 save percentage wasn’t fantastic, but it wasn’t terrible either, and the 24 year old will likely feel more comfortable with another season of experience under his belt and a steadier backup role.

Number three on the depth chart is 24-year-old Oscar Dansk, who had an outstanding .946 save percentage in four NHL games last season, and has been solid in the AHL.

Between the high-end talent and experience of Fleury and decent depth behind him, the Golden Knights have the Canucks beat in this category.

Advantage: Golden Knights

 

SPECIAL TEAMS The Golden Knights were 11th in the NHL on the power play and 10th on the penalty kill, giving them a pretty solid combination on special teams.

In general, a good rule of thumb is that your special team’s percentages should together add up to more than 100%. That’s a sign that your special teams are helping rather than hindering your efforts.

For the Golden Knights, their special teams combine to equal 102.8: above average, but not quite among the league’s best. By comparison, the Canucks’ special teams add up to 99.7, showing there’s some work to be done, mainly on the penalty kill.

Haula was the power play scoring leader for the Golden Knights, tallying 12 power play goals. It’s fair to question whether he can repeat that feat, particularly since a lot of his goals came on rebounds, jam plays, and deflections in front of the net. That type of goal has a tendency to be pretty fickle from year to year.

Colin Miller was surprisingly effective on the point of the first power play unit and will likely retain that role. The loss of Perron will be felt, but Pacioretty and Stastny have had success on the power play in the past, so could make up for it.

Engelland and McNabb were the cornerstone on the penalty kill last season, but the team will need to lean on someone other than Schmidt early in the season on their second PK unit.

The Golden Knights have some excellent defensive forwards among their bottom-six to play the PK, including Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Cody Eakin, but don’t discount top-line forwards Karlsson and Smith. Pacioretty is a decent penalty killer as well.

Advantage: Golden Knights

 

OVERALL The Golden Knights turned doubters into true believers every step of the way last season, but the second album is always harder to make than the first. How can they possibly follow up making the Stanley Cup Final in their first season as a franchise?

The simple answer is that they can’t, but GM George McPhee clearly believes in this group, making the blockbuster trade for Pacioretty. Including the original price paid for Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights traded away a first, two seconds, a third, and blue-chip prospect Nick Suzuki to get Pacioretty. Perhaps that’s unfair to include the high price paid for Tatar in the first place, but it shows how much of the future that McPhee was willing to mortgage.

Still, the Golden Knights have good reason to believe they’ll once again be one of the top teams in the Pacific Division and have another chance at a long playoff run.

At the very least, the Golden Knights will have the best marketing in the NHL:

 

 

Advantage: Golden Knights
 

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