Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Look for VGK to stay in the Stanley Cup hunt
The Golden Knights’ magical inaugural season was one for the ages, but the players aren’t satisfied. They fell three wins short of hoisting the Stanley Cup and are determined to finish the job in Year 2.
On paper, there’s no reason why the Golden Knights shouldn’t be one of the best teams in the NHL again. They return the most productive line in hockey with William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith—all still young and only improving. Behind them, the second-line received a complete overhaul, with Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny replacing James Neal and David Perron. Neal and Perron were great offensively, combining for 41 goals, but they were a liability defensively. Pacioretty and Stastny bring equal firepower on both ends of the ice.
Young players Alex Tuch, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek showed flashes last season and now appear ready to take another step in their development. Whomever ends up playing alongside Stastny and Pacioretty should see a major boost to his offensive numbers.
The Golden Knights’ defense could struggle, especially early with Nate Schmidt serving a 20-game suspension and Shea Theodore having missed most of training camp during contract negotiations, but goaltending could help offset that. Last season Vegas went through the worst streak of goalie injuries in recent memory, with top netminder Marc-André Fleury missing two months due to a concussion and two of his backups going down, too. That’s unlikely to reoccur, so 20 extra games with Fleury in net instead of Maxime Lagacé or Oscar Dansk should benefit the Golden Knights greatly.
A lot of things went right for the Golden Knights to reach 109 points last season, but while they might not reach that mark, it doesn’t really matter in the end. The goal is to make the playoffs and finish the job, and this roster is better equipped to do that. — Jesse Granger
Don't expect another dream season
In advanced statistical circles, it’s called “the Plexiglass Principle.” Originally devised by baseball analytics pioneer Bill James, it has also applied to other sports. The gist of the theorem is simple: A team that makes major improvements and exceeds expectations in one season usually falls back in the next, and vice versa.
The Golden Knights might not sound like perfect candidates, because they had no set baseline for success as an expansion team last season. But numbers gleaned from their personnel pegged them as a .500 team at best going into the season, with analysts more commonly expecting them to be among the worst in the NHL. Instead, Vegas had a dream season—and dream seasons don’t tend to repeat.
An inordinate number of Golden Knights had career offensive years—with regular-season points leader William Karlsson chief among them—that are certain to statistically regress. But defense is where the Golden Knights were particularly surprising last season. Everything coalesced, as they received exceptional play from their journeymen and breakout success from their young players.
The Golden Knights have looked far shakier at limiting opponents’ scoring chances in the preseason and training camp this year. And the problem won’t get any better early in the season with top defender Nate Schmidt serving a 20-game suspension. Expecting Marc-André Fleury, who turns 34 years old in November, to make up for the shortcomings on his own is too much to ask. Fleury had a career-high .927 save percentage last season, another number bound to drop as he reaches an age that typically signals the downside of a goaltender’s career.
The Golden Knights still have a terrific coach in Gerard Gallant and play to their strengths with an aggressive style. They’re not going to bottom out and fall out of the playoff hunt. But sports history says it’s unlikely they’ll pick up right where they left off as one of the best teams in the league. — Case Keefer