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August 24, 2019

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5 Golden Knights who could be better (or worse) this season

Pacioretty

Ross D. Franklin / AP

Golden Knights left wing Max Pacioretty (67) celebrates his goal against Arizona with Shea Theodore, left, during overtime Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. The Golden Knights won 3-2.

If every contributor from the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup Final team in 2017-18 performed in a similar fashion last season, it’s easy to assume Vegas would have been right back in contention for the championship. But it usually doesn’t work that way in sports.

William Karlsson saw his goal numbers decline, but Alex Tuch took a major step forward. Erik Haula got hurt, but Brandon Pirri and William Carrier each had much bigger roles than the year before.

There’s fluctuation every year on a team, even among the same players. So who from last year’s team could be better this season? Who could be worse? We take a look.

Improve

Max Pacioretty, left wing

Pacioretty, who missed 16 games last season because of injury, scored 22 goals in 66 games — or a goal every third game. Prorate that over 82 games and he would have had 27 goals. Maybe it’s not realistic to expect a fully healthy season for a player who turns 31 in November, so let’s take a look at some other factors.

A little puck luck here and there and Pacioretty’s season looks very different.

He hit the post six times and the crossbar three times, denting the iron a team-high nine times (Jonathan Marchessault was second at eight). His power play numbers also took a hit. He had four power-play goals, his fewest output in a season since 2013 with a 9.52 shooting percentage on the man advantage, well below his career average of 16%.

The biggest change to Pacioretty’s game came in late February after the Golden Knights acquired Mark Stone at the deadline and put him on a line with Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. Pacioretty’s possession numbers skyrocketed once he began playing with Stone, and he was nearly unstoppable in the playoffs with five goals and six assists in seven games. A full season with Stone and Stastny should do nothing but help Pacioretty.

If you squint, you can see the outlines of a good season for Pacioretty. And if things click the way they almost did last year, he could return to his 30-goal days.

Shea Theodore, defenseman

Theodore is perhaps the biggest internal reason the Golden Knights have yet to acquire a star defenseman. They’ve loaded up on forwards, and Theodore developing into a player who gets even outside Norris Trophy (top defender) consideration could catapult the Golden Knights into the league’s inner circle of elite teams.

And why can’t he? He had 63 takeaways last season, second-best among league defenseman and 10th-best overall. Vegas generated 56.5% of 5-on-5 scoring chances when Theodore was on the ice.

Theodore is 24, under contract for the next six seasons and could take the next step this season, particularly if he plays consistently with Brayden McNabb. Once he shifted from the left side to McNabb’s right, his possession and scoring numbers spiked, as he jumped into more plays and was an assist-per-game player in seven postseason contests. He even had a postseason goal.

He had 12 goals and 25 assists last year, which could be the tip of Theodore’s iceberg.

Tomas Nosek, center

Many of us saw the same thing: The two goals in the Stanley Cup Final and two short-handed goals in the preseason pointed to Nosek as last year’s breakout star. He was fine, but not the consistent performer the team hoped for.

Among players who took at least 20 draws this season, Nosek’s 62.1% win rate was best in the NHL. But the wing only took 132 draws all season. He’s in pole position for fourth-line center this year, potentially allowing him to drive possession from the bottom of the lineup. His career faceoff percentage was 53.9% before the season, proving he has a knack for winning them.

Nosek managed career-bests in goals (8) and points (17) last year, but there’s reason to believe he can be even better. He shot 7% at 5-on-5 with 10.4 expected goals last year and managed seven 5-on-5 goals. He was awfully close to being at double digits in scoring last year, and even playing on the fourth line, it’s not unreasonable to think he can do it this year.

Decline

Cody Eakin, center

If Eakin repeats his 22-goal, 41-point output from last season, he’ll find himself a nice contract when he is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. But don’t count on it. Both were career-highs for the 28-year-old, and he had 14 total goals and 25 points combined in the two seasons prior to 2018-19.

Eakin played well when Paul Stastny was hurt, sliding into the second line and developing a nice chemistry with Alex Tuch and Max Pacioretty and grabbing some good power-play time. Barring an injury he won’t see much, if any, top-six time, but a third line of Eakin, Tuch and Brandon Pirri will still be able to score.

The biggest reason to doubt Eakin was his 18.3 shooting percentage last season, the best of his NHL tenure and well above his career average of 10.0 entering the year. He was the only Golden Knight with a negative Corsi percentage (49.7), and the advanced stats pegged him for 8.7 expected goals at 5-on-5 when he had 17.

Maybe he turns into more of a distributor alongside scoring wingers, but Eakin is the safest bet to see his goal total drop and regression brings him back to earth.

Ryan Reaves, right wing

When someone who typically doesn’t score goals suddenly becomes a capable scorer, the change should be viewed through a skeptical lens. Reaves scored the series-winner against Winnipeg to clinch the Knights’ spot in the Stanley Cup Final and started last season on a tear before finishing with nine goals and 20 points, both career-highs.

Reaves scored six of those goals in a 22-game span from Oct. 20-Dec. 4. But after scoring against New Jersey on Jan. 6, he only scored once the rest of the season.

Reaves reinvented himself last season, earning power-play time and reducing the number of fights he had, totaling only 74 penalty minutes, the second-lowest total of his career. His expected goals numbers were respectable at 5-on-5 (8.9), and his expected goals-per-60 of 0.66 was the highest of his career.

A lot of Reaves’ production came from opportunity, as his 10:52 average ice time was the highest of his career by almost two full minutes. The power-play time figures to disappear this season, as it did the second half of the season when the team was healthy.

Reaves had the best year of his career in part because he had the most time on ice of his career. If he can maintain play at 5-on-5 maybe he nets enough to work his way back to the power play. But it’d be a stretch to say he’ll become a double-digit goal-scorer.

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