Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Of all the major professional sports leagues, the NHL has the most unpredictable standings on a year-to-year basis. It’s tough for teams to maintain success, which is why the Vegas Golden Knights remain something of an unknown despite reaching the playoffs in both years of their existence.
The postseason remains a baseline expectation for the organization, but it varies wildly from there. A case could be made for the Golden Knights doing anything from exiting in the first round for a second straight year to finishing what they started two seasons ago as Western Conference champions and hoisting the Stanley Cup.
The true fate of the season will likely depend on the answer to these five questions.
1. How good is Mark Stone, really?
This question still proliferates most conversations about the Golden Knights, and that’s ridiculous. Stone is good—really, really good.
Vegas’ prized midseason acquisition put up career highs last year with 33 goals and 73 points, finished second in Selke Trophy voting for the league’s best defensive forward and proved unstoppable in the playoffs. Two advanced statistic websites with different formulas, Corsica and Evolving Wild, tabbed Stone as the league’s single most valuable player judging by wins above replacement.
Stone played 18 regular-season games in a Golden Knights sweater and seemed to get more comfortable as time went on. He spent the summer seeing his eight-year extension kick in and settling into his new local home.
Stone will be Vegas’ best player this season, and if all goes right, he could be in the running for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
2. Will the Golden Knights limit Marc-André Fleury’s games?
They haven’t yet, but doing so might become more vital this year, with Fleury set to turn 35 less than two months into the season. He started 61 games last year and played the fourth-most minutes of any goalie in the league, despite getting hurt and missing nearly a month late in the season.
Over the past decade, only two goalies have won the Stanley Cup after finishing the regular season among the top 10 in games played. Fleury was one of them when he won his first title with Pittsburgh in 2009, but he was 24 years old then.
It would behoove the Golden Knights to rest Fleury more so he’s fresh for the playoffs. When Vegas reached the Stanley Cup Final two years ago, Fleury played just 46 games due to various injuries. The small workload might have helped him contribute to a historic postseason run.
3. How will the lines look?
They might look different almost every night. It’s a fool’s errand trying to predict the lines, but that doesn’t stop anyone.
The Golden Knights’ top six are set. Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith form one of the top lines, with Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Stone filling out the other. It’s murkier after that. Cody Eakin figures to center the third line with Alex Tuch on his right. A battle between Brandon Pirri and Tomas Nosek will determine the Eakin line’s left wing—with Cody Glass also holding an outside shot.
Nosek might fit better centering the fourth line, however, assuming he can beat out Nicolas Roy for a spot between William Carrier and Ryan Reaves.
4. Who’ll pair up on defense?
Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb are locked into the top two pairs. That leaves an open slot, and it will be interesting to see who joins them.
It was Deryk Engelland last year, but the Golden Knights might want to limit his minutes now that he’s 37 years old. The team credits Engelland for helping with Theodore’s development, and it could deploy him in a similar way with a young defenseman this year like Zach Whitecloud, Jimmy Schuldt, Nicolas Hague or Dylan Coghlan. The team has steadily maintained that it plans to start the year with at least one rookie defenseman on the roster.
Jon Merrill and Nick Holden are the final two veterans. Merrill could be an intriguing fit with Schmidt on the top four, while it appears Holden will see less ice time this year. Or maybe Holden could secure more minutes by showing an ability to play on both the right and left sides. There’s a lot to be determined on the blue line.
5. Does Vegas have enough depth scoring?
Vegas’ top six will produce, and after that—despite having traded potentially high-scoring forward Nikita Gusev—the Golden Knights might still be in an enviable position.
The most likely third line—Pirri, Eakin and Tuch—should be loaded with offense. The fourth line is more of a question mark, but still has a high potential. Carrier posted terrific per-60 scoring numbers last year, and Reaves put in a career-high nine goals.
If things go right, the 2019-2020 Golden Knights are shaping up as a team that can score up and down the lineup, but there’s no guarantee. The 23-year-old Tuch is the only member of the bottom six still undeniably improving. Some would argue that Eakin, Reaves and Pirri are all due to regress offensively. If that happens, the pressure to score will be even higher for the top six forwards.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.