Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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Analysis:

If you can believe it, the Golden Knights are better than ever this season

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Steve Marcus

Vegas Golden Knights center Jonathan Marchessault, center, (81)celebrates with Brayden McNabb, left, (3) and Reilly Smith (19) after scoring on the San Jose Sharks in the second period during Game 6 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series at T-Mobile Arena Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Questions don’t typically faze Jonathan Marchessault. In his time with the Vegas Golden Knights, the top-line winger has demonstrated a public persona befitting of his play on the ice. The fast-flying 5-foot-9, 175-pounder has a wit as quick as his skating, a candidness he fires as freely as his wrist shot.

One of the only times a media member has ever visibly flustered Marchessault came around this time a year ago. A few days before the start of the 2018-19 season, and presumably unbeknownst to most of the players, #CupInTwo had begun trending on Twitter in Las Vegas as the fanbase eagerly anticipated the Golden Knights’ sophomore campaign. A television reporter at City National Arena asked the team about the high expectations, which included a stop at Marchessault’s locker stall.

For once, Marchessault didn’t have an immediate answer, leaning back and blinking before eventually opting for into an uncharacteristically vanilla response about taking it one game at a time. His discomfort spoke much louder than his words.

Thrusting external championship aspirations onto the infant franchise was unfair, regardless of its inaugural-season run to the Stanley Cup Final. All things considered, the Golden Knights got stronger by the end of last season than appeared possible at the outset—and that has changed everything heading into 2019-2020. What a difference a year can make.

#CupInTwo was always a reach; #CupInThree is more realistic.

For the first time in franchise history, Vegas enters a season unanimously—and rightfully—rated as one of the best teams in the NHL. Last preseason, there were reasons for some skepticism, namely the fact that the Golden Knights rode a historic and unsustainable goalie performance from Marc-André Fleury through the 2018 playoffs.

And, if we’re being honest, the concerns kind of manifested themselves. Vegas slumped early and again during a stretch in the middle of the season. The Golden Knights were barely clinging to a playoff spot before they swung a blockbuster trade with Ottawa for Mark Stone.

Stone transformed the team, last season and arguably for the next eight years, the full course of the $76 million extension he signed with Vegas. For the first year and a half of the Golden Knights’ existence, even after a season in which William Karlsson tallied 78 points and 43 goals, the knock was always their lack of a true star.

That noise has faded. There’s a case to be made that Stone is not only a superstar, but was the best player in the NHL over his 25-game stretch with Vegas, during which he scored 11 goals and totaled 23 points.

Stone’s acquisition crippled the Golden Knights’ salary cap and limited their offseason flexibility, leading to frustration for some fans and a perception that the team got worse. And while Vegas did lose more useful players than it gained, concerns about a decline ignore the fact that Stone, Marchessault, Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Nate Schmidt are all entering their primes. Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore aren’t far behind, meaning the bulk of the Golden Knights’ core is likely to improve.

Sure, Vegas leveraged its long-term future to get to this point, trading away two of its initial three first-round pick building blocks in Erik Brannstrom and Nick Suzuki. But that’s what a franchise should do given the chance to build a definitive Stanley Cup contender. And this is a definitive Stanley Cup contender. Heck, Vegas became a definitive Stanley Cup contender last year.

It’s easy to forget, but despite a relatively trying season, the Golden Knights were championship favorites for a brief moment in sports books upon taking a 3-1 series lead over the Sharks in the first round of the playoffs. That was before their infamous, referee-assisted collapse, but it nonetheless illustrates how dangerous they can be at their best.

To no one’s surprise, Marchessault seemed to be the one speaking for the team after the bitter Game 7 defeat in San Jose. He went on an impassioned three-minute tirade criticizing the “embarrassing” five-minute major game-misconduct call against teammate Cody Eakin, a speech he stood behind several days later.

“We’re going to be there again,” Marchessault said before departing for the summer on locker clean-out day. “We’re going to be in the playoffs again. We’re going to be a great team again. The future definitely seems bright for us.”

Marchessault’s words should be heeded by the rest of the NHL. The Golden Knights appear more poised for success than ever before. #CupInThree indeed.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.