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September 22, 2021

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A look at the Golden Knights’ refreshed forward group, and an opening night lineup projection

VGK vs Wild

Wade Vandervort

Vegas Golden Knights center Chandler Stephenson (20), Vegas Golden Knights right wing Alex Tuch (89) and Vegas Golden Knights center Mattias Janmark (26) celebrate as Janmark earns a hat trick during the third period of Game 7 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild at T-Mobile Arena Friday, May 28, 2021.

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon was pretty clear last week that the roster he currently has is the one he likes for opening night. But he hedged just enough to get everyone else’s wheels turning.

“Where we are now, I would say we’re going to go into training camp with this roster,” he said. “And yet, any general manager in the National Hockey League will tell you that anything can change with a phone call, right? We’re pleased with what we were able to get done in the month of July, and really excited about getting ready for training camp with this group.”

Another move notwithstanding, the Golden Knights’ roster appears set, and very similar in many ways to last season’s team that led in the NHL with 40 wins and lost the President’s Trophy on a tiebreaker. Despite a Marc-Andre Fleury-sized hole in net, Robin Lehner remains, and the defense could be identical to what it was last year.

The forward group got a bit of a makeover.

Out went Cody Glass, Ryan Reaves and Tomas Nosek, and in came Evgenii Dadonov, Nolan Patrick, Brett Howden and the return of Mattias Janmark. Vegas also has Alex Tuch’s shoulder injury to deal with, which is expected to keep the winger out until close to the All-Star break.

Let’s take a look at how Vegas could arrange its forward group, with a couple of major changes to the bottom-six.

Top line

This is the one area Vegas could still improve this offseason, as the omnipresent Jack Eichel rumors will persist until he is traded from Buffalo. But assuming Eichel doesn’t come in, the top line is very straightforward.

It will be Max Pacioretty on the left wing, Chandler Stephenson at center and captain Mark Stone on the right. Pacioretty and Stone have been together basically from the moment the latter was traded to Vegas in February 2019 and have had a rotating cast of centers.

Stephenson, a fourth-liner in Washington before his trade to the Golden Knights, has stepped into that role and performed it arguably better than anyone.

Stephenson’s emergence is the biggest deterrent against a move for a center. In 92 games with the Golden Knights over the last two years, just over one full season’s worth of games, Stephenson has 22 goals and 57 points.

In 78 games between Pacioretty and Stone, the trio has been on the ice for 58 goals for and 22 against, while running an absurd 61.7% expected-goals rate, one of the best numbers by any line in the NHL.

Eichel is better than Stephenson, but the question remains how much better this line could realistically get. Stephenson has shown his terrific 2019-20 season wasn’t a fluke by improving last year and has proven to be a more-than-capable pivot for his star wingers.

Is Eichel worth potentially decimating the roster elsewhere to improve an already-terrific line? While it could always change, the answer so far is no.

Second line

The second trio is even more set in stone than the top unit. The “Misfit Line” of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith has been together four years and expect them to be together for a fifth.

There have been dalliances with other lineups over the years, notably when Karlsson centered Pacioretty and Stone during the 2020 postseason, but the original Golden Knights always find their way back to each other. They rank first, second and third in franchise history in points and were not only the Golden Knights’ best line in the playoffs last year, at times was the only one driving offense.

Smith is a free agent after this season and turns 31 in April, so there’s a real chance this is the last go-round for the Misfits. His name is also persistent in trade rumors this offseason, but if he’s here when the season starts on Oct. 12, he’ll be on the right wing next to his running mates.

Third line

This is where things get interesting. Evgenii Dadonov’s arrival by trade and Mattias Janmark’s extension offered some stability on the wings after news that Tuch is expected to miss six months, but center will be the battle to watch in training camp.

There are two main competitors, with some dark horses as well. Don’t discount Nicolas Roy, who coach Pete DeBoer speaks highly of, or Brett Howden, who was acquired for assets in the offseason, making a run at it, but it will likely come down to rookie Peyton Krebs or former No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Patrick has never quite lived up to his pre-draft hype, but he played for McCrimmon in juniors, making this reunion a long-rumored possibility. He’s healthy now after missing the 2019-20 season with migraine issues, but still managed only 70 points in 197 career games, including just nine in 52 games last year. He’ll be 23 on opening night, so a change of scenery could help him regain the form that made him such a hyped prospect out of McCrimmon’s Wheat Kings team.

Patrick can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers so if he loses the third-line battle to Krebs or someone else, he’s an option for the fourth line as well.

Then there’s Krebs.

The 20-year-old is Vegas’ top prospect who was named player of the year in the Western Hockey League last year. He had five points in five games with Henderson last season and worked his way into four NHL games before an injury ended his season. He’s aged out of junior, so he’ll be on a Knights team next season regardless, but a strong training camp could ensure he’ll be Golden instead of Silver.

Fourth line

Vegas traded away a fourth-line staple in Ryan Reaves and lost another in Tomas Nosek to free agency, but there are still plenty of options. William Carrier has a spot cemented on the left wing, but center and right wing will likely be a rotation of players throughout the season.

Roy is a good bet for one of those spots, likely center because of his defensive prowess. Howden is another option at center, as is veteran Patrick Brown. Keegan Kolesar slots in perfectly onto the right wing, and can play center as well.

The fourth line will look different than past years with the departure of Reaves and Nosek. A line of Carrier, Roy and Kolesar, for instance, would have more speed at the expense of Nosek’s defense and Reaves’ physicality.

Golden Knights projected opening night lineup

Anyone not included in the below projection will probably see the ice at some point in the season. Howden is not waiver-exempt, meaning he’ll likely stay with the team for much of the season. Krebs is exempt, though, so if he doesn’t make the NHL squad out of camp he could be sent to Henderson to feel comfortable in big minutes.

The Golden Knights open the season on Oct. 12 at home against the Seattle Kraken. Here’s what their lineup could like on that night:

Max Pacioretty — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone

Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith

Mattias Janmark — Nolan Patrick — Evgenii Dadonov

William Carrier — Nicolas Roy — Keegan Kolesar

Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo

Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore

Nicolas Hague — Zach Whitecloud

Robin Lehner, Laurent Brossoit

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