Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Just like every year after the run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Golden Knights enter camp with massive expectations. They’ve been to the league semifinals the past two years and look poised to make another run this season.
But just like every year, questions surround the team. The Golden Knights report to training camp today and will hit the ice Thursday for their first official workout. They kick off the preseason Sunday at home.
With the 2021-22 season officially beginning, we take a look at a few questions surrounding the team, and what the Golden Knights will look to answer as they begin their fifth chase toward the Stanley Cup.
How will Robin Lehner fare as the starting goalie?
The biggest question all season is how the Golden Knights’ net holds up now that reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury is a former Vegas goalie. He’s started 191 of the Golden Knights’ 291 all-time games, so seeing someone else play the majority of games will be jarring.
Enter Robin Lehner, the heir apparent since he was acquired in 2020. Lehner has spent the last three seasons with the Islanders, Blackhawks and Golden Knights, and while he played a majority (46) of the Islanders’ games in 2018-19, he hasn’t been the 1A without a 1B since 2017-18 with the Sabres. That season and the one before it are the only times in his 11-year career he’s started at least 50 games.
As long as he stays healthy, he’ll surpass that mark in 2021-22. Vegas’ depth chart behind him is Laurent Brossoit, a career backup, and Logan Thompson, last year’s AHL goalie of the year with eight minutes of NHL action to his name.
Because he’s been splitting time with Thomas Greiss, Corey Crawford and Fleury, it’s gone underappreciated that Lehner has been one of the league’s best goalies over the past couple of seasons. He leads all goalies with 100 starts over the past three seasons with a .923 save percentage and tops the Goals Saved Above Expected leaderboard with 39.6, too.
Fans will miss Fleury, but Lehner has played at an elite level for years and will get his chance to be the unquestioned No. 1 in Vegas this season. The Golden Knights are counting on him seizing the opportunity.
Will Reilly Smith bounce back?
The Golden Knights' success last season obscured just how much one of their core forwards struggled. With just 25 points in 53 games, Reilly Smith turned in by far his least productive season in four years with Vegas, and only the third time in the last eight years he didn’t register at least half a point per game.
It’s particularly disappointing considering how strong his 2019-20 season was before COVID halted the season. In 71 games two years ago, Smith set a career-high with 27 goals, and his 54 points were on pace to set a career-best, too.
Last year in a pandemic-shortened season, he had 14 goals in 53 games, an 82-game pace of 22, which would sit around his career average. But the assists dried up — just 11, for a pace of 17 that dragged his 82-game points pace down to 38, which would have been the second-worst of his career. The advanced stats didn’t like his defense either, as Evolving Hockey rated him as one of Vegas’ worst even-strength forwards. The same model said he was worth minus-2.6 Goals Above Replacement, better only than Dylan Coghlan among all Golden Knights skaters.
There were some positives as the season went on, particularly at the end of the season. Smith had a hat trick on May 8, and nine points in the final seven games, then turned in a respectable 10 points in 19 playoff games.
He’s in the final year of his contract and will be motivated to play well for a new deal, whether it’s with Vegas or elsewhere. We’ve seen what Smith is capable of, and even at 30 a bounce-back season isn’t out of the question.
Can Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty repeat?
Pete DeBoer likes to say it often: The Golden Knights’ best players need to be their best players. They were last year, as forwards Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty both turned in arguably the best seasons of their careers. Now they’ll be asked to repeat it.
Stone was spectacular last season as one of 22 players leaguewide to register a point per game or better (61 points in 55 games) and the first in team history. He was 10th among forwards with 40 assists, and played at a 90-point pace had the season contained 82 games.
Pacioretty also put up a point per game (51 points in 48 games), the first time in his career he surpassed that pace. He missed eight games and still finished 13th in the league with 24 goals, tied with Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
The thing about career-best years is that it’s hard to do it again. Stone ($9.5 million) and Pacioretty ($7 million) have the first and third highest cap hit on the team, and when an organization devotes that much of its resources, those players need to produce. They have so far, and Vegas will look to the pair again to be their best players next season.
Can Vegas fix the power play?
The prevailing narrative coming out of the postseason was how poor the Golden Knights’ power play was. It will surely be an area of focus in training camp, and it will be worth watching how Vegas addresses its biggest flaw.
The most obvious move is the acquisition of Evgenii Dadonov. In three seasons with the Panthers, the winger netted 22 power-play goals and chipped in 22 assists. But last season in Ottawa he did not score, and had just one assist. Whether last year’s lack of production was a blip or a trend could determine the success of the unit.
Outside of Dadonov, the cast of the power play will look the same. Stone, Pacioretty and Shea Theodore will be asked to lead the unit again, as they did last year with double-digit power-play points each. As the unit struggled, though, players were asked to take on different roles in search of a spark, and overall Vegas never found a combination that worked.
The playoffs — where Vegas went 4-for-43 overall and 0-for-15 against Montreal — was an extreme example but the regular season wasn’t good either, finishing 22nd in the league with a 17.8% success rate. It hasn’t hurt the Golden Knights in the regular season so far, but it has in the playoffs, and getting it clicking in camp and the early parts of the season will be a confidence boost once the postseason rolls around.
Will the Dadonov gamble pay off?
Oh, about Dadonov. It’s not just the power play where his numbers dipped in Ottawa. His point totals have dropped precipitously the last three years — from 70 three years ago to 47 to 20 last year — and his Goals Above Replacement have dipped each of the last four years from a peak of 19 in 2017-18 all the way down to 1.8 last season (according to Evolving Hockey’s model).
The Golden Knights traded Fleury because they felt his $7 million in cap space was too high a cost. They got out from the entire amount in the deal with Chicago, then used that cap space on his backup (Brossoit at $2.325 million) and Dadonov ($5 million). Considering Brossoit wouldn’t be here if Fleury was, Vegas essentially flipped Fleury for Dadonov.
Of course you can only play one goalie at a time, and Lehner’s presence means that it’s likely the on-ice impact of Fleury’s departure is minimal. The goaltending in aggregate took a hit (Fleury is better than Brossoit, after all), but it’s easy to argue a scoring forward like Dadonov who plays every game is more valuable than a backup goalie, even a world-class one.
That’s if Dadonov rediscovers his Florida form. And at 32, that’s no guarantee. If he does revert back to scoring 20-odd goals and 60-odd points, it’s a no-brainer of a swap for Vegas. But if he can’t reverse the trend and is a near-replacement-level player like he was last year with the Senators, questions will quickly arise if Fleury’s cap savings could have been better spent elsewhere.