I feel like channeling my inner Elliotte Friedman today. Only I don’t think I can bring myself to putting 31 thoughts together on the Vegas Golden Knights. Alas, 15 seems like a solid number.
There’s a lot to talk about. Let’s just jump right in.
- It goes without saying that Wednesday’s game against the division-leading Calgary Flames is the biggest test for the Golden Knights since making the trade for Mark Stone over a week ago. It’s not more so a litmus test to gauge Vegas’ bizarre probability in catching Calgary for the division lead. The Golden Knights know that getting back to, at least, the Western Conference Final requires a road through the Flames and Sharks, respectively. The four-game winning streak is impressive and a much better cry than the abysmal February stretch the Golden Knights were on. That includes a 3-3-1 mark at home, which can be considered 1-3-1 before Stone came to Vegas. We’re talking about a team that went 29-10-2 at home last season. For many reasons, Wednesday’s game above all will determine if T-Mobile Arena is still a dangerous home-ice advantage.
- These past three starts may be what the doctor ordered for Marc-Andre Fleury. Albeit, those three wins (which resulted in First Star of the Week honors for the league) came against a Jamie Benn-less Dallas team, an Anaheim squad with a stagnant offense, and Vancouver being ... well, Vancouver, he’s responded well after going 0-4-1 in his previous five starts while allowing 21 goals. The Vezina talk has certainly lost some steam, but with how wide open of a race it is, Fleury can thrust himself back into the conversation with a strong finish to the season. He’s likely playing 12 of the final 15. That’s a good metric to see where he stacks.
- The news of Erik Haula resuming skating activities, reported by friends of the site Sin Bin following Sunday’s game, is a possible gamechanger in the Western Conference playoff landscape. It’s not known how long he’s been skating, or how long he’s been out of that bulky brace for that matter. But if Haula ramps up skating in the coming weeks, one has to start wondering how far away he is from returning to the lineup. As Ed Graney, Clay Baker and I discussed Monday on ESPN Radio, there is the possibility of throwing off chemistry. But it’s Erik Haula we’re talking about; a near-30-goal scorer last season that would be inserted into the third line with Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch. How Haula would feel about being a third-line winger remains to be seen, but if he comes back, that top nine could arguably be the best in the Western Conference. I originally said 80-85 percent that it could result in a comeback, but I think I started a bit high. Either way, that’s a fantastic sign.
- Is it too early to be thinking of a fourth-line conundrum? William Carrier might be a couple weeks from being 100 percent, but Ryan Carpenter has been really good since Stone’s acquisition moved Carpenter with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Reaves. With Carpenter on the fourth line, the line of 40-41-75 posted Corsis of 57.14 against Anaheim and a still-mind-boggling 83.3 (20-4) on Sunday. Carpenter also scored his first goal in almost two months against Vancouver. It’s a short sample; and again, we need to keep in mind who the opponents were. But Vegas hasn’t gotten enough out of Tomas Nosek and the eye test on Valentin Zykov doesn’t warrant putting him on that line. Carpenter seems to have found a role if he keeps playing his game and make plays like he did Sunday. I really like Carrier because he fits well with Reaves on the other side. But it’s something to think about.
- Alex Tuch has woken up from his long slumber in the past two games, and he looks like the Tuch of old. I expect one hell of a stretch coming up for 89. He’s overdue and he looks engaged again.
- Speaking of the third line, I’m getting to the point of thinking Brandon Pirri will need to be the reason why Vegas wins a playoff game or two. You look at the top nine, and you start to think what’ll happen if he doesn’t start scoring soon. There’s always that X-Factor in the playoffs. Last year it was supposed to be David Perron. Can Pirri start getting back to what kept him on the roster in the first place in these final 15 games?
- This segment by RJ colleagues Ben Gotz, Adam Hill, Cassie Soto and Vegas forward Ryan Reaves reenacting The Price Is Right needs to be nominated for a damn Emmy.
- Reilly Smith has three goals in three games, and his play has woken up the first line in a way that was much needed. He’s the straw that stirs the drink. When he’s scoring, it opens up the ice that much more for Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson. It’s not just the matter of Smith’s 200-foot game being a driving force. All it takes is one to score for the others to fall in line. Karlsson has a point in back-to-back games, and Marchessault has six points in six games. If that first line picks up ... man.
- If we haven’t already, I motion to make Paul Stastny the most impactful free agent signing this past summer. He has 30 points in 34 games since returning from that lower-body injury. Imagining Stastny as a point-per-game player, if healthy next year, is scary.
- I would be shocked if the Golden Knights don’t lock up Stone to his reported contract extension by the end of the week. There’s been a lot going on; Vegas has played four games since the trade, and the Golden Knights are probably working on making sure Stone is acclimated on the roster. That part is clearly coming together. He was eligible to sign the reported eight-year, close to $9 million AAV deal on March 1, but nothing has come of it. I don’t think there’s anything to worry, but it is a mystery as to why the deal isn’t done by now. Maybe they’re waiting until the summer.
- Vegas’ cap situation, once Stone is signed, is going to be an intriguing one. Not that I doubt George McPhee’s willingness to work through cap hurdles after YEAR TWO of this franchise, but the Golden Knights are going to be around $72 million in salary next year with 16 players under contract. That’s not accounting for the RFA status of Karlsson and Malcolm Subban, and the potential free agency of Bellemare. If the salary cap hits the reported $83 million, that would put Vegas at $11 million in space without Stone and Karlsson and/or Subban (assuming he could be brought back on the cheap, which he should be). I’m strongly thinking Vegas makes a couple of moves prior to July 1. The first name I think of is Cody Eakin. Once thought of as untradeable, Eakin will be on an expiring of $3.85 million. He has been great for Vegas this season, and his value has never been higher. If Vegas can move on from that with the understanding that Cody Glass could be ready for NHL action next year, it might be something worth exploring. I think the Golden Knights took Eakin in the expansion draft under the pretense that his contract would be deemed unmoveable. He’s having his best offensive season in three years (16 goals, 17 assists). This offseason might be the best time to get something in return for him, especially if he performs well in the playoffs.
- The Golden Knights also need to re-sign Bellemare this summer, if not sooner. He’s earned a new payday for his actions on and off the ice. I remember sitting with some Flyers friends after the expansion draft (Hi, Broad Street Hockey) with laughter being the first thing when selecting Bellemare. He’s been great. Keep him around.
- Can you imagine if the Golden Knights made the move last deadline for Erik Karlsson? The Ottawa Senators would have Glass and Erik Brannstrom in their farm system right now. I don’t know if the moves for Stone, Pacioretty and Stastny completely eliminate them from a possible meeting with Karlsson this summer, but the thought of a Vegas super team might not come to fruition.
- Had a chance to speak to Stone on Tuesday. It was the first time I talked to him because I was hanging with Mickey Mouse leading up to the deadline. Stone is a laid back guy who appears to be fitting in with the team already. As I walked in the locker room, Stone and Pacioretty (seated next to each other in the locker room, mind you) were laughing and hitting it off. The longstanding rivalry between the two looks to be turning into quite the partnership. I still would like to advocate for a “Stone and Patches” sitcom on CW. I can’t think of anything better for local TV. I have no idea in hell what the plot would be, but I’d certainly be here for it.
- Last year, I contemplated writing a book on the season. Then everyone else did it. There were some great books that came out last year. Depending how this year goes, I might consider that again. This one has the capability of being storybook worthy. We’ll see. I can’t even believe the season is almost over, though.