Playing the “what if” game for five months is tedious. The Golden Knights likely didn’t use all that time to ponder what could have been last season because the inner belief, as with all teams this time of year, is Vegas can be in the same position entering Year 3.
After a Stanley Cup Final appearance in Year 1 and another playoff appearance in Year 2, the culmination of the first trilogy in Golden Knights hockey can plausibly go one of two ways.
- The powers that be accomplish the goal by obtaining the high ground, fly off into hyperspace knowing a victory was obtained but not thoroughly because Darth Vader is being constructed as we speak (i.e. the Golden Knights fail at some point).
- The Death Star is destroyed a second time, Jedi and Ewoks rejoice harmoniously on Endor. Drinks are imbibed, food is consumed, and the celebration commences with force ghosts of James Neal, David Perron and Nikita Gusev looking on in approval (i.e., the Golden Knights get drunk by whatever the hell they sip out of the Stanley Cup).
Maybe we skip to “The Rise of Skywalker” and William Karlsson or Nate Schmidt become Sith lords, I don’t know.
The Golden Knights have some questions they’ll address over the next month. In turn, they’re still one of, if not the most complete team in the Western Conference and should be in line as one of the final 16 come April. It’s a healthy medium with training camp scrimmages opening Friday.
Putting Game 7 in a box and throwing away the key
The Golden Knights are going to get acclimated with the Sharks very quickly, playing four times in a span of two weeks. There will be plenty of time to spew blood and throw punches during.
“There’s not much you can do. A couple of days, kind of, you’re a little bit on edge because of what happened,” said forward Alex Tuch. “It’s tough, but you’ve just got to forget about it. We’re worrying about Year 3 now. Whatever happened last year happened, and it’s in the past.”
Vegas returns almost all of the roster that went to Game 7 against the Sharks. It’s also the first full year of Mark Stone in a Golden Knights sweater, and a full year of him on the same line with Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny.
“We know what to get from everyone in that locker room,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “Obviously there’s a few spots open and it’s a healthy competition. It’s good to have in a team. We know each other. We all know our roles and we’re ready to push each other.”
The Golden Knights are deep, talented and solid at almost every position ... all but the one that has the biggest question mark.
Who’s on defense?
Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Jon Merrill. There’s your starting four.
Two of Deryk Engelland, Nick Holden, Nic Hague, Dylan Coghlan, Zach Whitecloud, Jimmy Schuldt and Jake Bischoff will occupy those final spots. It’s going to be one hell of an arms race.
Engelland re-signed on July 23 to the tune of one year and a base of $700,000, which could total to $1.5 million based on performance incentives. Given how he played toward the end of last season, Engelland’s spot on the roster is not safe.
President of hockey ops George McPhee made it known after the trade of Colin Miller to Buffalo that at least one rookie blue liner would make the team. Hague, the Golden Knights’ second-round pick in 2017, is the leader in the clubhouse. If there’s a second spot, Schuldt and Whitecloud are going to be in the mix. Coghlan is making a strong case after a five-point showcase in three games during the Anaheim Rookie Faceoff this past weekend.
“You just help him out with whatever he needs. It’s a learning curve when you’re a young guy,” McNabb said on how much the current defensemen will help the rookie, or rookies in this case. “Whoever it is, he’s going to have lots of help and the support he needs.”
After a career season in 2019, Cody Eakin is entering a contract year with a lot to prove.
Was his 22-goal season a fluke? That’s the question Vegas’ center will need to answer in 2020. Eakin was moved a lot between lines; spending some time on the second line in the absence of Stastny for a couple of months, and then finding a home on the third line with a revolving door of linemates.
Fourth-line center is open for business with the departure of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to Colorado. That’s a spot that Eakin, who will take Bellemare’s responsibilities on the top penalty killing unit, could fit right in like a glove. His offensive production would dip playing with Ryan Reaves and William Carrier, but the defense is good enough to work with those two. That would be the prime situation for Cody Glass to make the team.
“That’s my mindset,” said Glass, the Golden Knights’ first ever draft pick in 2017. “I kind of want to take it day by day, but then again, you’re just looking forward to preseason and stuff like that.
“My goal is to be in the NHL. The past two years being sent down to juniors kind of sucked. I thought I did fairly well last year, and they want to take their time with me so I’ve got to respect that and just take it how it goes.”
Nicolas Roy is another candidate to take those minutes. The prospect acquired in the Erik Haula trade to Carolina, Roy had 15 points in 19 playoff games for the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL playoffs. Three of those goals came in the Calder Cup Final against the Chicago Wolves, Vegas’ AHL affiliate.
‘Crazy’ wouldn’t be the right word to describe this if coach Gerard Gallant chose to experiment, but it would be intriguing at the least.
The best chance for the Golden Knights to succeed is going to be the top six; Pacioretty, Stastny and Stone at the top, followed by Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith.
Last postseason shows the Stastny line is lethal. The Karlsson line, as has been the case the past two years, is one of the most consistent. Despite a dropoff in offensive production last year, Marchessault (59), Karlsson (56) and Smith (53) were the top point-getters on the Golden Knights.
Now with Karlsson signed to a long-term, eight-year deal, maybe Gallant goes outside the box. Maybe he moves Stone with Karlsson and Marchessault on a top line, putting two Selke candidates together and giving Marchessault more space to score. Stone and Marchessault were on the same line with Team Canada during the IIHF World Championship this spring. Chemistry is there.
It could also be a move beneficial to Marchessault, who felt he didn’t have a great season (25 goals, 34 assists) in 2019.
“I showed up in February or March, and that’s not good enough,” he said. “I was inconsistent, but I’m definitely getting ready for next year.”
Again, not that it should be highly considered, but it’s something to think about.
Is there a challenge for Malcolm Subban?
It’d be best for the Golden Knights that Marc-Andre Fleury not play almost 95 percent of the games before taking off all of March.
Subban signed a one-year deal this summer, in what is likely a prove-it deal for the backup Vegas goaltender. The Golden Knights need to know if he’s capable of being the backup to Fleury. Subban went 8-10-2 last season and allowed at least four goals in seven contests.
Depending on which side of the hill you’re dying on, the numbers did not prove well in Subban’s favor.
Subban should be pushed for his job this year, and that will come from Garret Sparks or Oscar Dansk. Sparks was acquired in a trade with Toronto to ship off the ghost of David Clarkson, and Dansk has been waiting in the AHL for centuries since his three-game stint in the NHL two years ago.
The coaching staff has long-believed in Subban. This is his time to reciprocate that belief.