Mark Stone was at his happiest in Slovakia.
The past two years have taken a toll on Stone; from entering last season on a one-year deal, to not knowing where he was going to play — let alone where he was going to be traded to — was like a surfer getting wiped out by a tsunami-like wave.
Even after the Vegas Golden Knights acquired Stone on Feb. 25 and signed him to an eight-year extension, there was the matter of playing hockey — even Stanley Cup Playoff hockey no less. There was was no time to rest.
Until he suited up for Team Canada in the IIHF World Championship was when Stone finally got a chance to breathe.
“I was just happy to get away,” Stone said.
Stone answered questions, pondered his future, wondered if he would have long-term security with a team, all in two years.
Almost the same situation as teammate William Karlsson, actually.
Karlsson went from bottom-six center to overnight sensation; from 18 goals on two teams to 43 goals in 2018 and becoming a top-line center for an expansion team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. Karlsson was given a one-year $5.25 million deal to avoid arbitration for his troubles.
It took all the way to June 24 of this offseason before Karlsson signed an eight-year, $47.2 million contract to stay in Vegas.
“I’m happy just having the contract situation behind me,” Karlsson said. “To know I get to stay here for a while. It’s exactly how I wanted it.”
For the first time in two years, Vegas’ Selke-caliber stars will enter a season with no worry of a contract, or where they’ll play next year. They get to focus on hockey. Two of the smartest players in the league focusing solely on a sport.
It’s a scary thought.
“I think at the end of last year, I was mentally and emotionally drained,” Stone said. “Kind of just sat back for two weeks and couldn’t really believe everything that went on. It was a long, not just year, but two years for me, kind of deciding where my path was going to go. “I’m excited. I’m fired up to be here. I think I made a great decision for the next eight seasons. I don’t have to worry about a contract, just have to worry about producing on the ice and being a good ambassador for this community.
“The way things ended, it was a long year,” Stone added. “I wasn’t sure where I was going to be in January, February, and I was finally able to secure what I was going to gain for the future. It was emotionally draining. I loved playing in Ottawa, had a lot of close friends from there. Just to pack up and move was not easy. Flying in here on the 30th of August, it was pretty nice. Pretty nice to fly back and realize this was my home and this was the organization I was going to play for for the next eight seasons.”
Stone was named MVP of the world championship with 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 10 games. That came weeks after scoring 12 points (six goals, six assists) in the seven-game series against the Sharks. Three of those goals came in Game 3, his first NHL hat trick.
Stone, who scored an NHL career-high 73 points last season (33 goals, 40 assists) became the superstar-type forward Vegas needed. He fit with new linemates Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. The trio became Vegas’ top line in the playoffs (Pacioretty had 11 points, Stastny with eight) and they’re expected to start that way come the season opener Oct. 2.
“That was as probably as good of a line that I’ve ever played on, especially in a playoff series,” Stone said. “They’re great players, but great lines generally have depth. If you look at our team, I think the depth we have, a lot of weapons we can put on the ice, that just makes our line better. It makes Karlsson’s line better, it makes Eakin’s line better. Reavo and Will [Carrier], they give us energy and score big goals at big times.
“That’s the kind of stuff that I get excited about, just teams having to look at our lineup card and really having to make a decision on who they’re going to match because going into this season, I think we’re going to be really tough to match up against.”
After a miraculous inaugural season led by the Karlsson line, the trio took a step back in Year 2. Marchessault led all full-time Vegas skaters with 59 points, Karlsson had 56 and Smith with 53.
Karlsson felt like there was a lot of pressure on his line after Year 1. Marchessault said he was too inconsistent last season and didn’t play his best hockey until February/March.
The addition of Stone, Karlsson feels, took that pressure off.
“They were our leading line,” Karlsson said. “I guess you could say that he took a little of the pressure off. I think the whole team played pretty well, and I think he gave us another dimension, a good offensive player, too. I guess it makes us just more dangerous up front with him coming in.”
Golden Knights management is depending on the top six to lead them to a Stanley Cup. That six will be together for, at least, two seasons. Now that there’s no year-to-year discussions, it’s on to the task at hand.
“There’s no excuses, really,” Karlsson said. “Just focus on hockey.”