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Golden Knights 2021 Season Preview: It’s Cup-or-Bust time

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The latest installment of a hockey team in Sin City is set for an unprecedented few months.

New Jersey Devils v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Stanley Cup Final. First-round exit. Western Conference Final.

What will be the ending to Chapter 4 of the Vegas Golden Knights’ storybook?

This Sin City saga has put the likes of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games to shame. The hardcover edition is the highest-priced item at your local bookstore. You can’t even get it on Amazon.

You’d think the books would get boring in time, but the Golden Knights find ways to pen nuances to keep you coming back for more.

You want three wins from the Stanley Cup in your inaugural season? Sure. How could you possibly add to that? Get Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone within an eight-month span and return to the playoffs.

Oh, blow a 3-1 lead in the first round to your biggest rival in Year 2? No problem. Fire your Jack Adams Award winning coach for the one that coached said rival in Year 3. Still not satisfied? Trade for a Vezina finalist and create one hell of a goalie controversy starred by a photoshop of the face of the franchise being stabbed through the back by Excalibur with said coach’s name on it. You name it, they got it.

Through all of that, the Golden Knights were three wins from a return to the Cup Final in 2020. They ran out of gas against a rugged Dallas Stars club, an ending that provided mixed feelings of accomplishment and disappointment. Only a 4-year-old franchise could expose such feelings and make sense.

How do the Golden Knights prepare for Volume IV? Enter Alex Pietrangelo. Yes, that Pietrangelo, the former captain of the St. Louis Blues that won the Stanley Cup two years ago. The same Pietrangelo that played the first 12 years of his NHL career with the Blues, the one that signed a seven-year, $61.6 million contract to complete what has become a super team in Las Vegas.

Bill Foley has always said playoffs in three, Cup in six. That’s the beauty of an accelerated timeline. It’s Cup or Bust time in Year 4 for the Golden Knights.

“I think we’re in that group of teams for sure that everybody should be talking about as a Stanley Cup contender,” said coach Pete DeBoer, entering his first full season with Vegas. “I love the fact that people are talking about us in that mix. I think we belong in that mix, and it’s on us to try and separate ourselves from that group.”

That comes with a caveat: It’s not fair to expect a Stanley Cup this season. Whoever makes the playoffs this season should be commended for going through an insane gauntlet. COVID-19 is still very much real in these times, and if the events facing the Stars in recent days are any indication, games will be postponed; players will miss time; wrenches will be thrown into plans.

Whoever wins the Stanley Cup will be as deserving of champions as the Tampa Bay Lightning were in October. If that happens to be the Golden Knights in 2021, the virtual parade down Las Vegas Boulevard will be a sight.

Arizona Coyotes v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Core 4

Maybe it’s because the Golden Knights are the new kids for only a little while longer, but not many franchises have such a collection of talent at their disposal.

Winning changes everything. It was the same after Year 1, and it’ll stay consistent when the puck drops Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks. What’s transpired since the Cup Final run is not a normal route of team building. The Golden Knights were supposed to build around a trio of first-round picks to lead them into the future; picks that George McPhee methodically lured via the expansion draft.

Two-thirds of those triplets are gone and have turned into a 30-goal scorer in Pacioretty, who rebounded into form last season leading the Golden Knights with 66 points, and Stone, who was named the first captain in team history Wednesday.

From the moment Stone arrived in Las Vegas on Feb. 25, 2019, the culture changed. It was like he stepped in the locker room and became the de-facto leader overnight. When he takes the ice Thursday with the ‘C’ on his sweater, it will have been a long-time coming, but still deserving.

“I think I learned pretty quickly you can never take a day in this league for granted. You never know when it’s going to end,” Stone said. “For me I love playing hockey, I love playing in the NHL. There are not many people in this world who can get to do what we do. So for me, winning is fun whether you are the one that had the biggest impact on the game or not.”

It’s a franchise that hasn’t slept on the thought of winning since watching Alex Ovechkin raised the Stanley Cup at T-Mobile Arena in June 2018. That’s why general manager Kelly McCrimmon made the boldest — and unlikeliest — of additions last February, getting Robin Lehner for seemingly nothing and to be the presumptive 1B to Marc-Andre Fleury.

That 1B no longer exists. Lehner not only earned the starting job in the return to play bubble, but earned the five-year, $25 million extension that came with it. In time, this will be his net. For now, he shares the net once more with Fleury in a season that will require both netminders at their best.

“No matter what team you play on, the goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” Lehner said. “The expectation here is to win the Stanley Cup. Anything else is disappointing. We feel good about it. It’s good pressure to have. We have a good team and hopefully we can go all the way.”

2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Seven Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

And now comes Pietrangelo, the penultimate addition that put the Golden Knights in championship-only territory. Vegas gave up the farm without getting much back in return — trading Nate Schmidt and Stastny and getting a couple of draft picks and an AHL player (Carl Dahlstrom) in return — but Pietrangelo has been the defenseman the Golden Knights have long coveted.

Pietrangelo is the star blueliner, the Norris Trophy-caliber player, who comes at a time where Shea Theodore is emerging as a top-10 defenseman. Pietrangelo and Theodore will be the catalysts behind one of the more exciting defenses in the league.

“With them coming so close in the first year, you can see the energy,” Pietrangelo said after signing with Vegas in October. “I think they’re still close, and hopefully I can take that over the edge to get that opportunity, because it’s a fun process to go through and once you do it once, you want to keep doing it.”

Of course the Golden Knights didn’t map this out after Year 1, but they made it clear they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the right guys in the building to win. Think about it: Stone is the captain of a team with two former captains on it. The leadership group the Golden Knights have assembled is something teams wish they could have. There’s maturity, the understanding of how to win, and the desire to win, all in a locker room where not only the players can talk it, but walk it, too.

“If your team wins, the mood in the room is way better than when you lose,” Stone said. “I think everyone in our locker room has had that gut-wrenching feeling of losing in the playoffs and now I think it will motivate everybody in the dressing room to want to win. We also have guys in the dressing room who have gone through both and understand the feeling of winning and how awesome it feels, and how badly you want to do it over.”

Yes, there are original names that are just as important to Vegas’ success, but this Core 4 are the building blocks that will determine whether the Golden Knights’ championship aspirations stay sturdy, or fall apart. In a season full of oddities, you need four guys like that, which is why the Golden Knights will be in heavy contention this season.

Vegas Golden Knights Training Camp Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Projected lineup

Max Pacioretty - Chandler Stephenson - Mark Stone

Jonathan Marchessault - William Karlsson - Reilly Smith

Alex Tuch - Cody Glass - Nicolas Roy

William Carrier - Tomas Nosek - Ryan Reaves - Keegan Kolesar

Brayden McNabb - Alex Pietrangelo

Alec Martinez - Shea Theodore

Zach Whitecloud

Robin Lehner

Marc-Andre Fleury

Taxi Squad: Nick Holden, Tomas Jurco, Gage Quinney, Oscar Dansk, Nicolas Hague, Dylan Coghlan

Unconventional Lineup

You’re not seeing things. The Golden Knights are going with 13 forwards, five defensemen and two goalies to start.

Part of that has to do with cap compliance, and while this wasn’t part of the plan when they signed Pietrangelo, having him and Theodore — along with the quality of defensemen at their disposal — allows DeBoer the freedom to have five defensemen roll for 60 minutes.

“For me, the reality of this season is there’s going to be some salary cap gymnastics that we’re going to have to deal with,” DeBoer said. “If that means we can’t have the traditional 12 and six we would normally roll out there, that’s a small price to pay in my mind for what we did in the offseason and the people we brought in here, and re-signed.”

Sure, there are instances where five D go through the course of a game, whether it be an injury or some other circumstance, but to start and end a game with it is unconventional. DeBoer pointed to the Lightning going with 11 forwards and seven defensemen en route to winning the Stanley Cup, but this is an approach we’ve rarely seen.

“We got a lot of workhorses on the back end, Petro and Theo, they can play a lot, and everyone’s minutes will be up,” said defenseman Brayden McNabb. “It’s not a huge deal looking at it for us. Obviously it’s nice to have six and have your pairing, but there might be a little juggling around. It is what it is.”

As a result, Kolesar will be the 13th forward. How he’s utilized will be interesting to see. This likely won’t be the way it ends, but mad scientists tend to have the right idea at least once in their lives.

San Jose Sharks v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Six Photo by David Becker/NHLI via Getty Images

The return of 81-71-19

Chandler Stephenson has been given the reigns as top-line center to start. His speed is going to be an asset for Stone and Pacioretty for as long as he can hold the job.

For now, we’re seeing the reuniting of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith as Vegas’ second line.

81-71-19 makes magic. This isn’t anything new. Karlsson has been the No. 1 center since the 10-game mark of Year 1. When those three are on the ice, they get things done. Karlsson is worthy of being inbetween Stone and Pacioretty, and consensus will always remain that group should be the top line.

But for now, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The chemistry between Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith is hard to replicate. Long gone may be the 43 goals from Karlsson and the career years from Marchessault and Smith from Year 1, but getting them together in a “full” season under DeBoer is going to be an early storyline to watch.

One way to get that line going: Smith replicating the 2020 campaign. He scored a career-high 27 goals last season en route to his third consecutive season of at least 50 points. Class will forever remain in session on the penalty kill with Professor Smith giving out excellent marks.

Marchessault was seen as a trade chip in the offseason for not only to clear cap space, but to move from an underwhelming playoff performance (10 points in 20 games). He had a strong training camp and consistently found himself on the score sheet during scrimmages.

“We know what we can do,” Marchessault said. “We had a few games together in the bubble and I thought we were playing great hockey, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to score goals and we didn’t do that. I know we’re going to play a fast game. It’s fun to play hockey without thinking, and that’s how it is with Reilly and Karly.”

Karlsson was Vegas’ ironman before a broken finger sidelined him, yet 46 points in 63 games had him on pace to best his 56-point campaign the year prior. Now at 28 years old and entering the second year of his eight-year extension he signed in 2019, Karlsson wants to get back to finding the scoring touch that made him look like an MVP in 2018.

“You want this pressure,” Karlsson said. “That means you’re a good team. I think we’re a hell of a team and I think we can go all the way. I think it’s fair that we have that pressure.”

Vancouver Canucks v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Seven Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

How will the power play look?

We haven’t seen any special teams action during training camp, and it looks like DeBoer is keeping this one giant secret heading into Thursday. If the Ducks don’t commit any penalties, this could be a problem.

But the level of creativity DeBoer has at his disposal when it comes to the man advantage is ungodly. Pietrangelo becomes that coveted power-play quarterback for your first unit, which likely features the top line, and Theodore can hold his own spearheading the second unit seeing how his game has evolved in the past year.

“You have the option of having two elite quarterbacks, and instead of a 1 and a 2 power play unit, you have the option to put out two 1 units that are interchangeable and can compete with each other,” DeBoer said. “It also gives you the option of playing them together in different situations if we see fit. It opens up a lot of options.”

Theodore and Pietrangelo together on the power play? Be still, my heart.

Prediction:

PP1

Pacioretty - Glass - Stone

Tuch - Pietrangelo

PP2

Marchessault - Karlsson - Smith

Martinez - Theodore

The Golden Knights have never been a good power play team. Only last season was the first time they cracked the top 10 (22 percent). That first power play unit, if designed like that, will be lethal. A healthy Cody Glass may start on the third line, but his time will go up because of how dangerous he was on the power play during his rookie season. And imagine Pietrangelo working with that group.

If the Golden Knights don’t have a top-5 power play, top-10 at worst, something is wrong.

Projecting the West Division

The Golden Knights will have some new friends to pal with by way of this division realignment.

With the Flames, Oilers and Canucks assigned to the North Division for the season, the Blues, Avalanche and Wild take their place in what is the West Division. Of course it would be three teams that Vegas historically has a tough time against. But if you’re looking at the top four teams to make the playoffs, that’s likely your list.

Vegas is about to play in the same division with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov. Whoever comes out of this division via the Stanley Cup Playoffs has a clear shot to get to the Stanley Cup Final, and could be the favorite to win.

The Pietrangelo and DeBoer reunions with their respective clubs is going to be a hoot. Projections:

1) Colorado

2) Vegas

3) St. Louis

4) Minnesota

5) San Jose

6) Arizona

7) Los Angeles

8) Anaheim

Season prediction

I have the Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup. I think it’s Colorado’s time and it’s also MacKinnon’s time to take his place as the best player in the world.

But if you tell me the Golden Knights will win the Stanley Cup, I will 100 percent believe you. If there was a year for it to happen, this would be it among the wackiest of circumstances the likes of which we’ve never seen.

Lehner and Fleury will make Vegas a tough out; whoever earns the job in the playoffs will deserve it. Another full year of Stone and Pacioretty as two-thirds of your top line is as good as any duo in the league. And of course Pietrangelo; if his impact is delivered as expected, that’s a game changer.

The best I will say is the Golden Knights make another deep playoff run. If it’s enough to get to the final four yet again, that would be gravy. But this is a team that has made a living on doing the impossible. This will be a year of the impossible. It might be the year the Golden Knights embrace such impossibilities and hoist the Cup.

Get ready for one weird year and we hope you join us for the ride.

How to watch

What: Anaheim Ducks at Vegas Golden Knights

When: 7 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM