In the 2019-20 Player Review series, we revisit and evaluate the individual performances of Vegas Golden Knights players from last year’s regular season and extended playoff format. NOTE: Only skaters who played in at least 20 games will be included.
Less than two seasons later, he switched sides.
The Vegas Golden Knights acquired Stephenson back on Dec. 2, 2019. Washington needed to shed salary, and Vegas pounced on the opportunity to snag the player George McPhee drafted in the third round (No. 77 overall) of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft when he was general manager of the Capitals.
A 2021 fifth-round draft pick.
In the end, it proved to be one of the best moves made by the Vegas organization to date.
Season in review
Stephenson fit right into the “Golden Misfits” narrative after being unceremoniously discarded by the Capitals, who had other expendable players who were less talented. Stephenson was limited to fourth-line duties due to Washington’s depth at center, but his skill set lent itself to a larger role. He got that opportunity in Vegas, and he wasted no time making his presence felt.
In keeping with Vegas tradition, Stephenson scored a goal in his Golden Knights debut.
Stephenson wasn’t known for finishing in Washington, but you wouldn’t know that based on his time in Sin City.
超级精彩的进球！！— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) February 9, 2020
now THAT's a beautiful goal pic.twitter.com/BCoeAdKcTe
In fact, he had just four points in 24 games in Washington prior to the trade, but he went on to score eight goals and 22 points in 41 games with Vegas. His numbers on the season (11-15—26) smashed previous career records across the board, including game-winning goals (5) and a career-best plus-24 rating.
The one area of Stephenson’s game that was lacking was in the faceoff dots. In fact, his 43.18 percent effectiveness rate on the draw was by far the worst of his career.
That being said, he remained highly effective when he was on the ice, regardless of his linemates.
He finished near the top of Vegas’ rankings in most advanced statistics categories. Specifically, he finished fourth among Vegas forwards (min. 20 games) in Corsi For percentage (57.47), fourth in Shots For percentage (58.57), third in expected goal share (59.42 percent), third in High-Danger Corsi percentage (60.49) and first in high-danger goal share (62.50 percent). His 65.38 percent goal share was the highest among all skaters on the team.
Stephenson never went more than three games without a point, and he was a Swiss Army knife for both Gerard Gallant and Pete DeBoer. In fact, he was utilized on every forward line, including an extended stint as first-line center skating between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone.
Skating with players of that caliber can certainly elevate anyone’s game, but Stephenson did enough on his own merit to warrant praise.
That being said, his finishing ability faded towards the end of the season, as he failed to find twine in the final 13 regular-season contests (though he recorded five assists in that stretch). That dry spell carried over into the playoffs, where he managed five points in 20 games skating primarily on the third line with a combination of Alex Tuch, Nicolas Roy and Nick Cousins. He certainly wasn’t alone, though, as even some of Vegas’ top scorers went long stretches (8-11 games) without a goal.
But even without the production, Stephenson was highly effective, finishing with a 57.47 percent Corsi, 65.38 percent goal share, 59.42 percent expected goal share, 60.49 percent high-danger Corsi and 62.5 percent high-danger goal share.
Speed reigns supreme in today’s NHL, and speed is Stephenson’s greatest strength. His skating opens up the ice in a way most players never experience, and Stephenson used it to his advantage on a nightly basis.
Though he had many clutch moments, the best example of what Stephenson brought to the Golden Knights was his overtime goal against St. Louis on Jan. 4.
It was one of the most exciting games of the season, and Stephenson’s overtime tally helped the Knights overcome a three-goal deficit to win for the first time in franchise history. The 200-foot play began with Stephenson poking the puck free in the defensive zone; from there, he was off to the races, and it was immediately evident that no one was going to come close to catching him. He ultimately slid the puck five-hole for the game-winner, lifting Vegas to its fourth straight win at the time.
Stephenson was rewarded with a lucrative four-year, $11 million contract in early October. The deal, which carries an AAV of $2.75 million, has Stephenson locked up through the 2023-24 campaign. With the offseason trade of Paul Stastny, it’s clear Vegas intends to make Stephenson a key part of the offense. Ideally, Vegas won’t encounter injuries, but Stephenson’s versatility is a major asset moving forward as Vegas remains thin up the middle. Stephenson likely will begin the season as the third-line center, with William Karlsson and Cody Glass fulfilling top-six roles. But as he proved last year, Stephenson can play anywhere in the lineup.
As well as Stephenson played last year, his production did falter in the playoffs, though it was a team-wide issue. Now that he has proven his worth and has been recognized as a key contributor, Stephenson should be better able to focus on his strong two-way play and get back to being a difference-maker.
How would you grade Stephenson’s 2019-20 performance?
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C or below