In the 2021-22 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2021-22 performances of each key member of the Golden Knights. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in the regular season with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role.
As general manager of the Washington Capitals, George McPhee used his third-round selection (No. 77 overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft to draft Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native Chandler Stephenson. Little did he know then that he would later bet on Stephenson once again as general manager of a team not yet born into existence. But that low-risk bet has been one of the Vegas Golden Knights’ best moves during the franchise’s first five years in business.
McPhee landed Stephenson from the cap-strapped Capitals in exchange for a fifth-round pick back in December 2019. He recognized the potential in the under-utilized forward, who was relegated to fourth-line duties given the Capitals’ depth up the middle with pivots like Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller.
Stephenson was known for his blazing speed, and it was clear there was plenty of talent in his skill set, but he lacked finishing ability. It seems all he needed was a little more ice time and a little more responsibility, though the “Golden Misfit” chip on his shoulder certainly didn’t hurt.
In his three seasons with the Golden Knights, Stephenson has taken full advantage of his fresh start and larger role, and his career trajectory has taken a dramatic turn.
In the past, Stephenson was seen by many as a surprise contributor who meshed well with star wingers Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. He was versatile, incredibly speedy and underrated.
But in the 2021-22 season, Stephenson lived up to his billing as a true first-line center with a remarkable campaign that saw him put the Golden Knights on his back for long stretches of the year.
Season in review
For the third year in a row, Stephenson set career highs across the board. He finished the 2021-22 season with 21 goals, 43 assists and 64 points in 79 games. He led the club in power-play goals with six, was second on the team with 14 power-play points and set a personal best with 125 shots. Stephenson scored three game-winning goals and was electric all season with the exception of a cold streak from late January through mid-February.
He had 26 points in 26 games to kick off the season and managed 29 in the first 27, 34 in the first 33 and 38 in the first 40. He then went pointless in seven straight and scored just four points in a 16-game span. However, he finished strong with 22 points in the final 23 games of the season.
Starting on the third day of the regular season, Stephenson led the Golden Knights in scoring until March 8, when Jonathan Marchessault overtook the lead. The two ultimately finished just two points apart, with Marchessault pulling ahead after recording a goal and an assist in the third period of the final game of the season.
Significantly, when the rest of the team cooled off, Stephenson stepped up with goals in four straight games and a total of seven points in the final five meaningful games of the regular season; that includes two goals and five points in the infamous three straight shootout losses.
Stephenson also remained healthy, which was critical for the injury-depleted Golden Knights roster.
He missed one game for personal reasons — later revealed to be the passing of his grandmother — but returned with a career-high four-point game in her honor. That was one of 16 multi-point performances, which trailed only Marchessault (20).
He also missed two games due to COVID-19 protocols.
Stephenson finished second on the team in assists per 60 (1.63) at 5-on-5 as well as third in points per 60 (2.21) behind only Stone (2.57) and Pacioretty (2.36), who missed a combined 88 games. He was the best Golden Knights skater in the faceoff circle with a 52.03 percent success rate on a team-high 1255 draws. He finished with possession metrics above 50 percent in everything except for high-danger Corsi share (49.24 percent), and his expected goal share (50.48 percent) was lower than his actual goal share (52.14 percent).
Stephenson ranked fourth among Vegas forwards and fifth on the team with 2.9 goals above expected, and he led the team in high-danger expected goals (9.43), according to Moneypuck.
The 28-year-old has two years remaining on the four-year, $11 million extension he signed in October 2020. The deal carries an AAV of $2.75 million, making him a stellar value given his first-line upside and ability to play up and down the lineup. Stephenson has proven that his strong play is no fluke.
Though a healthy Jack Eichel could affect Stephenson’s overall role, Stephenson could continue to take shifts on the top line and likely will be used throughout the top nine. He has been a first-line center since coming over to Vegas, and while he no longer has to fill that role, he’s more than capable of doing so if need be.
In fact, the trio of Stephenson, Pacioretty and Stone performed quite well this season, managing a 53.74 percent Corsi share, 55.43 percent shot share, 67.86 percent goal share, 54.32 percent expected goal share and 58.33 percent high-danger goal share in 256:31. They were unstoppable in December, combining for 44 points in 12 games (Pacioretty had 16, Stone and Stephenson each had 14).
Having an extra top-line center for under $3 million is a nice problem to have. Plus, should Vegas run into trouble in the injury department, Stephenson also can slot in on the wing as he did last year.
Despite exceeding expectations in each of the last two seasons, Stephenson took massive strides in his third year in the desert. There were many nights when Stephenson carried the team, often without the aid of elite wingers. He has gone above and beyond since coming over from Washington, and he showed zero signs of slowing down even as the Golden Knights’ season came to a crashing halt.
Knights On Ice grade: A+
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