Projecting the Golden Knights’ opening night line combinations

Marchessault would be a solid second-line option, Theodore as a first-pair defender and a lot more.

It may feel like a millennium away, but the start of hockey season is right around the corner. With training camp near, there are still some questions as to what the Vegas Golden Knights’ lineup could look like in their debut showcase against the Dallas Stars. Here is a (very) rough projection of what the Golden Knights’ line combinations could look like when they launch their inaugural season.

First line: David Perron — Vadim Shipachyov — James Neal

Regardless of who fills the third forward position, the Golden Knights’ top line figures to be a formidable source of point production. Vadim Shipachyov and James Neal are virtual locks to earn spots on the first line, with Shipachyov taking the reigns at center and Neal likely to play his typical right wing position. Shipachyov’s elite playmaking ability paired with Neal’s superior scoring prowess should immediately give Vegas a dynamic one-two punch.

The third forward spot, however, is a little harder to predict. It’s possible Jonathan Marchessault could challenge for a role on the top line, but the Knights may not want to risk being too top heavy up front. For now, it wouldn’t be out of the question for David Perron to slot in at left wing. Perron plays a terrific two-way game and should compliment Shivachyov and Neal’s abilities well.

Second line: Jonathan Marchessault — Cody Eakin — Reilly Smith

The Golden Knights have several connections to the Florida Panthers. Head coach Gerard Gallant spent two years and a portion of the 2016-17 season in Florida before being let go (unjustifiably, by the way) in November. With Gallant as the Golden Knights’ bench boss, it wouldn’t be surprising if he opts to reunite two of his top forwards from Florida on the same line. Reilly Smith has a pair of 50-point campaigns under his belt and Jonathan Marchessault burst onto the scene after scoring 30 goals last season.

Cody Eakin, or “The Ginger Ninja,” as our friends over at Defending Big D like to call him, is in the running to center Smith and Marchessault, but could be destined to play more of a bottom-six role after an abysmal year with the Dallas Stars. For now, though, it appears the spot at second line center is his to lose. The overpaid checking forward (he’s set to make $3.85 million until his contract expires in 2020) is not going to light up the score sheet, but he plays a physical game that could mesh well with the skill that Smith and Marchessault bring to the table.

Third line: Brendan Leipsic — William Karlsson — Oscar Lindberg

William “Wild Bill” Karlsson is just 24 years old and already appears to be one of the better bottom-six forwards in hockey. The Swede had 19 helpers and 25 points for the Blue Jackets last season and, while those numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, he certainly passes the eye test. Karlsson plays a tenacious game and should make an impact for the Golden Knights as a secondary scorer and penalty killer. Former Ranger Oscar Lindberg was reliable in the faceoff circle in New York, which is an area Karlsson still needs to improve upon, but has the versatility to slot in at wing or center, depending on where Vegas chooses to place him.

An interesting name to keep an eye on is Brendan Leipsic, who the Golden Knights selected from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the expansion draft. Leipsic, 23, is a skilled winger who was simply overshadowed by Toronto’s immense crop of young talent. Leipsic is coming off a season in which he scored 18 goals and 51 points for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and looks ready to make a permanent leap to the NHL. If so, he’ll be a solid addition to the bottom-six.

Fourth line: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Erik Haula — Teemu Pulkkinen

Erik Haula ranks as an upper echelon faceoff man, having won 53.9 percent of his draws last season, per Puckbase. He also plays a responsible defensive game and scores at a respectable rate for a bottom-sixer.

Unfortunately, the rest of the fourth line is going to be a bit of an experiment for Vegas.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is literally one of the league’s worst scoring forwards at even strength and Teemu Pulkkinen is better suited for the minors than the NHL. There are a number of other players in the running for a checking line role, but at the moment, it appears this is the best the Golden Knights can do with their bottom line.

First defensive pairing: Nate Schmidt — Shea Theodore

Nate Schmidt is the most complete defenseman on the Golden Knights’ roster and should provide Vegas with reliable two-way play immediately. The 26-year-old blueliner is a jack-of-all-trades and will earn some big minutes right off the bat.

Shea Thodore, who turned 22 earlier this month, is a dynamic puck-mover who looks to be a potential cornerstone player for the Golden Knights if he re-signs with the team at the end of the season. The former first-round pick is a work in progress in his own zone, but possesses the playmaking ability to contribute offensively and catch opponents by surprise. This top pairing would be a lot of fun to watch.

Second defensive pairing: Brayden McNabb — Colin Miller

A McNabb-Miller pairing is a match made in Heaven. Miller, who is aggressive in the offensive zone, will be given more freedom to roam when paired with a defenseman like McNabb, who plays more of a stay-at-home style. For all you analytics fans out there, Miller’s Corsi For per 60 at even strength (14.30) exceeded that of players such as Kris Letang (12.38), Roman Josi (12.79), Erik Karlsson (13.48) and Shayne Gostisbehere (13.85) last season. If paired with the right guy, Miller could have a big year in 2017-18.

Third defensive pairing: Jon Merrill — Jason Garrison

Jason Garrison may be getting older, but that doesn’t mean he’s totally useless. While Garrison’s performance has declined significantly as of late, it wasn’t all that long ago that the 32-year-old racked up 30 points in 70 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s not what he used to be, but there’s a place for him on the Golden Knights’ blueline.

Jon Merrill, on the other hand, remains a bit of a mystery. The 25-year-old Oklahoma native has struggled to earn a permanent role in the NHL, but will finally be given an opportunity to prove himself in Vegas. Let’s see what he’s got.

Goalies: Marc-Andre Fleury backed up by Calvin Pickard

Layup. Fleury is the face of the franchise and will rightfully be treated as such. He may be getting older, but there’s no denying the three-time Stanley Cup winner’s ability. The Golden Knights got a good one.