10 questions facing the Golden Knights heading into training camp
Hockey is back. There’s a lot to digest before the puck drops in less than two weeks.
Training camp officially began Sunday, but the Golden Knights hit the ice for the first time in almost four months today.
Vegas opens its season 10 days from now against the Anaheim Ducks. The game will be held at T-Mobile Arena. There will be no fans, much like most of the league. It’s going to be a weird time.
Alas, it’s still Year 4 for the Golden Knights and expectations, once again, remain high. But hey, this is the last year Vegas can say they’re the new kids on the block. Might as well have fun while you can.
1) What in the world will this season be?
Not just a Vegas question, but as a whole. This will be like the Stanley Cup Playoff bubble, but maybe worse. I’m not even sure how coverage will go this season. Zoom will be my best friend yet again.
T-Mobile Arena will be empty, which in itself is awkward. Home-ice advantage will mean nothing. Sure, road teams will travel, but there’s only seven destinations to go and none of them will be taxing sans a couple teams (hi, St. Louis).
I’ll be curious to see how this lack of home-ice advantage affects a team like the Golden Knights. The Edmonton bubble wasn’t much of a factor until the Western Conference Final, but for a team that has always benefitted the loud crowd and fan participation, a fast start will be crucial.
2) What impact will Alex Pietrangelo make?
Such a reason for lofty expectations in VGK Land is because of what the Golden Knights did in the offseason; luring the biggest free agency fish of all with Pietrangelo signing a seven-year deal with Vegas in October.
Pietrangelo comes at the cost of the Golden Knights moving on from Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt, creating the cap space needed to lock up Pietrangelo with his $8.8 million cap hit.
Pietrangelo, who spent the first 12 seasons of his NHL career in St. Louis and was the captain of the Blues team that won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago, comes to Vegas to be on the top pair with Brayden McNabb. Pietrangelo’s ability to be a threat offensively and play a sound defensive game is an improvement from Schmdit, but by how much is the key.
Pete DeBoer has his Vegas version of Erik Karlsson-Brent Burns with Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore, but only better defensively and a tad younger. What DeBoer can draw up with those two in his top four will be fun, as well as what Pietrangelo can do while working with the likes of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty at 5-on-5 and the power play.
3) Who’s the top-line center?
This is not to say who is better than who, but who needs the top minutes more?
Moving on from Stastny was the organization’s way to say they’re ready for Cody Glass full time. After a rookie season riddled with injuries and unknown of where to put him, Glass comes to camp at 207 pounds and stronger from his debut last October.
Glass’ vision and playmaking have been gloated aplenty by Pacioretty and Stone. Glass played his best hockey inbetween those two and understandingly so. When those two also say Glass is one of the smartest players they’ve ever skated with, at 21 years old, that speaks volumes. It’s imperative for Vegas to having Glass play at the best level he can.
That being said, your top center should play top minutes, and William Karlsson is still that guy. Karlsson’s scoring has come down since the 43-goal inaugural campaign, but a “full season” inbetween Stone and Pacioretty could prime him for a good season.
There’s also the affordability of keeping Karlsson with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, albeit how quiet that line was in the playoffs. If they can regain the scoring touch under DeBoer, it might be something worth considering.
4) Is Zach Whitecloud ready for a top-4 role?
A couple of factors regarding Whitecloud, who was stellar in the bubble.
First, the pairing of him and Nick Holden was really good; the duo had the second-best Corsi among pairs that played at least 100 minutes in the playoffs (62.93), only trailing Zach Bogosian and Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay (63.18), according to Natural Stat Trick.
Clearly, 2-22 can work. It’s why the Golden Knights signed Holden to a two-year extension and why Whitecloud bypassed restricted free agency and signed a two-year extension on March 22. But the Golden Knights don’t want Whitecloud to remain a third-pairing option.
Which leads to the second factor: this trade noise involving Alec Martinez. His expiring $4 million makes it enticing to move him. Such intrigue grows if a young defenseman (Nicolas Hague, Dylan Coghlan) makes a charge for playing time. It won’t happen right away, but it’ll make the trade deadline worth watching yet again.
Whitecloud showed flashes of an improved offense in the bubble, and improving off of that will make the call for a promotion much greater. There’s no reason to think he can’t play with Theodore or even Pietrangelo at some point.
5) What about Peyton Krebs?
The Golden Knights’ top prospect will join the team for training camp upon the completion of the World Juniors championships. Fellow Team Canada teammate Kaedan Korczak, Vegas’ 2019 second-round pick, will also be in Las Vegas when ready. They will need to quarantine upon arrival, so their camp debuts might be pushed toward the end.
Krebs is the wild card. The Canadian Hockey League faces uncertainty of having a season. Krebs would either play his final season for the Winnipeg Ice or the Golden Knights in 2021 under normal circumstances. Skating with the Henderson Silver Knights wouldn’t normally be an option, but could be the case here if the CHL can’t get a season started.
But even if the CHL does happen, is it worth overcooking Krebs in juniors? One could say it’s worth giving him more NHL experience, much like he got in the bubble to the point of taking warmups before playoff games. At some point, the Golden Knights will need to turn to their youth and give Krebs some run, especially with the versatility he’s shown during World Juniors; being a natural center with a left shot playing on the right in some games.
6) Will there be a goalie controversy?
Don’t read too much as to who will be the starter on Jan. 14. It’ll likely be Robin Lehner by all accounts of how last season ended.
But for those clamoring for DeBoer to play Marc-Andre Fleury more, I’d venture to guess that won’t be an issue. With the way the schedule is designed — eight back-to-backs for Vegas and playing every other day for most of the season — both goalies (and maybe Oscar Dansk) will get a chance.
Ideally, you give Lehner and Fleury 28 starts apiece and then pick the better goalie to be your Game 1 starter. Then it turns into chaos and everyone disperses into a mad collection of hysteria.
It’s a crucial year for both goalies. Lehner, now with a five-year contract secured, will likely get the reigns to see if he can build off a strong first stint with Vegas. There may also be no bigger chip on any player’s shoulder than Fleury, who only had four starts in the playoffs.
This is the result of having $12 million committed to two goalies. Buckle up.
7) Is this Alex Tuch’s time?
The injuries, playing out of position, not having consistent linemates. All of that may finally be in the rearview mirror for Tuch if his playoff performance is any indication.
After leading the Golden Knights with eight goals in the bubble, this could be Tuch’s time. Vegas’ third line — Nicolas Roy, Nick Cousins and Tuch — was arguably its best during the playoffs. Substitute Chandler Stephenson in Cousins’ spot, and that line can still be effective.
The Golden Knights’ success will be predicated on having a complete top nine, and that’s dependent on Tuch’s play. For as miserable as the four-month pause due to COVID-19 was, it benefitted those injured, and that included Tuch (17 points in 42 games in 2020). Even an inkling of how he performed in the bubble will do wonders for the Golden Knights.
But if we’re talking about if he can take that next step to being a top-six forward, there might not be a better situation for Tuch than a condensed season and some comfort knowing he won’t move from his third-line right wing spot.
8) What will Shea Theodore do for an encore?
The Norris Trophy might be another year or two for Theodore after a sixth-place finish last season, but the climb to being a top-five defenseman in the league may be in the cards in 2021.
Theodore was primed for a 50-point season in 2020 if not for COVID-19 (46 points in 71 games) and was nearly a point-per-game (19 points in 20 games) during the playoffs, leading the Golden Knights in scoring. A 50-point season in this economy would make Theodore a unanimous Norris winner, so we’ll temper expectations slightly.
But Theodore can make noise should that trajectory continue. It’ll be intriguing to see how DeBoer not only deploys Theodore and Pietrangelo at 5-on-5, but on the power play, as well. While Theodore scored 16 of his 46 points on the power play last season, there might be an uptick in that department pending on if he’s the full-time power play quarterback on the second unit as expected.
9) How much pressure is there to win this year?
It was nearly 365 days ago when the email hit the inbox of Gerard Gallant being fired and Pete DeBoer taking his place.
It was a win-now move for a team that wasn’t winning much in January; a knee-jerk reaction that meant if Vegas couldn’t reach at least the conference final, it would be a disaster of a time.
Then the coronavirus happened and everything was put on hold and suddenly, those expectations died a tad. The Golden Knights did reach the conference final, but one wonders if more was in the cards. But to take five months off and play hockey again is a tall task for any franchise. That’s why the play in the bubble is to be commended for all.
This one won’t be any different. The Golden Knights are betting favorites and are expected to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. But complete marks should not be given unless it’s through a full 82-game season. The direction of the Golden Knights can’t be determined until a full slate is had for DeBoer and his staff. The decisions by Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee cannot be determined until the canvas is fully covered.
It seems odd especially after Vegas went all-in for Pietrangelo and creating a super team of sorts, but while the organization would think it a failure if they didn’t win the Stanley Cup, this season will be too chaotic to think of certain things.
The pressure to win will still be there because of what this franchise has created in three years, but there will be factors that will make it understandable if there’s not a virtual parade down Las Vegas Boulevard this summer.
10) Who will be the biggest surprise of camp?
Plenty of ways to go here, but I have this belief Jack Dugan is going to challenge for a roster spot.
A lot of the young guys will have their moments. Having Krebs in camp for the first time against his NHL counterparts will be exciting to watch, for example. Lucas Elvenes is another one to watch out for.
Now that Dugan has his entry-level deal signed and after two great seasons at Providence, how he transitions his game to the NHL level will be a factor to watch.
In hindsight, any young player is going to have a tough go at cracking this roster unless something drastic happens, but Dugan will be who I watch closely on Day 1.