Vegas Golden Knights 2021-22 NHL Season Preview: The winds of change cometh

If you thought last season was weird, get ready for Year 5.

It’s Year 5. The Golden Knights are in kindergarten.

To be fair, they were old enough to drive and get into the club when they were playing with popsicle sticks in Pre-K, so who are we to judge?

The only thing to judge is if there will be a parade down Las Vegas Boulevard next summer. The Golden Knights enter their fifth season, once again, on the doorstep of being Stanley Cup contenders. The past two seasons have seen the Golden Knights’ season end in the NHL’s final four, running out of gas on offense, to an opponent they should’ve defeated.

Unfinished business? It’s been unfinished since making the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1.

“I think we know what the expectations are and our goal is to win a Stanley Cup here,” said head coach Pete DeBoer. “I think there’s obvious pressure that comes with that but our group has shown that it doesn’t overwhelm us. We welcome that pressure. We want to be one of those teams that’s expected to compete for the Stanley Cup every year and I think our guys are excited about taking another step this year.”

The Golden Knights had everything go right for them in last season’s 56-game campaign. They tied atop the league with 82 points, knocked off the Minnesota Wild in a grueling seven-game series, and somehow eliminated the Colorado Avalanche in six games.

Then the Montreal Canadiens happened.

The events following Vegas’ six-game exodus by the Habs set in motion what’s going to be the most important season in the Golden Knights’ history. Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t in Las Vegas anymore. Ryan Reaves is gone. There’s an identity that’s questionable, but one that can still compete.

“Every team gets to write their own book every year. For us, for me, it’s the excitement of a fresh start,” DeBoer said. “Obviously we had some really good people leave the group and people that have meant a lot to this organization and this city. We wouldn’t be in this situation we’re in without their contributions.

“There’s a real excitement when you start with a fresh group every year. Not everyone’s in the same roles. We’ve got some new faces and we’re obviously as coaches trying to tweak some things.”

It’s Robin Lehner’s time

Thomas Greiss. Corey Crawford. Marc-Andre Fleury. All dominant goalies once upon a time, all who have shared a net with Robin Lehner.

In the most Barkhad Abdi voice imaginable, he’s the captain now.

Lehner becomes the No. 1 goalie, the undisputed starter for a Stanley Cup contender for the first time in his career. He’s also the one that will fall first on the sword, Allan Walsh be damned, if this goes sideways.

“We have expectations. We didn’t win last year, and they made changes,” Lehner said. “At the end of the day, we have a really good team. I think all the guys feel good going into the season; I feel good. Hopefully we can get off to a good start and keep the momentum.”

The writing was on the wall before the ink dried on Lehner’s five-year, $25 million extension a little over a year ago. The time would come where Vegas couldn’t make $12 million work in net. Fleury, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, is now with the Chicago Blackhawks (shoutout to Mikael Hakkarainen).

All eyes turn to Lehner.

The Knights turned the erasure of Fleury’s $7 million cap hit into one of the league’s best backups in Laurent Brossoit. The former second option to Connor Hellebuyck in Winnipeg signed with Vegas less than an hour into free agency on a two-year deal at $3.5 million AAV.

“There’s no difference. Brasser is a really good goalie,” Lehner said. “My philosophy is best goalie plays. It doesn’t matter. I think [it was] a little bit of a tough position for him in Winnipeg, too; traditional starter that starts a lot with Hellebuyck. But he’s a great addition to our team and I’m looking forward to competing with him.”

This won’t be Lehner’s first rodeo as a full-time starter, but it’s the first time he’ll be the unquestioned choice for a postseason run. He’ll be praised when he makes the acrobatic save to preserve the 3-2 win, and he’ll be chastised for the goal that decides a playoff game.

The levels of pressure Lehner faces don’t come just from the playoff expectations. There’s the pressure of living up to that contract; the desire to prove he can best his predecessor; the want to quiet some from a passionate fanbase that clings to the glory days of the deity-like goalie they once praised.

Such are the perks of the job replacing a Vezina Trophy winner and cohort for the Jennings Trophy.

“He looks awesome. You can see he’s put in the work,” DeBoer said. “And he’s smart enough to recognize the opportunity. I think he knows that he’s got some big shoes to fill. At the same time, you don’t replace Marc-Andre Fleury. I don’t think it’s fair to put that expectation on him. I have no doubt though that this guy is committed to giving us excellent goaltending all year, and hopefully championship goaltending all year.”

Cup or Bust for the Captain

Mark Stone learned that eyes are on him when the Golden Knights come up short.

He, of all people, learned that the hard way against Montreal when he didn’t score a single point in the semifinal series.

Being the captain comes with the glory of being the first person to touch the Stanley Cup. It also comes with the agony of having to answer why your team fell two wins shy of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

“I learned a lot about simple things in the playoffs. Regular season went pretty smoothly. It’s a different animal when you get to the playoffs with pressure,” Stone said. “We know what to do as a team going forward and we’ll execute that.”

Stone had the best season of his career with 61 points, missing only one game. He was a finalist for the Selke Trophy for a second time and ninth in the Hart Trophy voting.

The captain had eight points through 12 playoff games, including the historic game-winning goal in Game 5 at Colorado. The last seven, though, Stone went pointless and was a minus-4 in the Montreal series. A lot of forwards went cold in that Montreal series. Stone was the biggest eye-raiser.

“I think we’ve added a lot of good pieces up front,” Stone said We don’t even have [Alex Tuch] out there yet and we still feel deep. Once he comes back, it’s going to be the best forward group I’ve ever played on. We’re going to have guys when other guys aren’t playing at the top of their game step in and score goals. We’re going to have a hard group to defend on a nightly basis.”

Stone returns to anchor the top line with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, a group that a certain contingent believes could take the next step with a true No. 1 center. It’s a big year for Stone and that group to carry the load.

Power play savior Evgenii Dadonov?

One of those added pieces Stone alluded to was Evgenii Dadonov.

Acquired from the Ottawa Senators on July 28 in exchange for a third-round this upcoming draft and veteran defenseman Nick Holden, Dadonov, who signed a three-year deal with Ottawa at an AAV of $5 million two offseasons ago, finished with a lowly 20 points in 55 games last season.

“Every season starts with nothing. It begins again,” Dadonov said. “Last year, especially on the power play, you try to pick up some points, kind of adjust. Ten, 15 games you start rolling and rolling. Then it got harder.”

The Golden Knights are hoping the version of Dadonov they acquired is the flamethrower that sat in the slot on Florida’s power play when he scored 47 points on the man advantage in his final three seasons with the Panthers.

The consensus is there’s too much talent for this group to not have a top-10 power play. Dadonov gives something the Golden Knights haven’t had to this point; someone camping in the slot who can bury those dangerous chances in front.

But Dadonov isn’t just being asked to save a below-average power play. The long-standing desire for the Knights to have a third line that can do things continues to be at the top of the laundry list.

For the time being, he’ll need to be the Knights’ go-to scorer on that line with Alex Tuch (shoulder surgery) out until February or March. Dadonov is expected to be in Tuch’s spot at third-line right wing.

A chance of scenery can help Dadonov. He, much like every other NHL player in Canada last season, was held to strict guidelines in the COVID-shortened season. Dadonov did not see his wife and kids for four months due to the Canadian border’s  closure. Couple that with playing on a bad Senators team, and it took the life out of him.

“He really fit the bill for us. He was a player that we had a lot of regard for,” said general manager Kelly McCrimmon upon acquiring Dadonov. “There were some good forwards available in free agency that we liked that we would’ve turned to had we not completed the trade with Ottawa. Our priority was this player and we were happy to add him. I think he’s going to fit in very well.”

The Golden Knights have run into hot goalies and found it hard to score when the pressure is at its apex. They hope Dadonov can provide one more piece to get them over the hump.

Nolan Patrick renaissance

The other new name the Golden Knights brought in this summer is also hoping to benefit from a change of scenery.

Nolan Patrick, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers in a deal that ultimately sent first-ever draft pick Cody Glass to the Nashville Predators.

Patrick never materialized in Philadelphia beyond his first two seasons, scoring 61 points in 145 games, due to a migraine condition that forced him to miss the entire 2020 season. He played all but four games last season, scoring nine points.

“The organization has been great since I got here,” Patrick said. “It’s nice coming to a team that’s this good and has a chance to win this year, and obviously that’s the main goal. This organization has done everything but win the Cup. It’s exciting to be a part of that.”

But it looks like Patrick is going to get an opportunity with a fresh start. Patrick has been the primary third-line center throughout camp in-between Dadonov and Mattias Janmark. He’s also been a net-front presence on the power play and could be on the first unit come opening night.

“High-end skill just looking for a fresh start,” Stone said. “Things kind of went sour for him in Philly and I think his mentality ... it’s tough when you get in those ruts. I think for him, he wasn’t necessarily given a great opportunity to get out of them. I think he’s going to perform really well and he’s going to get a chance to improve in a lot of different areas and show something.”

The Golden Knights signed Patrick, a restricted free agent, to a two-year contract at $1.2 million AAV. If Patrick finds his game, this could be one of the league’s biggest bargains.

No longer the new kids on the block

When the Golden Knights take the ice Oct. 12, they won’t be the newest team in the league anymore.

They’ll be looking across from that new bunch.

The Seattle Kraken will play their first official game ever on Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena as the Golden Knights enter their fifth season in the league. By the way, that game will be on ESPN (and ESPN+). Cue the NHL on ESPN theme, bay bay.

Crazy what a few years can do. Vegas is a hockey hotbed, and hockey is back in Seattle, much like the world predicted.

“It’s going to be kind of weird seeing another team like that,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “I just look at their lineup and it’s like us the first year. You can’t not be ready for them, because they’ll be ready.”

In a wild sort of way, we could see the top two teams in the Pacific Division this week on ESPN. It’s a weak division that the Golden Knights are expected to run away with, but the Kraken could be right there with Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer in net, a solid forward group mixed with veterans and young players, and a blue line that (on paper) could be a top-10 unit in the league already.

The bar is high for new teams in the league, with the Golden Knights making the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1 and coming within three wins of winning the thing and all. While most of the original Golden Misfits are gone, the “conscience,” as DeBoer calls it, still remains with Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith.

“Those players are obviously older and more veteran. Everybody knew there was going to be a natural shift at some point with some of the younger players we drafted or signed or brought in,” DeBoer said. “But the fact that group had such success early, they’ve been able to transition, keep the core of that group that hasn’t aged itself out is still here, which sets the foundation for the organization.”

Have we considered this could be the final rodeo for the Misfit Line with Smith in a contract year?

“I think playing for Vegas and this team, every year is a contract year,” Smith said. “When you have the standard that’s so high that you’ve got to win the Stanley Cup every year, and if you don’t, there’s going to be changes. I think our team goal is something that hasn’t changed over the last five years, and that’s a critical thing with our group.”

Projected lineup

Mark Stone — Chandler Stephenson — Max Pacioretty

Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith

Mattias Janmark — Nolan Patrick — Evgenii Dadonov

William Carrier — Nicolas Roy — Keegan Kolesar

Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo

Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore

Nicolas Hague — Zach Whitecloud

Robin Lehner

Laurent Brossoit

Injured: Alex Tuch (shoulder)

Possibility: Peyton Krebs