Vegas Golden Knights hockey is right around the corner. The 2021-22 campaign projects to be a relatively normal NHL season, and the Golden Knights will once again chase Lord Stanley’s all-elusive Cup.
The Knights will kick off Year 5 with an opening-night matchup against the Seattle Kraken, who will make their official franchise debut at T-Mobile Arena.
The Golden Knights will no longer be the new kid in town, though Vegas has been an elite club since Year 1. In fact, Vegas has done more in four years than some franchises have done in 20 (or ever).
At this point, Vegas is just one of 11 teams yet to win the Cup.
The Knights will look to change that starting Oct. 12.
There may not have been major roster changes after another third-round playoff exit, but many moves were made. One, in particular, could define the season, and it will serve as a turning point in Golden Knights history no matter what.
But was it a successful offseason? Is this team better than the one that fell short against Montreal?
Let’s take a look.
Out: Cody Glass, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves
In: Evgenii Dadonov, Nolan Patrick, Brett Howden, Mattias Janmark (sort of)
The Golden Knights officially moved on from the triplets when they sent Cody Glass to Nashville as part of a three-way deal with Philadelphia.
Vegas came away with former second-overall pick Nolan Patrick, whom Kelly McCrimmon coached on the Brandon Wheat Kings.
In the end, this was a prospect swap that gives two players a fresh start to try to jump-start what could be very promising careers. Both were high first-round picks; in fact, Glass was the first prospect ever drafted by the Golden Knights when he was taken at No. 6 in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft (the Flyers took Patrick with the No. 2 pick that year).
Patrick scored 13 goals and 30 points his rookie season and replicated those numbers the following year (13-18—31). However, he missed the entirety of the 2019-20 season with migraines. Like Glass, he ultimately fell out of favor with his head coach, and he was unable to return to form last year after missing a full season. He managed just four goals and nine points in 52 games and amassed a minus-30 rating, though that’s more a reflection on the team than on Patrick.
But he is better than those numbers.
He has the skill set to improve Vegas’ bottom-six scoring and will help the power play with his net-front presence (though it should be noted that all four of Glass’ goals last season came on the man advantage, which struggled all year).
Patrick will be joined up front by Evgenii Dadonov, whom Vegas acquired from the Senators. Dadonov is a former 25-goal scorer who had a down year last year in Ottawa after potting 28, 28 and 25 goals in three seasons with Florida. He was a top-line talent with the Panthers, proved to be very productive on the power play prior to last season with Ottawa and will help the Knights fill the hole left by Alex Tuch’s long-term injury.
Vegas also picked up Brett Howden from the Rangers. Howden has been a disappointment after being a late first-round draft pick but should give Vegas more depth at center and is an option on the penalty kill. He’ll likely serve as the extra forward.
The Knights bid farewell to Tomas Nosek, who signed a two-year contract with the Bruins. Nosek will be missed, but Vegas’ cap situation made it difficult to keep him.
His departure leaves the Knights with just three of the original expansion-selected forwards on the club: Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and William Carrier. Defenseman Brayden McNabb is the only other player that remains.
Vegas moved on from Ryan Reaves, who was sent to the Rangers in a salary dump; the deal cleared $1.75 million of cap space and yielded a surprising return in the form of a 2022 third-round pick.
But one familiar face will return to the lineup this season.
Mattias Janmark was expected to test and leave via free agency but ended up signing a one-year deal after a successful stint with Vegas, which included his memorable hat trick in Game 7 against Minnesota.
Janmark is a versatile player who has filled out the third line with Patrick and Dadonov in preseason.
On paper, that is the best third line Vegas has iced in quite a while, and if Patrick gets back on track and utilizes his skill, the Knights could finally have a true bottom-six scoring line.
— Jillian Wagner (@JillianSydney) July 21, 2021
The top six will be exactly the same, with Chandler Stephenson centering Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and the Misfits Line gearing up for its fifth season.
Nicolas Roy likely will center Carrier and Keegan Kolesar, who had a fine rookie season last year. Though Nosek was underrated, Vegas is a deeper team with Roy — fresh off his playoff overtime heroics — as the fourth-line center.
Tuch’s absence is somewhat mitigated by Dadonov’s arrival, but it will take multiple players to fill the void. That includes Patrick; if he plays more like the “Nico or Nolan” player he was projected to be, the Knights’ offense will be that much better and deeper.
That being said, the one thing the Knights have lacked from the beginning is an elite first-line center. That was the team’s greatest need, but it did not come to fruition this summer.
Also, it’s unclear what will happen when Tuch returns, as his $4.75 million cap hit will have to be accommodated.
Is the forward group better?
With a possible trade coming when Tuch returns, it’s difficult to say that the offense is truly better if it could very well lose another piece down the road. Heading into the season, however, it’s fair to say that it is.
Glass, Nosek and Reaves for Dadonov, Patrick and a full year of Janmark — with the potential bonus of a Howden rebound — is definitely an upgrade, particularly considering Glass was playing in Henderson.
Vegas’ most significant failure last season was the power play; Patrick and Dadonov both help in that department.
Patrick goes to the net and does it well.
NOLAN PATRICK SCORES ON THE POWER PLAY, FLYERS LEAD 2-1. pic.twitter.com/cWPulBhF0C
— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) February 23, 2018
But Dadonov should really open things up, as he gives Vegas its best bumper option ever.
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) November 10, 2019
EVGENII DADONOV RIPS HOME AN ABSOLUTE CANNON! PANTHERS LEAD 1-0 ON THE POWER PLAY! pic.twitter.com/kvyg8QxAi5
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) January 13, 2018
Putting last year’s power play aside, the Knights have not struggled offensively over the years; in fact, Vegas ranks seventh in goals per game (3.19) since Year 1.
But that same offense has disappeared late in the playoffs in each of the last two postseasons, so it remains to be seen if enough has been done to address that.
Is the forward group better?
|Yes, it’s better||45|
|It’s the same||18|
|No, it’s worse||7|
|It’s too soon to tell||28|
|Ask me when they get Eichel||7|
Out: Nick Holden
In: Alec Martinez (sort of)
Nick Holden was traded to Ottawa as part of the Dadonov deal. Holden — who played 139 regular-season and 35 postseason games with Vegas — had one year remaining on a two-year contract carrying a cap hit of $1.7 million.
Other than Holden’s departure, the Knights’ blue line will be the same as it was last season.
However, that doesn’t take into account the fact that Vegas was able to retain Alec Martinez and sign him at an AAV of $5.25 million; he was expected to test free agency and field offers north of $6 million. It required a three-year term, but it was a victory to keep him in Sin City.
The club also re-signed Dylan Coghlan, who will serve as the seventh defenseman. His ice time dipped down the stretch, though he was used at forward and on defense when the Knights had injuries and cap-induced roster constraints. Coghlan has great offensive upside and clearly can fill in wherever he is needed.
Other than that, the back end is the same.
Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, McNabb, Zach Whitecloud and Nic Hague make up the rest of the group.
It’s unclear which version of Pietrangelo the Knights will get. He had a disappointing regular season but transformed into a completely different player in the playoffs, often carrying the Knights offensively and playing fantastic hockey in all three zones. He stepped up when it mattered most, which is something that cannot be said of many of the Knights’ top players.
Is the defense better?
Verdict: Yes. Ish.
It’s the same group minus Holden, which is not to undervalue Holden’s contributions. After a rough first year in Vegas, Holden became quite reliable, and he was surprisingly productive in last year’s playoffs. His loss isn’t overly harmful to the blue line, but he was an important member of the team both on and off the ice.
That being said, Theodore, Whitecloud and Hague have one more year of experience under their belts, Pietrangelo nullified initial concerns with his postseason play and McNabb remains a dependable top-four defenseman on a team-friendly deal.
The defense is not why the Knights were eliminated in the playoffs. It remains a solid group, and though it’s not too different on paper, the fact that the Knights were able to keep Martinez is a plus.
Is the defense better?
|It’s the same||42|
|No, it’s worse||2|
|It’s too soon to tell||7|
Out: Marc-Andre Fleury
In: Laurent Brossoit
For a franchise that loves to make a splash, Vegas certainly made waves by trading the face of the franchise and reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
But come opening night, Marc-Andre Fleury won’t be manning the Vegas crease or wearing a Golden Knights sweater. Instead, he’ll be wearing red in Chicago, playing for just the third team in his 17-year career.
Fleury played his best hockey as a Golden Knight, and his value to this team, city and fanbase can’t be defined.
He backstopped the most remarkable inaugural campaign in modern sports history, following up a record-shattering regular season with an incredible playoff performance to help his team advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
He is responsible for 117 of Vegas’ 173 franchise wins and 28 of its 38 wins in the playoffs.
Even after a murky and uncomfortable situation in the bubble, Fleury decided to stay with the Knights.
He went on to record the best statistical season of his entire career, going 26-10-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .928 save percentage along with six shutouts, which resulted in his first Vezina.
The Golden Knights turned around and traded him.
He was shipped to the Blackhawks in July in a salary dump, and the monumental move didn’t include a courtesy heads-up from the team. It was a distasteful end to an unfortunate situation, to say the least.
Now Robin Lehner is the undisputed No. 1 starter.
It is his crease.
Vegas signed a highly-capable backup in Laurent Brossoit, and Logan Thompson continues to grow as an extremely promising netminder in the pipeline.
But even if goaltending is not an issue, there’s no case to be made that argues that the Golden Knights are better in net this year.
The only thing that can be said is that the Knights created an extra $4.675 million of cap space.
But when evaluating the goaltending itself, it’s pretty straightforward.
Brossoit is a talented backup who can turn in strong performances, but the Lehner/Brossoit tandem is not better than Fleury/Lehner. It shouldn’t be expected to be, particularly after the way Fleury played last season.
Lehner has solid numbers but still has much to prove.
Since joining the Knights, Lehner has gone 16-4-2 with a 2.20 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 22 starts in the regular season. He is 10-9 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 19 postseason starts.
But this year’s workload will be a test for both netminders.
Brossoit started a career-high 19 games in 2018-19 — the best season of his career and the last season in which he held a winning record — but could see close to 30 this year. Lehner has shared the workload on each of his last three teams.
He started 43 games in 2018-19 with the Islanders (Thomas Greiss started 39), and he and Corey Crawford both got the nod 31 times in Chicago in 2019-20 before Lehner was traded. He and Fleury would have had a more even split last season if not for Lehner’s injury, which gave Fleury a chance to take the ball puck and run with it.
Lehner hasn’t been the true No. 1 starter for 50-plus games in a season since his days in Buffalo, and this will be the first time he has the role while under a long-term contract with a contending team.
It seems inevitable that Lehner will be compared to Fleury all year. That’s unfair to both players, but the narrative will be present and the pressure will be on. After all, Lehner is following in the footsteps of a successful and beloved franchise goalie.
But at the end of the day, the Knights chose to hand the baton to Lehner one year early. It’s a gamble, and it’ll be the yardstick by which much of this season is judged. It could make or break the Golden Knights’ year in the end.
Either way, it’s the end of an era.
Is the goaltending better?
The Knights traded a 17-year veteran coming off a Vezina-winning campaign who is third all-time in wins and has been the backbone of the franchise for four years.
You can’t do that and come away with a more stable crease.
The cap benefits may prove to be significant, but in no way is the goaltending better. That’s not a slight on Lehner or Brossoit; they could have a great season, and they deserve a chance to prove themselves.
Ultimately, what matters in the end is the Stanley Cup.
Fleury led the Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1 but was unable to complete the job. Lehner (and Pete DeBoer) have yet to get them back.
Cup-or-bust is the watchword.
Is the goaltending better?
|Yes, it’s Lehner’s time||3|
|Yes, the cap space is key||5|
|Yes, there’s no more goalie controversy||4|
|It’s roughly the same||2|
|No, having two starters is better than one||9|
|No, it’s worse||70|
|I just miss Flower||27|
So, has the team improved?
Yes and no.
The defense is essentially a wash.
There are improvements up front, and the Knights will be able to ice a deeper lineup notwithstanding the Tuch injury. If a top-six forward is moved when Tuch returns at some point in 2022, the net result may not amount to much.
Even so, chemistry is not something that can be manufactured, and personnel changes and fresh starts often do wonders. Assuming Vegas advances to the postseason for the fifth time in five years, statistics on paper will get thrown out the window. Sometimes a few new faces is all that’s needed to get a team to the next level.
The new faces in Vegas certainly can help save the dreadful power play, which already looks drastically better in preseason. If Kelly McCrimmon can somehow manage to keep the forward group intact with Tuch back in the mix, then Vegas will boast one of the most dangerous forward corps in the league. That would require some cap creativity.
But the significant change is in net, and it’s hard to sidestep such a loss. That’s particularly true since the only return was $4.675 million in cap space (with Brossoit’s $2.325 million AAV factored in), which then wasn’t put towards a first-line center (though the Jack Eichel saga continues).
The flat cap left an already-cap-stretched Golden Knights team in a bind. Vegas decided to part with Fleury rather than keep both and move a forward. It was, for better or worse, a franchise-altering move.
Plus, there weren’t many changes made to the core of a team that has fizzled out two postseasons in a row. Of course, a team that has made it to the third round in three out of four years is difficult to dismantle, particularly following a year in which the best player on the team recorded eight points in 19 games, including zero in the third round.
In the end, it’s a balancing act between how the additions at forward versus the loss of Fleury are weighed. Considering Tuch’s prolonged absence, however, the latter seems more substantial.
Are the Golden Knights better now than they were last season?
|Too soon to tell||32|