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Season Preview, Year 2: The Golden Knights are hungry for more

Jonathan Marchessault sits at Ryan Reaves’ locker because his is being occupied by journalists interviewing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare two stalls down.

Marchessault looks at the scrum, looks back at incoming crowd and shrugs his shoulders.

“I can play the role of Reavo for a bit,” Marchessault said. “I can pack a punch.”

It’s that lighthearted, funny nature of Marchessault that makes him one of the more desirable Vegas Golden Knights players to talk to. He’s got the charisma to be one of the funniest guys in the locker room. He’s also got the machismo to be one of the cockiest guys in the room.

How could he not be? At 5-foot-9, Marchessault has proven height means nothing when being one of the more dynamic offensive weapons in the NHL. He followed a 30-goal campaign with the Florida Panthers two years ago into a 75-point season last year with Vegas that earned him a new $30 million contract for the next six years.

Marchessault proved last season that he wasn’t a one-year wonder. The Golden Knights, as a team, are out to prove last year wasn’t a one-year show.

“We’re gonna be one of the best teams in the next few years, I think,” Marchessault said. “A lot of depth, a lot of good young guys. I think we have a bright future in front of us.”

Year two for the Golden Knights begins Thursday when the Philadelphia Flyers come to T-Mobile Arena. It’s expected to be an emotional night. The Golden Knights will unveil banners to commemorate their 109-point Pacific Division-winning season, as well as their Western Conference championship. Both will likely flank the “Vegas Strong” 58 high in the rafters.

Nineteen of the 23 Golden Knights players on the opening night roster were part of last year’s team that defied all inconceivable logic. It was a season defined by tragedy, a run filled with incomprehensible nirvana, and moments that can be searched on YouTube for a lifetime. It was a season that would seem impossible to top.

Not for the Golden Knights. Not for the franchise who doesn’t quite understand what it means to lose yet.

“We didn’t win anything last year, right?” said forward William Karlsson. “We have every reason to be hungry and motivated going into the season.”

For as much as reflecting on the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final is something to forever be commemorated, it doesn’t change the fact that Vegas came up three wins short of the Stanley Cup this past summer. The Washington Capitals were the buzzsaw Vegas didn’t know existed, and the Golden Knights’ season ended in a thud — four straight losses, manhandled in Games 3-5. It took until the Stanley Cup Final for the expansion team to be humbled.

So, what do the Golden Knights do for an encore? The only thing they didn’t do last year: Be the last team standing, hoisting the Stanley Cup and parading it around their rink or someone else’s.

To do that, the Golden Knights are going to rely on their top line, which was arguably the best forward trio in the League last year — Marchessault, Karlsson, and Reilly Smith.

Karlsson is the wildcard. The world will find out if the leap from six goals to 43 was an anomaly or a sign of things to come for the Swede sensation known as Wild Bill. The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner, who should have been a Selke finalist in the process, is expected to regress.

Don’t tell that to his face.

“They think it was a fluke,” Karlsson said. “That’s OK. We’ll prove them wrong.”

Smith is the constant presence. His 60 points last year were fourth most on the team, but it’s what Smith does off the statsheet that highlights his presence — he’s on the penalty kill; he plays a consistent 200-foot game; he scores goals at the right time when needed (rewind to Game 4 of the Western Conference Final). This team goes as far as the first line goes.

But general manager George McPhee felt the Golden Knights needed more of an end-to-end punch. For as great as Vegas was, and for as electric as their offense became, they needed more. They’re in win-now mode. The Golden Knights made two win-now moves in the summer; signing Paul Stastny to a three-year, $19.5 million deal on July 1; and then trading for Max Pacioretty on Sept. 9.

Those two will flank the new-look second line that was once orchestrated by James Neal and David Perron. Neal is now in Calgary, while Perron has returned to St. Louis..

Stastny and Pacioretty are best friends. When Stastny became a free agent, the center never approached Pacioretty as a confidant of where he should play. The Golden Knights became enamored with his 200-foot game and his playmaking ability. Stastny showed how valuable he was for the Winnipeg Jets in the conference semifinals against the Nashville Predators — he had 10 assists in the seven-game series victory.

“Just looking at the kind of players that they have, a lot of speed, a lot of goal-scorers, and that to me I feel I fit well with that,” Stastny said when he signed with Vegas on July 1. “I’m one of those guys that help the defensemen get the puck out of the zone and find it in my hands as quick as possible.”

This year is more of a redemption period for Pacioretty, who signed a four-year, $28 million extension with the Golden Knights the day following his trade from Montreal. A five-time 30-goal scorer, Pacioretty scored only 17 goals a year ago in what seemed like the beginning of a rebuild in Montreal. He also dealt with knee issues that kept him out for the final two months of the regular season.

Healthy, and seen as the last piece to get Vegas to a Stanley Cup, Pacioretty is revitalized in Sin City.

“This group has the right mindset,” Pacioretty said. “There’s no ego here. Whether it’s preseason or postseason, this team wants to win.”

When the puck drops on Thursday night, the honeymoon phase will officially be over for the Golden Knights.

The mantra of the ‘little expansion team that could’ no longer exists. Vegas has already thrusted itself into the higher echelon of Stanley Cup contenders, whether or not that was in the cards for McPhee, the general manager of the year, or even Jack Adams Award winner Gerard Gallant.

The Golden Knights are going to be tested right away. After this game against the Flyers, they will hit the road for five straight on the east coast. That includes an early Stanley Cup Final rematch with said Capitals in D.C. Getting off to a solid start — maybe not the 8-1-1 they had last year with four goalies — is imperative for Vegas. They will need to at least stay afloat for the first 20 games without Nate Schmidt (suspension). It will help with Shea Theodore finally locked in with his seven-year contract to solidify the blue line.

For Vegas to have its best chance to stay above water, it will fall on the shoulders of Marc-Andre Fleury.

Had Fleury not missed two months with a concussion last season, it’s safe to say Fleury would have been a Vezina finalist. He went 29-13-4 with a goals-against average of 2.24 and a .927 save percentage; both career bests. Fleury signed a three-year extension worth $21 million this summer, and he will turn 34 in November. For the Golden Knights to get back to where they were last year, Fleury will need to do something along those lines again. And when he gets to the playoffs, too, it will be on him to come close to his 13-3, .942 save percentage stint before Game 2 of the Cup Final.

“Bottom line, that’s what we play for,” Fleury said. “It was frustrating to come so close to win and lose. It was tough, but we roll our sleeves back up and get back to work. It’s going to be a long season.”

This team is primed for another run at the Stanley Cup. There is no evidence that suggests the Golden Knights are in for a dropoff in the standings, production, etc. Just saying they will regress doesn’t do it. It’s going to be a two-team race in the Pacific Division between the Golden Knights and the revamped San Jose Sharks. I think the Golden Knights win the division and will challenge to defend its conference championship for that very reason — there’s nothing that has been said to say why Vegas can’t do it again.

The Golden Knights won’t shock the world by getting to the playoffs again. They’ll shock the world by doing what it couldn’t do last year.

There’s not a player in that locker room who thinks they can’t. And it wouldn’t be wise to bet against them.

“Teams are going to respect us,” Gallant said. “Obviously, we’ve got a good team on paper and we’ve got to make sure we work hard and make sure it’s a good team on the ice again.”

Projected lines for season opener

Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith

Max Pacioretty — Paul Stastny — Erik Haula

Tomas Nosek — Oscar Lindberg — Ryan Carpenter

William Carrier — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Ryan Reaves

Shea Theodore — Deryk Engelland

Colin Miller — Brayden McNabb

Nick Holden — Jake Bischoff

Marc-Andre Fleury

Malcolm Subban

Injured: Alex Tuch (lower body), Cody Eakin (lower body)

Scratched: Brad Hunt, Jon Merrill

Pacific Division predictions

  1. Vegas Golden Knights
  2. San Jose Sharks
  3. Anaheim Ducks
  4. Calgary Flames
  5. Los Angeles Kings
  6. Arizona Coyotes
  7. Edmonton Oilers
  8. Vancouver Canucks