Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where the Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights.
2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights
Success arrived early for the Vegas Golden Knights, and the team’s had enough of it to hold itself to a certain standard. A standard that cost inaugural coach Gerard Gallant to lose his job on Jan. 15, even though the team held a playoff spot. Enter Peter DeBoer. The former San Jose Sharks coach, who had been fired himself a month earlier, went 11-2-0 under his leadership before the pandemic shutdown.
The February acquisitions of Los Angeles Kings defenceman Alec Martinez and Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner boosted Vegas in the playoffs. Lehner’s solid play earned him starts in the playoffs, and Martinez shined offensively in 10 regular-season games (two goals, six assists). Forwards Max Pacioretty (32 goals, 34 assists in 71 games) and Mark Stone (21 goals, 42 assists in 62 games) stood out on offense with near-point-per-game outputs.
Everything Vegas did seemed to revolve around one player: Alex Pietrangelo. The St. Louis Blues captain became an unrestricted free agent after 12 years in the Gateway City. After months of frustrating negotiations, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong opted to sign defenceman Torey Krug to effectively replace their veteran captain. This left the Golden Knights with a golden chance to get one of the NHL’s best defenseman, and they took it. Pietrangelo signed a 7-year deal worth $8.8 million per season, with the signing bonuses and No Movement Clause he desired from St. Louis.
However, with the Vegas tap squeezing even tighter due to the pandemic, moves were made to fit their new star into the lineup. On Oct. 9, centre Paul Stastny was sent to the Winnipeg Jets for Carl Dahlstrom and a 2022 fourth-round pick. Three days later, the Vancouver Canucks acquired defenceman Nate Schmidt for a third-round pick. The Pietrangelo signing was announced soon after.
Earlier in the off-season, Lehner inked a five-year extension worth $5 million per season. Also, the Knights dealt forward Brandon Pirri to the Blackhawks for forward Dylan Sikura and welcomed centre Brendan Brisson with the 29th pick of the 2020 NHL Draft.
This group remains mostly unchanged, except for Stastny. This leaves an opening at centre in the top six that can only be filled from within. During training camp, Stephenson has been playing in between last year’s linemates Pacioretty and Stone. Karlsson has moved to pivot Marchessault and Smith. Stephenson’s ascent is a culmination of events that began Dec. 2, 2019. The 2012 third round pick was moved from Washington to Vegas for a 5th round pick, and the Golden Knights were rewarded by better play than many expected. Stephenson was decent on offense (eight goals and 14 assists in 41 games), but really shined on defense and the penalty kill. His numbers in 2020-21 should greatly benefit from playing between two offensive dynamos in Pacioretty and Stone.
If these lines hold to opening night, Karlsson will re-unite with fellow expansion draft-related acquisitions Marchessault and Smith. After scoring 43 goals two seasons prior, Karlsson seems to have transitioned more into a playmaker. His 31 assists in 63 games nearly matched his 82-game production the year before. He remains a strong two-way forward who doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses to his game, even on defence. That’s not the case with Marchessault, who is purely an offensive weapon (though he’ll throw the body a bit). His 22 goals in 2019-20 could have been higher, as he had bad puck luck with the fourth-lowest rebound finishing in the league. Smith remains a solid all-around forward who can score (27 goals in 2019-20) as well as shut down an opponent’s power play.
A fairly veteran group except for the 21-year-old Glass. The sixth overall pick in 2017, the Golden Knights took their time with the young centre and let him develop with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. He got in 39 NHL games last season and held his own with five goals and seven assists, but more will be expected out of him this season. Tuch, in theory, could help Glass’s numbers. However, Tuch regressed offensively last season after his 2018-19 20 goal, 32 assist output, while remaining solid on defense. To Glass’s left is Roy, who did well enough in 28 games to earn 20 playoff starts. The 24-year-old shows promise as a responsible two-way forward.
Carrier never met an opponent he didn’t love to hit. After an astounding 277 hits in 54 games in 2018-19, his numbers dropped to a still-impressive 211 in 71 games. Reaves is even more physical than Carrier, with over 300 hits in each of the last two seasons. An old school enforcer and proficient chirper, Reaves has become a fan favorite in Vegas. Fellow expansion draftee Nosek is a two-way centre who’s good at faceoffs.
Nic Hauge — Zach Whitecloud
These pairings are not set in stone. DeBoer will likely change Pietrangelo’s defensive partner multiple times as he tries to find the best fit for the elite defender. Early signs point to McNabb at least starting the season alongside Pietrangelo. He is one of the league’s elite offensive defenders, and he more than holds his own on defence. McNabb is a defensive-minded defender who can also contribute on offense. Martinez could also figure into the Pietrangelo partner equation, assuming he’s not traded. He’s more of an offensive defenceman than McNabb. Vegas may want to keep Theodore away from Pietrangelo to have two of the NHL’s elite anchoring two separate pairings. Theodore is much like a right-handed version of Pietrangelo: supremely gifted on offence, more than capable of defence.
Whitecloud emerged as a solid bottom-pairing defender last season and is the only other right-handed shot besides Pietrangelo. Holden was surprisingly put on waivers at the end of training camp and Hauge will get a shot on the bottom pair. Hauge was up-and-down last season in 38 games. However, he is only 22 years old and he Whitecloud will be a young pairing that should get decent minutes. Dahlstrom, acquired in the Stastny trade, has 64 NHL games between the Blackhawks and Jets and profiles as a defense-minded defender.
Extra — Oscar Dansk
After the controversy in the playoffs, it appears Lehner and Fleury are ready to split time this season. Lehner proved his 2018-19 resurgence wasn’t a fluke in Chicago, posting a .918 SV% with a sub-par Blackhawks team. Lehner only got three regular-season games with the Knights after the trade, then dazzled in the playoffs with a .917 SV% in 16 starts, including four shutouts. Fleury was the subject of trade rumours this offseason. He continued a steady decline from his first Vegas season, falling to a .905 SV% in 49 games. That led to the trade for Lehner and just four starts in the playoffs. His $7 million cap hit isn’t ideal for a team squeezing every penny to fit Pietrangelo, but he remains a fan favorite regardless. Dansk is the most likely taxi squad goaltender. The 26-year-old posted a 2.57 GAA and .908 SV% in 36 games with the Chicago Wolves last season.
Players to Watch
This was obvious, right? He comes to Vegas with a Stanley Cup, leadership experience, and a Norris Trophy pedigree. Pietrangelo also brings heightened expectations to not justify his contract, but also justify moving Stastny and Schmidt to accommodate him. How good can he be in Las Vegas? He has dynamic offensive weapons in the top six, and a group of solid defencemen alongside him. He handled the pressure of being a captain in St. Louis, and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles it in the desert.
He’s here to stay. Glass will quarterback the third line for the Golden Knights, and there’s room for him to move up. Stephenson will get the first shot at top-line minutes, but Glass has the pedigree to be a top-six center himself, and Golden Knights fans expect him and Karlsson to anchor the top two lines for years to come. It’s time for Glass to shine, and a solid start could have him in the top six sooner than later.
Prediction for the 2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights
The 2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights are set up for success right now. Pietrangelo and Theodore are two of the absolute best offensive defencemen in the game, and offence is filled with proven point producers. Lehner and Fleury should form one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, as this will likely be a 1A/1B situation. Of course, injuries could change their fortunes, but the team’s floor should still be good enough to get them in the playoffs. Their best wins the West Division and makes them as good of a bet as any to lift the team’s first Stanley Cup.