Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where 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 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights.
2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights continued their superb entry into the NHL with yet another brilliant season. In only their fourth year in the league, the Golden Knights finished in a tie for the lead league in points, lead the entire league in goal differential, and remained firmly atop the NHL’s upper echelon.
Despite the franchise’s relative infancy, they’ve almost done it all: attract star players, finish atop the NHL standings, battle it out in winner-take-all Game 7’s, and even make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Of course, their list of accomplishments still lacks the most important one of all, the Stanley Cup.
For the second year in a row, the Golden Knights were ousted just one round shy of the Stanley Cup Finals. This time, it was the Montreal Canadiens and their Cinderella run who ultimately sent the Knights home.
It was yet another illustrious tease to conclude an otherwise immaculate season.
One of the signature features of the Golden Knights franchise is their lack of fear when it comes to making bold moves. They didn’t shy away from that mantra this off-season when they traded away franchise goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, to the Chicago Blackhawks.
That move marked only the second time in NHL history that a Vezina Trophy winner was traded away in the same year they won the award. It was a difficult but necessary sacrifice for a team with a tight salary cap situation.
In addition to the Fleury trade, Vegas made a few other moves to round out their roster. The Knights traded for centre Nolan Patrick and winger Evgeni Dadonov in an effort to rebuild their bottom-six forward group. They also signed free agent goaltender Laurent Brossoit, who replaces Fleury to work in tandem with Robin Lehner.
Lastly, defenceman Alec Martinez was re-upped by the club, ensuring that Vegas’ entire top-six defence remained unchanged.
Mattias Janmark – Nolan Patrick – Evgeny Dadonov
The top six for the Golden Knights is entirely the same as it was one year ago.
At the head of the table is the top line of Chandler Stephenson, Mark Stone, and Max Pacioretty. These three will look to continue their success, following a great year.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the trio spent over 400 even-strength minutes together last season. In that time, they dominated shot share, possession, and goals. They carved out a Fenwick For percentage of 56.2 percent, an Expected Goals For percentage of 56.7 percent, and a whopping actual goal differential of +21. Pure dominance.
The second line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith was almost as good. They too dominated possession and shot share in their 500 plus minutes of even-strength ice-time together, while also coming out ahead in terms of actual goals scored. An unusually low on-ice shooting percentage of just under eight percent likely prevented them from even better results.
The Golden Knights may struggle a bit in terms of scoring come playoff time, but in the regular season, their top six are collectively among the best in the league.
The bottom six is where the Golden Knights look quite a bit different heading into this season. Evgeny Dadonov and Nolan Patrick enter the mix as fresh faces, and Mattias Janmark will start the season with the team after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline.
The question is, how well will the new acquisitions gel?
Dadonov has shown an ability to score goals in the past, tallying 25 or more in three of his last four seasons with the Florida Panthers. This is in addition to consistently impressive shot share numbers, especially relative to his teammates. You can see why Vegas would want a player like him in their bottom six.
Patrick and Janmark are a bit more questionable. Patrick never lived up to his second overall draft pedigree in Philadelphia, leaving plenty of potential on the table. Janmark, on the other hand, lacks this potential and has a history of lesser play compared to his teammates. Both players enter the season as major question marks.
The Knights don’t necessarily need an above-average bottom six to be the top team in the Pacific, but it would certainly be a boost.
Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo
The 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights have an exceptional defence. This was evident last year when they lead the league in goals against, surrendering only 124. That was four goals less than the second-place New York Islanders, who are vaunted for their rigid defensive system.
Good news then for Vegas, who will run the exact same top four. Pietrangelo, last season’s prime free-agent acquisition, remains the leader of this squad, with Theodore providing the offensive specialty behind him. Martinez and McNabb aren’t stars, but they have proven chemistry with the big guns.
Slice and dice these four any way you want, no matter the combination, they come out ahead.
It isn’t just the top four that make Vegas’ defence special, it’s their third pairing guys as well. Zach Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague return after spending more than 530 largely successful minutes together last season.
Together, these two emerged north of 50 percent in terms of shot share and scoring chances, with a rock-solid goal differential of +10.
It should be noted that according to Puck IQ, these two played over half of those minutes against the opponent’s weakest competition. It’s not exactly like they went against the murderer’s row. Still, they managed to emerge victorious against those who they were matched up against, and for a bottom pair, that’s all you can ask.
Fleury is gone after an all-world season, which leaves the reigns largely to Lehner. Rounding out the duo is newcomer Laurent Brossoit, fresh off of a stint in Winnipeg.
Lehner certainly didn’t have the calibre of season that Fleury did last year, but according to Money Puck, he was still in the upper third of goaltenders in terms of goals saved above expected and save percentage above expected.
As for Brossoit, he has been more of a middle-of-the-pack goalie in these metrics, over the last couple of seasons. In Winnipeg, he had the benefit of playing backup to one of the league’s best goalies in Connor Hellebuyck, behind a talented group of defencemen. He’ll get a similar draw here, albeit with a better roster than the one in Manitoba.
Players to Watch
This is a player worth keeping an eye on if only for the tease of what his ceiling could be. As a second overall pick, he should be a better player than he has shown. He’ll have every opportunity to prove that in Vegas.
With a much better supporting cast, he could emerge as a bright spot for the Golden Knights.
Theodore is an excellent defenceman and looks to get better with each passing year. He is coming off his best season in terms of points per game, with 42 points in 53 games. That’s roughly a 65-point pace over the course of an 82-game season.
Not only that, but he managed a +28 rating in the process. Plus/minus isn’t a perfect stat, but with a jaw-dropping total like +28, it shows that Theodore isn’t sacrificing defence for offence.
With the Olympics coming up in February, and Theodore having an excellent opportunity to make Canada’s team, it isn’t far-fetched to believe that this season could be his best yet.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights
Despite the loss of Fleury, this team remains elite. Almost every other key cog of last season’s excellence returns, and with them, another year of valuable experience under their belt.
The 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights will return to the Pacific Division this season, a division that many are predicting to be one of the weakest. Their stiffest competition will likely be the Oilers and possibly the Kraken or Canucks. By and large, though, this team remains a cut above the rest.
Look for Vegas to make yet another run at the President’s Trophy, win the Pacific Division, and embark on another long playoff run.
Is the fifth season the charm to win Lord Stanley’s Cup?