Each for year, every team in the NHL has questions about how things will go in the upcoming season. Some have a couple of concerns, others a multitude.
In the case of the Vegas Golden Knights, there haven’t been this many questions to the start of the season since Year One, when nobody knew quite what to expect and by the end of the team’s amazing run, the growing fan base had a lot to feel good about.
Now, as the Knights prepare to drop the puck on Year Six Tuesday in Los Angeles against the improved Kings after a successful 4-2-1 preseason, questions abound about the anchor tenant of T-Mobile Arena. Is the goaltending good enough to win? Is Mark Stone going to recapture his form after having back surgery? Is Jack Eichel ready to resume his quest to be an elite NHL player? Can new coach Bruce Cassidy get the team’s previously woeful power play to work and will everyone buy in to his system?
To a lesser extent, you can wonder whether the bottom six forward group has enough offense in it to generate some scoring. You can ask if the defense, led by Alex Pietrangelo, can execute on a consistent basis to make whoever is in goal have an easier time of it. You wouldn’t be out of line in asking why management continues to be up against the salary cap and be forced to move pieces around to be compliant.
I’m not sure if the answers provided here will make sense or placate you. But here goes …
Q. Is the goaltending good enough?
To make the playoffs? Probably. To compete for the Stanley Cup. Doubtful. And that was before Robin Lehner was put on LTIR following surgery on his hip and shoulder.
Logan Thompson is the clear No. 1 and he has the right attitude to be the Knights’ guy in the crease. He’s got 20 games’ NHL experience which is obviously a small sample size. But his teammates believe in him and so does the new coach. Goaltenders usually take a while to develop and at age 25 (he’ll be 26 in late February), Thompson has been on an upward trajectory in his development. New goaltender coach Sean Burke should be able to expedite Thompson’s progress and keep him on an even keel.
Adin Hill had some good moments in the preseason as well as some signs of struggling. That would be more attributed to the play of his defensemen in front of him which wasn’t great. But he’ll be an adequate backup until Laurent Brossoit is ready, whenever that is.
Q. Is Mark Stone going to be Mark Stone?
Anytime you’re looking to resume physical activity following back surgery, there’s a number of unknowns. For the 30-year-old captain, it may be more about who he’s skating with than his actual physical condition.
Stone says he’s pain free and he appeared to move well during training camp. He is valuable to the special teams as well as his ability to play good two-way 5-on-5 hockey.
In his first two full seasons in Vegas, Stone scored 21 goals each year. If he’s playing with Chandler Stephenson and Jonathan Marchessault as Cassidy had paired him with during most of training camp, perhaps he can get into the mid-to-upper 20s when it comes to finding the back of the net. But just having him on the ice and in the dressing room to exert his leadership role makes Vegas a better team.
Q. How effective will Jack Eichel be?
Eichel had an outstanding training camp. He was skating with Reilly Smith and Phil Kessel and the trio connected right away. In four games during the preseason, Eichel scored four goals, had three assists and averaged over 16 minutes in time on ice. He was dominant at times and he appears to be picking up Cassidy’s system quickly.
For Eichel, getting to the postseason for the first time is his primary motivation and assuming he stays healthy, he gives Vegas’ power play a significant boost. Having Kessel and Smith — two veteran wingers — skating with him should also help Eichel’s numbers. Defensively, he is committed to being better and Cassidy is happy to see Eichel buying in. This bodes well for the Knights’ attempt to bounce back this season.
“I feel good,” Eichel said. “I enjoy the game. I’m most looking forward to being healthy and playing.”
Q. Is the power play really going to be better?
Could it be worse than last year? But seriously, Cassidy does have some people who can execute with the man advantage. You’ve got Eichel and Stone, Marchessault and Smith, Kessel and either Nicholas Roy or William Karlsson along with Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez. You’d like to think Vegas can go from near the bottom of the league in power play efficiency (25th) to middle of the pack.
The Bruins, Cassidy’s former team, had one of the better power play units in the NHL (ranked 15th), thanks in large part to the Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak along with Charlie McAvoy at the point. While maybe not at that same elite level as the Perfection Line, Vegas has the people to have success.
Q. Are the defense corps good enough?
They’ll need to be. Pietrangelo was having a rough training camp but showed signs of being his old self the last couple of preseason games. Martinez is a year older and at 35, he can’t be counted on to stay on the ice like he’s accustomed to. The last time he played the entire season was in 2016-17.
Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud may benefit from playing for Cassidy and at some point, the Knights will have Nic Hague available after he missed the entire training camp over a contract dispute which ended Monday as Hague signed a three-year extension with an average annual value of $2.29 million. Either Ben Hutton or Kaedan Korczak will be in the lineup Tuesday as the sixth defenseman. Hague has been skating on his own and he may be ready to join the lineup in a few days.
It’s a veteran unit and they should be a strength of this team. If they’re not, it will be a serious issue.
Q. Who was the surprise of training camp?
Obviously forward Paul Cotter was impressive and appeared to have made the team as William Carrier said he has not been cleared to play after practicing with the team Monday. But there were a couple of other surprises.
One was how quickly Kessel has fit in. The 35-year-old signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal after escaping the hot mess in Arizona and he and Eichel appear to have found a connection. He also came to camp in excellent shape ready to compete and motivated with something to prove.
“I didn’t need to adjust much,” Kessel said. “(Eichel) is a fast guy, one of the fastest in the league. He’s got all the skill in the world. I think we’ve done pretty good so far playing together.”
Karlsson has also endeared himself to Cassidy with his two-way play and while he was skating on a third line with Brett Howden, then his old Misfit linemate Marchessault along with Michael Amadio. He will play on the penalty kill and perhaps be on the ice late in games when a critical face-off needs to be won. While he probably won’t match the 43 goals he scored in the inaugural season, Karlsson should do better than the 12 he scored last season. It was the fourth straight year his productivity had dropped so his ability to have a bounce-back year will be important.
Q. Can this team stay healthy?
Who knows? But with the team up against the salary cap and already dealing with injuries (Carrier, Nolan Patrick, Lehner, Brossoit and Daniil Miramonov) losing key pieces will make it extremely difficult to have long-term success.
Last year, the Golden Knights had 508 man-games lost, fifth-highest in the NHL. If there is a repeat scenario, the playoffs could be tough to make. The division is better overall as Edmonton and Calgary are still very good, Vancouver and Los Angeles are better, Seattle will be improved and Anaheim could also show improvement. So if the Knights are serious about a postseason run, it would behoove them to stay out of the trainer’s room and the LTIR list, where Lehner, Patrick and Shea Weber are already part of. It’s what allowed the Knights to sign Hague and stay within the cap.
Q. So what’s your prediction?
I felt Peter DeBoer deserved to remain as the coach though I would have liked to have seen a shakeup of some of his staff. That said, Bruce Cassidy is an upgrade and I like the things he has done in his brief time as the Golden Knights’ head coach, the biggest being his holding himself and his players accountable every day.
Despite the tremendous amount of injuries to key personnel last year, the Knights still nearly made the playoffs. Had they not faltered in that late-season road trip which saw them fail to garner a single point against Columbus, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, they probably would have made the playoffs.
This is a veteran team, a group that has guys who have Stanley Cup rings (Kessel, Stephenson, Pietrangelo, Martinez). They should be highly motivated to playing winning hockey for a coach who also knows how to win.
The Pacific Division is better which means Vegas will need to be successful within it. The Knights will need good goaltending on a consistent basis. If they can get their top six forwards to produce offensively and get some bottom-six scoring, they will be in a position to not only make the playoffs, but perhaps win a round or two.
Owner Bill Foley had a mantra before the inaugural season — “Playoffs in three, Cup in six.” The team made him look smart for the first part. The second part? That might be a little more difficult to achieve.