Keeping Cup at top of Vegas Golden Knights’ to-do list

Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
The Stanley Cup champions returned to work Thursday to open training camp after a short summer celebrating the franchise's first NHL title.

LAS VEGAS — Once they were among the 31 hunters. Now, they are the hunted. The object of every opponent’s desires.

How will the Vegas Golden Knights handle success? Will winning the Stanley Cup leave them hungry for more? Or will they accept the satisfaction of having fulfilled their owner’s prophecy and cede the celebration to another NHL team?

Of course, the players, coach and management will tell you it’s the former. The Knights want to keep the Cup in Vegas, hang another banner in the T-Mobile Arena rafters and be willing to trade a short off-season for another tour with Lord Stanley.

“I believe that’s our goal, to win the Cup,” coach Bruce Cassidy said after Day 1 of training camp Thursday at City National Arena. “We’ve got a lot of players who are back. We’re in a good position to repeat. We have as good a chance as anybody. I’m not saying that to be arrogant. But we believe we can repeat.”

But as we know, talking about it is one thing. Doing it is actually a far different matter. Ask Alec Martinez. Ask Alex Pietrangelo and Ivan Barbashev. Ask Chandler Stephenson. All had won the Cup previously with other teams only to come up short in the quest to repeat.

As Freddie Roach, the Hall of Fame boxing trainer likes to say, “It ain’t easy.”

“Obviously, you want to repeat,” said Stephenson, who won his Cup with Washington in 2018. “It’s very hard. Your recovery time isn’t enough. But it is what it is. You can’t change it. You’ve got to be mentally tough, grind out the year and give yourself the best possible chance to win it.”

Martinez, who won twice while in Los Angeles in 2012 and 2014 but failed to repeat both times, said the mindset never changes. 

“There’s no singular message,” Martinez said of trying to repeat. “It’s understood that the Stanley Cup is the pinnacle. We’ve got a lot of guys in here who know we’re going to have a target on our back and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

So many things have to fall right for any team to skate with the Cup in June. You’ve got to survive injuries. You’ve got to have your top players deliver. You need some luck. And even then, nothing is guaranteed.

The Golden Knights managed to do it for all the above reasons. They stayed relatively injury-free during the postseason, save for goaltender Laurent Brossoit’s playoff-ending injury in the second round against Edmonton. Their top players — Pietrangelo, Stephenson, Jonathan Marchessault, Jack Eichel and Mark Stone all came through at key times. Cassidy did a masterful job behind the bench and yes, the Knights got somewhat lucky when Matthew Tkachuk, the Florida Panthers’ star center, was playing hurt and eventually inoperable come Game 5 of the Final.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon’s plan was to keep the band together and try and get a little younger with the roster. Reilly Smith was sent to Pittsburgh so Barbashev could stay on the top line with Eichel and Marchessault. Adin Hill, who delivered in net after taking over for Brossoit, was rewarded with a two-year, $4.9 million AAV deal. Brett Howden remained in Vegas while Teddy Blueger didn’t. Cassidy moved around his staff, giving his blessing to Ryan Craig to be head coach of the AHL affiliate in Henderson, bringing in former Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme and elevating Joel Ward from the Silver Knights’ staff to join him and John Stevens on the Vegas bench.

“There’s so many things that have to go right,” McCrimmon said Thursday. “You watched the team on June 13 and you saw what a long road it took to get there.

“Yes, it’s tough to repeat. But I always say every team runs it’s own race and I’m excited about this group.”

So while McCrimmon’s “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy looks good on paper, it doesn’t guarantee anything. The Pacific Division is going to be better. Everyone is a year older. There’s still a forward spot open on William Karlsson’s line. 

“Last year at this time, we were adjusting to a new (coaching) staff and a new system,” Martinez said. “Now, we didn’t have to worry about that as most everyone knows what to expect. That’s important.

“You look around the room and everyone worked hard to get back in shape. It’s a little bit of a different summer. You think about last year and this year. It’s a difference between 16 weeks of training compared to seven or eight. Guys approached it the right way. And now we know what it takes to win.”

Five things to watch

As training camp begins at City National Arena and the preseason gets underway Sunday in San Jose vs. the Erik Karlsson-less Sharks, here are five things to keep an eye on as we head to opening night and the raising of the Stanley Cup banner Oct. 10 at T-Mobile.

1. Who takes Smith’s place on William Karlsson’s line?

Is it Paul Cotter? Is it Pavel Dorofeyev? Is it Brendan Brisson? Is it Max Comtois? You can make a case for each of them. You’ve got Cotter’s grit, which Cassidy loves. You’ve got Dorofeyev’s overall ability and can fit in with Karlsson, which he showed for a brief time before getting hurt. You’ve got the raw talent of Brisson, a former first-round draft pick who has not made the kind of progress to earn him a spot in the NHL. And there’s the experience of Comtois, who was projected to be a rising star in Anaheim but who faltered and fell out of favor with Ducks management and is looking for a fresh start.

I’m expecting Dorofeyev to make a strong push and Comtois to be in the conversation. Both took part in the optional captain’s practices prior to the start of training camp and both impressed their teammates with their energy and skill. Cotter was in this position last year and he wound up making the team with a strong preseason. He’s going to be in the mix as well.

“The players will decide who gets that spot,” Cassidy said. “It’s going to be an interesting competition for sure.”

2. Who’s the starting goalie on Opening Night?

Is it Hill, the playoff hero? Or will it be Logan Thompson, who had a great first half of the season, became an all-star, then got hurt and never really regained his form, re-injuring himself late in the season upon his return.

Thompson says he’s 100 recent and ready to go. I think Cassidy trusts him when he’s in net. Hill, who had never played more than 25 games in a season prior to appearing in 27 for the Knights last year, will likely be asked to play substantially more.

In today’s NHL, goalies don’t play 65-70 games a year anymore. I think you’ll see a more equitable split between Thompson and Hill, who are good friends and won’t shy away from some healthy internal competition.

“I don’t know how it will shake out, but one thing I know and that’s one goalie is not playing 60 games,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know how the split will wind up but there’ll be plenty of work for both LT and Adin.”

3. Speaking of goalies, what’s the latest with Robin Lehner?

Ah yes, the snake farmer. He remains on LTIR and is owned $5 million for each of the next two years. He hasn’t been seen on the ice in Vegas in quite a while and I wouldn’t expect him to be with the team this coming season.

He has had surgery on both his hips and his shoulder. He is 32 years old and he’s dealing with off-the-ice business issues where he is being sued for two different ventures.

It was telling that when the Knights won Game 5 and celebrated winning the Stanley Cup that Lehner was nowhere to be found. Even injured players like Brossoit, Thompson, Cotter and Dorofeyev dressed up to skate with the Cup and join in the party. That speaks volumes as to where Lehner is and the obvious disconnect between he and the team.

Even more telling is that of the 63 players, including six goaltenders on the Knights’ training camp roster, Lehner’s name is nowhere to be found. McCrimmon confirmed that was the case in his opening remarks Thursday and didn’t elaborate.

Could he be traded? Perhaps. Maybe he shows he’s healthy and there’s a team that needs an experienced goalie at the trade deadline and McCrimmon can move him. But the likelihood is he remains with the Golden Knights, stays on LTIR and collects his $5 million not to play. So don’t look for Lehner on the ice in Vegas anytime soon, if ever again. 

4. Will Jack Eichel build on his 2022-23 success?

Assuming he stays healthy and assuming his linemates Marchessault and Barbashev remain productive, there’s no reason to think Eichel won’t continue his upward trajectory with the Knights. He had 27 goals and 66 points in 67 games last year. But he really stood out in the playoffs. His first appearance in the postseason resulted in his leading all scorers with six goals and 26 points. In other words, he came through in the clutch.

Eichel has become a more complete player under Cassidy, who essentially called him out last December demanding he be responsible in his own end of the ice. Eichel accepted the coach’s challenge, got better defensively and was taking and winning faceoffs in his own end late in games during the playoffs, a true sign of respect from Cassidy.

The Knights’ top line has a nice chemistry working and Eichel, the consummate playmaker, is a big reason for that.

5. Will defenseman Shea Theodore get comfortable playing Cassidy’s system?

Cassidy demands his D-men play a certain way, forcing opposing forwards to the perimeter and protecting the middle. It’s great for the goaltenders when it works but it takes some adjusting if you’re a defenseman.

Veterans like Pietrangelo and Martinez needed time to adjust and Theodore, a gifted skater who has a tremendous shot, didn’t appear totally comfortable. It wasn’t until late in the postseason that he seemed his old self.

He should build off that performance in the Final and playing alongside familiar partner Brayden McNabb should allow Theodore to not have to think so much and play with instinct. When he’s doing that, he’s at his best.