The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off the most remarkable first season in the history of North American professional sports, winning their division and reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a team that is not going through a long building process. They’re built, and looking to duplicate their first season success.
That’s not going to be easy, since they recorded 109 points and reached the Stanley Cup Final – those are difficult thresholds to cross – but they did have some individual performances that are going to be tough to match. Their brilliant first line and starting goaltender had career-best seasons with favourable percentages, so regression could knock some of those results down a few pegs. At the same time, the Golden Knights, as a team, weren’t riding outrageously favourable percentages. They ranked 11th in PDO and had Top-10 possession stats, so they weren’t necessarily walking a statistical tight rope.
At the same time, this expansion team that reached the finals goes into this summer with boatloads of cap room, and an expectation to keep the good times going, so don’t be surprised if they are big players in trades and/or free agency this summer. If there's one thing to know about GM George McPhee, it's that he knows how to weaponize his cap space in deals with the rest of the league. It served Vegas well last season, and puts them in good position heading into this summer.
George McPhee/Gerard Gallant
William Karlsson – Wild Bill scored all of six goals in 81 games during the 2016-17 season, then landed the first-line centre job in Vegas and scored 43 goals.
Marc-Andre Fleury – The Golden Knights made a deal to make sure that their expansion team would have a proven goaltender, and while Fleury missed time with a concussion, he also finished with a career-best .927 save percentage in the regular season and was the Conn Smythe front-runner through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Jonathan Marchessault – Gift-wrapped from the Florida Panthers, Marchessault went from being a bargain 30-goal scorer into premier playmaker, going for a career-high 75 points in 77 games.
Luca Sbisa – He only played 30 games, and his 14 points did count as the second-best total of his career, but the 28-year-old defenceman had the second-worst relative possession numbers (-9.5 CFRel%) among defencemen with at least 400 5-on-5 minutes.
Tomas Tatar – Brought in to offer secondary scoring, and as insurance for the potential desparture of pending free agent wingers David Perron and James Neal, Tatar had six points in 20 regular-season games, then spent much of the playoffs in the press box, contributing two points in eight games.
Cody Eakin – It’s not as though the 27-year-old had a disastrous first season in Vegas, but while many players on the team took advantage of new opportunities, Eakin saw his ice time drop by a couple of minutes per game and he had negative shot and goal differentials.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
It didn’t take long for the Golden Knights to realize that they wanted Jonathan Marchessault to be a part of their long-term plan, as the 27-year-old had a tremendous season. While he did score 75 points and generated nearly 3.5 shots on goal per game, Marchessault also had an on-ice shooting percentage of 10.6%, and that’s likely to regress in the future. Nevertheless, it looks like the Golden Knights found a valuable player that may not have been fully appreciated in previous stops because, well, he’s not tall.
Not only did Vegas make out of their expansion dealings by getting Marchessault from Florida, they also secured the services of Reilly Smith, their other first-line winger. He had a career-high 60 points in 67 games and, as usual, had strong possession numbers. He’s a complementary player, but a good one who can play in all situations.
After scoring two power-play goals in 266 games with the Minnesota Wild, Erik Haula became a fixture on the Vegas power play, scoring a dozen goals with the man advantage, on his way to a career-high 29 goals and 55 points. It’s worth noting that, even with such a productive season, he had an on-ice save percentage of .893, and Vegas was outscored 59-47 during 5-on-5 play with Haula on the ice.
Rookie winger Alex Tuch showed flashes of brilliance and emerged as a significant contributor. He has a rare combination of size, speed and skill and if he gets a bigger opportunity next season, he should end up with more than 15 goals.
Although it was the fourth straight season in which Tomas Tatar scored at least 20 goals, his 34 points was a career-low, and he certainly fell out of favour with his new team in the playoffs. It would not come as a huge shock for the Golden Knights to cut bait on Tatar and move him out, but he has a track record as a solid secondary scorer, and should be able to provide that in Vegas next season.
Veteran centre Cody Eakin didn’t necessarily take advantage of an opportunity with this expansion team, and he struggled (-3.8 CFRel%, 32 GF, 43 GA), but he was their best face-off option and provided serviceable depth down the middle of the ice. For the price, it’s reasonable to hope for better.
One of Vegas’ strengths was having a competent fourth line, and that included Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had a modest 16 points, but positive on-ice shot and goal metrics.
Claimed on waivers from San Jose, Ryan Carpenter went from a player who couldn’t crack the Sharks lineup to a consistent part of the Vegas roster, scoring nine goals in 36 regular-season games and dressing for 17 playoff games. As more young players are ready to compete for jobs Carpenter will still be in a battle to secure a full-time spot in the lineup.
Twenty-six-year-old Oscar Lindberg ended the year on the outside looking in at the lineup more often than not in the playoffs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Golden Knights looked to move him in the off-season. If he sticks around, though, he’s a versatile player who can fill a variety of roles in the bottom six.
There are few individual stories from last season that are more remarkable than that of William Karlsson, a low-scoring third-line centre for Columbus who turned into a star after scoring 43 goals and 78 points as the Golden Knights’ number one centre. He was riding favourable percentages, including a league-leading 23.4% shooting percentage, so any reasonable expectation for Karlsson next season will include a significant regression, but if he scores 20 goals and everything else remains about the same, he would still be a very valuable player. All of that will have to go in the hopper when Vegas negotiates a new deal for the restricted free agent.
Like Bellemare, Tomas Nosek was a solid fourth-line presence for Vegas. He has played a total of 17 games for Detroit before the expansion draft, but the 25-year-old played a reliable game.
Though he scored just one goal in 37 games, William Carrier brought a physical presence to the lineup – he has 225 hits in limited ice time over 78 career games.
The Golden Knights have a few prospects that could be ready to play next year. Cody Glass, last year’s sixth overall pick, could make the jump from the WHL, and 25-year-old Tomas Hyka had 48 points in 50 AHL games, so there are some possible reinforcements even before Vegas dips into trade or free agent possibilities.
John Tavares would obviously be a worthwhile target in free agency, and the Golden Knights could pursue trades, though they don’t have picks in the first or third round this year, which makes it difficult to make any draft pick deals offering current value. They do have six picks in the first three rounds next year, though, so there is some trade currency available, just not so much this year.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
Nate Schmidt went from his place on the lineup bubble in Washington to the No. 1 defenceman’s role in Vegas and while he didn’t control play to the same extent, Schmidt’s skating and puck-moving ability allowed him to thrive while playing big minutes. He’s a bargain for one more year, and will be eligible to sign an extension after July 1.
Hometown hero Deryk Engelland was a resident even before he was acquired by the Golden Knights and the 36-year-old may have had the best year of his career. He played a career-high 20:17 per game and put up a career-best 23 points, though he still was outshot by a significant margin. He earned a new contract for next season, but the Golden Knights will know they are making progress on the blueline if Engelland isn’t asked to handle quite so many minutes.
An undersized puck-mover who had bounced around from Edmonton to St. Louis to Nashville before landing in Vegas, Brad Hunt was effective in 45 games for the Golden Knights. 12 of his 18 points came on the power play, so he has a clear area of strength, but is still battling for a regular job.
Like Schmidt, Brayden McNabb went from an inconsistent role in Los Angeles to the first pair in Vegas, and McNabb’s physical presence made him a strong complement to Schmidt. They were battling to stay even in terms of shots, but had a positive goal differential and didn’t give up a lot of high-quality chances.
Although he was limited to a part-time role with the Golden Knights, Jon Merrill was relatively effective in the role. He may not have a regular spot next year, either, but would be useful depth or a modest trade chip.
As a part-time player in Boston, Colin Miller had shown his ability to skate and a booming shot, and the Golden Knights found a perfect role for him on their third pair and power play, leading to a breakthrough season for the 25-year-old blueliner.
Something strange was going on at the start of last season with Shea Theodore, the talented 22-year-old who ended up in the AHL while the Golden Knights’ roster was overrun by defencemen on NHL contracts. He put up 11 points in eight AHL games to earn his return to the big club and played well in a puck-moving role, averaging more than 20 minutes per game. He’s a restricted free agent, but without arbitration rights, so Vegas may be able to use some leverage to keep his next deal reasonable.
While the Golden Knights might have some prospects capable of filling in, if necessary, there is certainly the possibility that Vegas will take a bigger swing on the blueline this summer. They were reported to be in on a deal for Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson before the trade deadline, and if not that Karlsson, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see George McPhee go back to Washington for free agent blueliner John Carlson. The Golden Knights have tons of cap space and if they want a defenceman with more pedigree that option could be available to them this summer.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2018-19 CAP|
If there is a note of caution to exercise about the Golden Knights going into next season, it has be surrounding goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who had the best year of his career at 33-years-old. The game looks awfully different when your goaltender is on top of his game as opposed to hanging around league average or below and, last season, Fleury was on top of his game. He also has one year left on his contract, so he would be eligible for an extension this summer.
When Vegas picked up Malcolm Subban on waivers from Boston, they made no bones that they didn’t think he was ready to play in the NHL immediately, but that his long-term potential was the impetus for the move. He turned out to be decent in the backup role, but the question is whether the 24-year-old can develop into a starting-calibre netminder.
|Cody Glass||C||64||37||65||102||+42||Portland (WHL)|
|Erik Brannstrom||D||44||2||13||15||-3||HV71 (SHL)|
|Nick Suzuki||C||64||42||58||100||+30||Owen Sound (OHL)|
|Nicolas Hague||D||67||35||43||78||+2||Mississauga (OHL)|
|Nikita Gusev||LW||54||22||40||62||+25||SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)|
|Jake Leschyshyn||C||64||18||22||40||-12||Regina (WHL)|
|Philip Holm||D||63||12||26||38||-8||Chicago (AHL)|
|Jack Dugan||LW||54||31||35||66||-3||Chicago (USHL)|
|Maksim Zhukov||G||53||.909||Green Bay (USHL)|
|Jonas Rondbjerg||C||35||6||5||11||+8||Vaxjo HC (SHL)|
|Tomas Hyka||RW||50||15||33||48||0||Chicago (AHL)|
|Oscar Dansk||G||20||.918||Chicago (AHL)|
|Zac Leslie||D||53||6||16||22||+2||Chicago (AHL)|
|Jake Bischoff||D||69||7||16||23||+23||Chicago (AHL)|
|Ben Jones||C||68||30||49||79||+8||Niagara (OHL)|
No first-round pick.
The Golden Knights have approximately $48.5M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 17 players.
Two top-nine forwards, one defenceman
WHAT I SAID THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS NEEDED LAST YEAR
Tomas Tatar, Oscar Lindberg, Jon Merrill
PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Jonathan Marchessault||William Karlsson||Reilly Smith|
|Tomas Tatar||Erik Haula||Alex Tuch|
|Ryan Carpenter||Cody Glass||Bobby Ryan*|
|Tomas Nosek||Cody Eakin||Pierre-Edouard Bellemare|
|William Carrier||Oscar Lindberg||Tomas Hyka|
|Gage Quinney||T.J. Tynan||Teemu Pulkkinen|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Brayden McNabb||Erik Karlsson*||Marc-Andre Fleury|
|Nate Schmidt||Colin Miller||Malcolm Subban|
|Shea Theodore||Deryk Engelland||Oscar Dansk|
|Brad Hunt||Philip Holm|
|Griffin Reinhart||Zach Whitecloud|
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org