After their first two seasons in the National Hockey League, the Vegas Golden Knights have acquired a taste for the playoffs. With two straight Stanley Cup playoff seasons in the books, the boys in gold with be looking to make a third visit in 2019-20. Coming out of the 2017 Expansion Draft, the Vegas Golden Knights ended up with a locker room full of good players, who had something to prove. That led to a Stanley Cup Final visit and high expectations moving forward.
Many of the current VGK players were a part of that night (USA Today Sports)
Despite some significant roster turnover in the summer of 2018, the Golden Knights made another playoff appearance, losing in controversial fashion in the first round. To make it worse, they lost to their biggest rivals, the San Jose Sharks. With the way last season ended, the boys will be back, looking to make a statement in year three.
Another cup run appears to be in the cards for the Golden Knights, with the incredible amount of talent in the locker room. General Manager George McPhee has created the winning formula in Vegas with a roster of high-end forwards, defensemen with upside, and a solid starting goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury. In order to go on another deep playoff run, there are a few Golden Knights that will be integral to the team’s success.
Mark Stone, Right Wing
Mark Stone is the superstar the Golden Knights needed (USA Today Sports)
Stone is the newest Golden Knight and is quite possibly the most important player to the team. When he was acquired at last season’s trade deadline, he came in with overwhelming fanfare, as the biggest openly available asset on the market. Stone has elite-level talent and plays a great two-way game, while maintaining a strong offensive-zone presence. The Selke Award finalist’s ability to do everything well is a huge asset to the team.
Fortunately, the Golden Knights essentially have two first-line quality forward lines. When Stone’s line is clicking, the opposition will certainly have their hands full. As an expansion team, multiple great players were available, but most “superstars” were protected. Stone has the make-up of a future superstar and this could be the season he makes that jump. Playing alongside former all-stars in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny only helps his ascent.
With a guy like Stone, the sky’s the limit. He could help in all aspects of the game, including the penalty kill, with the departure of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. He uses his long reach and physical frame well and has the hands to put up big point totals. If he continues his progression from the past few seasons, Stone could get as high as 90-100 points and be in MVP contention. Stone is the budding superstar this team needs and anything less than a great season, could be crippling to a team with a few question marks in their bottom-six.
Look for Stone to top his career highs of 33 goals and 73 points this season. His line will push the top line for minutes and they will play a big role in year three. His ability to mesh with any linemates gives the team flexibility and suits a guy like Pacioretty who is more of a pure shooter. Becoming a reliable, dominant force on line two will be huge for the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup aspirations.
Deryk Engelland, Defenseman
Deryk Engelland is back for at least one more season (USA Today Sports)
Just a week ago, Engelland signed a new contract with the Golden Knights, a one-year deal, to remain with the club. At 37-years-old, his role and usage are of the utmost importance to the team. Last season was a rough one for the returning assistant captain and he will need to improve if he will be a fixture in the lineup.
While some may think the veteran is around to mentor the young guys as the seventh defenseman on the depth chart, it seems he will be a fixture in the lineup. Just last week, Jesse Granger of The Athletic spoke with Head Coach Gerard Gallant and his point of view regarding Engelland’s return was eye opening.
“I don’t expect his role to change at all. We’re not looking for a whole bunch of offense from him, but we want him to move the pluck and play the way he’s played and be a big part of our penalty kill and being on the ice for the last minute of hockey games.”
Engelland is returning from a season in which he wasn’t particularly great on the penalty kill or even in his own zone in general. As many may remember, he (along with Brayden McNabb) were on the ice for all four Sharks power play goals in their last game of the 2019 playoffs. Over the course of the regular season, he was on the ice for 32 of the 44 power play goals against for the Golden Knights.
Granted, Engelland recorded the shorthanded time on ice for the team, but that may be something to revisit this coming season. Utilizing other defensemen alongside McNabb, while pairing Engelland with Jon Merrill on the second unit, may be the way to go. Between Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, the Golden Knights have more enticing options for their top PK defense pair. One main driver of his PK usage is his willingness and ability to block shots (team-leading 152 last season), but his decreased foot speed and puck skill lend to a need for a change.
It is crucial to get the defensemen of the future – Nic Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff, and/or Jimmy Schuldt – consistent playing time in the NHL. Engelland taking on a lesser role, in let’s say 40-60 games this season, could be ideal for the Golden Knights, both in the present and the future. If having Engelland in the lineup is as invaluable to the team as they suggest, regular rest could keep the aging vet ready for another postseason visit. His leadership will be valuable to the team this season, but it is time for them to start to hand the reins over to the younger group of d-men.
A good season out of Engelland, is imminently important, if the Golden Knights want to make a long playoff run with him in the lineup. If he comes out of the gate slow, it may be wise to cut bait and get one of the Chicago Wolves in, before it’s too late. As currently constructed, this defense corps can not survive another down year from Engelland.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Goaltender
Marc-Andre Fleury remains the face of the franchise (USA Today Sports)
Stating the obvious, the Golden Knights starting goaltender having a good season, is extremely important for the team. Over the past two seasons, Fleury has stated a total of 107 regular season games, out of 164 played. Both goaltenders behind him on the depth chart have seen limited NHL game action. Flower maintaining his high level of play as he approaches his 35th birthday is imperative.
Fleury signed a new three-year contract last year, with an average annual value of $7 million. That cap hit is at the high end for goaltenders, but the three-time Stanley Cup champion has proven he is worth the investment. While 35-years-old doesn’t seem like much, Fleury has been a starting goaltender since he was drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003. He isn’t getting any younger and his game load will need to be managed moving forward.
Despite the concerns over his age, health, and usage Fleury remains one of the top goaltenders in the NHL. The sheer fact that a goaltender as young as Malcolm Subban gets to learn from him, speaks volumes for the team’s future in net. Getting Subban or the recently acquired Garret Sparks into at least 25 games this season, could help keep Fleury fresh and his successors ready for their time to take over.
Malcolm Subban is Fleury’s eventual successor (USA Today Sports)
Over the past two seasons, Fleury has put the team on his back numerous times, essentially stealing wins when the team was playing at less than their best. He still has that ability. When he is on his game, Fleury is hard to beat. Last season he racked up eight shutouts over his 61 regular season games, showing just how dominant he can still be. On an episode of Barstool Sports’ Spittin’ Chiclets podcast, former teammate and close friend of Fleury, Max Talbot, gushed over just how good Fleury is and how to keep him at his best.
”Marc-Andre is the type of guy that needs to be just relaxed and not think too much about the game.” “The best of guys. The reputation of the guy just speaks for itself. The ultimate teammate and just a guy that is so fun to play against in practice too. I have never seen a goalie and a player like Sidney Crosby and (Marc-Andre) Fleury going at it as much in practices. Sometimes they would hold practices up because Sid would wanna play his rebounds and Fleury wouldn’t give it up…..it was kind of annoying, but that’s how Fleury and Sid got better, I guess.”
Having so much experience, against the best of the best, makes Flower one of the best options in net, even at this point in his career. Another strong season from Fleury could lead the Golden Knights to another deep run.
Alex Tuch, Right Wing
Vegas’ young star must have a more consistent year (USA Today Sports)
Whether or not Nikita Gusev gets signed, whether or not Cody Eakin remains with the team amid trade rumors, the Golden Knights NEED Tuch to continue to build on the high level of play he has shown in his first two NHL seasons. Currently slotted into the third line, Tuch could not only give the Golden Knights depth up front, he could potentially put them over the top, in terms of offensive firepower.
Tuch’s unique blend of elite-level skating, size, and silky-smooth hands present a mismatch for most top defenders around the league. Playing on the third line, he will have the luxury of some softer matchups and could expose the bottom pair defensemen and bottom-sixers of the opposition. Just last season, Tuch was the team’s leading scorer through the first half of the year. He has the talent and the game to make an impact, but the acquisition of Stone pushed him down the depth chart and he never seemed to regain that first half magic.
Tuch is always willing to go to the dirty areas (USA Today Sports)
Coming into the season with clearer view of his role, can only help the 23-year-old going forward. Together with Eakin and Brandon Pirri or Gusev, Tuch could be the guy to drive a real back-breaking line. While the top units will rightfully receive their warranted, game-planned attention, Tuch’s line could be the real deciding factor night-in, night-out. Similar to Stone, the sky is really the limit with Tuch, who could be a real triple-threat (5-on-5, Power Play, Penalty Kill), if given the opportunity. There’s a reason McPhee made sure he locked up the young stud for seven years at a $4.75 million cap hit at the beginning of last season.
Tuch is one of those players who make or break a team. A strong season from Tuch, over a full season, could be all it takes to propel the team to a whole new level and quite possibly, a Stanley Cup.
Vegas benefits from playing in a division on the softer side. Aside from themselves, the Sharks, and the Flames, the Pacific Division hasn’t boasted the greatest depth in spots four through eight. Over the offseason, the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, and Edmonton Oilers have made moves to try to get back in the race, but still lack the rosters to unseat the top three. Despite their attempts at roster optimization – including the Coyotes’ addition of Phil Kessel – the Golden Knights seem to have a clear path to their third-straight top-three finish in the division.
Reilly Smith and William Karlsson (USA Today Sports)
Everyone knows the saying, “All you have to do is get in”. Well, it would be hard to imagine this team missing the playoffs and once they’re in, with the help of the aforementioned players, they could make a serious run at Lord Stanley’s cup. Year three will be an exciting one in the desert, as the Golden Knights are poised to come back, hungrier than ever, to have a chance to re-do their 2018 Stanley Cup final appearance.
Be sure to follow me on the Twitter and I will keep you up-to-date on the team’s comings and goings as we get ready for another great season of hockey!