Update: On July 23 in the early evening, the Golden Knights and Maple Leafs agreed to a trade. Vegas acquired goaltender Garret Sparks in exchange for David Clarkson (LTIR contract) and a 2020 fourth Round draft pick.
Additionally, the Golden Knights announced a new deal with defenseman Deryk Engelland for one year at a $700k cap hit. The contract holds a potential total value of $1.5 million with performance bonuses.
Heading into next season, the Golden Knights have two forward lines worthy of the “first line” designation. Going into their third season together, the top line looks to remain William Karlsson centering Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, thanks to the eight-year, $47.2 million deal signed by Wild Bill this summer. Pushing that trio, will MOST LIKELY be Paul Stastny flanked by Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, operating as “Line Two” or more appropriately, “Line 1B”.
Ever-intense, Mark Stone is a huge addition to the team (USA Today Sports)
MOST LIKELY? What gives?
As many of you already know, there is a Russian superstar waiting for a contract, with money the Golden Knights do not yet have to offer him. Nikita Gusev reportedly wants a contract carrying an AAV of $4 million and Line 1B has an unusually high payroll. That line alone makes a whopping $23 million, which accounts for 28% of the $81.5 million salary cap. This line could potentially be seen by General Manager George McPhee as an area where costs can be cut. Moving a guy like Pacioretty and his $7 million cap hit could create money and a roster spot for the offensively gifted Gusev, but deciding if it would make the team better is the million dollar question.
Will the Gusev saga ever end? (USA Today Sports)
A far more digestible route would be moving the contracts of Nick Holden and/or Ryan Reaves to save cap space for Gusev, but how many GMs are really lining up for their services? Reaves has been more than serviceable to the Golden Knights, but at his $2.75 million AAV, his contract isn’t ideal for a cash strapped league. As of now, the third line projects to be Cody Eakin between Brandon Pirri and Alex Tuch. Depending on the corresponding move, Gusev would more than likely slot into Pirri’s spot as LW-3.
Pirri inexplicably was brought back on a two-year deal, carrying a miniscule cap hit of $775k. After his hot start upon NHL promotion and subsequent lack of utilization, it was all but guaranteed that he would receive a slew of offers for a more secure NHL job. Seeing him back with the Golden Knights pleases many, but it will only work if he gets consistent playing time. Adding Gusev to the mix, short of opening a top-six slot for one of the two, will not be beneficial to Mr. Pirri.
Currently, Bovada has the Golden Knights as an 11/1 odd to win the 2019-20 Stanley Cup. The only teams favored more than the Golden Knights are the Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic Division) and Toronto Maple Leafs (Atlantic). Another Atlantic Division club is handicapped at 11/1 and that is last season’s runners-up, the Boston Bruins. According to Bovada, which takes bets placed into account, Vegas is the favorite in the Western Conference and will meet an Atlantic Division foe in their second finals appearance in three seasons of existence.
With such lofty expectations, let’s look at realistic ceilings for each of the Golden Knights’ projected full-time players. For the sake of this article, I will be operating with the following lineup, due to contract status, gut feeling, salary cap implications, and information given by the team over the summer.
Marchessault – Karlsson – Smith
Pacioretty – Stastny – Smith
Pirri – Eakin – Tuch
Carrier – Nosek – Zykov
McNabb – Theodore
Schmidt – Engelland
Merrill – Hague
Fleury – Subban
Marchessault (center) and Smith (right) have chemistry (USA Today Sports)
In their first two seasons together, these men have racked up the following stat lines:
Marchessault: 159 GP with 52 goals, 82 assists, and 134 points
Karlsson: 164 GP with 67 goals, 67 assists, and 134 points
Smith: 141 GP with 41 goals, 72 assists, and 113 points
Both Karlsson and Marchessault have legitimate all-star potential. Marchessault could potentially finish with his first career 30-goal season, while Karlsson and Smith continue to rack up assists. Smith does a lot of the dirty work on the wall, creating space for the two flashier players on his line. Karlsson has been a jack of all trades two years into his Golden Knights career and seems to let the game dictate his role. None of the three are strictly pass or shoot players, which makes projections hard.
Marchessault has the best shot of the group and therefore I expect him to take a step forward in terms of goal scoring. I’m all in on Marchessault and see him stepping out of Marc-Andre Fleury’s shadow this season, as the Golden Knights’ All-Star Game representative. Expect all three men to have 60 points, at minimum this season, barring health and roster deployment. Marchessault and Karlsson have 90 to 100-point potential and one or both players may push those levels this coming year.
Second (1B) Line:
Patches has already become a fan-favorite in Vegas (USA Today Sports)
This line has three players who could push their games to higher ceilings, while at the same time, may have already hit their respective peaks in terms of point production. This is not to say the three men are no good or that they are too old, it is more of a tribute to the careers they have built. All three men have seen success prior to their arrival in Vegas and will continue to produce now that they are Golden Knights.
Stastny is the eldest of the bunch, although some may think the 26-year-old Stone is, on first look. Pauly Walnuts has three 70-point seasons on his resume, with a high of 79 during the 2009-10 season, in his earlier years, with the Colorado Avalanche. Since then, he has consistently lingered between 40 and 60 points per season. He only played 50 games last season and managed 42 points, so another 70-point campaign may not be out of the question, but can he stay healthy at 33-years-old?
Stastny seems to be happy as a Golden Knight (USA Today Sports)
Both Stone and Pacioretty are dynamic offensive players, who will benefit from flanking a responsible two-way player and excellent passer in Stastny. Stastny’s career total of 455 assists could push the 500 mark this season with such talented wingers.
Pacioretty is a multi-time 30-goal scorer, including a consecutive four-year stretch from 2013-2017, with some good and not so good Montreal Canadiens clubs. With a competent scorer in Stone on the opposite wing, 30-goals may be too lofty of a goal, but I believe it is an accurate ceiling for Patches. He will get plenty of power play opportunities and if the Golden Knights take a step forward in that aspect of the game, he’s sure to be a benefactor.
Stone on the other hand is just waiting to break out as a bona fide superstar, now that he is out of Ottawa. Last year the Selke finalist put up a combined 73 points in 77 games, with 59 of those games played with the lowly Senators. His scoring rates actually dropped upon his arrival in Vegas, with just five goals and six assists in 18 games, but expect that total to ramp back up with a full season in the grey and gold. He will establish himself as “the man” on that line, with most of the offense running through him. His offensive excellence combined with a lethal defensive game will create tons of opportunities for the newest Knight. He could join Marchessault on Team Pacific at the 2020 All-Star Game.
Expect Cody Eakin back, centering the third line (USA Today Sports)
Projecting a full year for the previous line is MUCH easier than anticipating a full season of Pirri-Eakin-Tuch on line three. First off, these three haven’t played a full season together. They haven’t even played a full month together as a unit. On top of that, all three men have wide-ranging potential outcomes, bordering either great or god-awful. Such a swing is more likely for Tuch and Pirri than the consistently solid Eakin, but as a unit, they could potentially be the reason the Knights make/miss the playoffs or win/lose the Stanley Cup. They’re important, got it?
Once he was healthy enough, Tuch’s season started like he was shot out of a cannon. The 22-year-old power forward was the hands-down best player on the team, looking every bit of the future superstar he can be, through his first 44 games. In that stretch, Tuch lead the team in scoring (pre-Stone) and even had a nine-game point streak (3 goals, 8 assists) in late December/early January. His unique mix of size, speed, and soft hands creates a mismatch with most NHL defensemen. He finished the season with 52 points and although he has the talent to expand on that, he will be used in a smaller role this year, with Stone on the team.
It’s possible that Tuch steps up to take Smith’s spot on the right wing with the top line, an experiment already run by Head Coach Gerard Gallant for a few games last season. If that promotion doesn’t come to fruition, the third line will need to be more productive than they were down the stretch in 2019, with Tuch needing to take a bigger offensive role.
There’s no denying the potential of Alex Tuch (USA Today Sports)
Eakin is a center who is more heralded for his defense, but he has done so while compiling his fair share of points. He has topped the 40-point mark twice in his eight-year NHL career, with his first 20-goal campaign coming last season. Headed into a contract year, it’s entirely possible we see the best version of Eakin yet. Another 20-goal, 40-point season is a good target for everyone’s favorite red head.
Pirri, the pure shooter of the trio could be a great offensive player with a full season. Shooters can get very, very hot and are also susceptible to prolonged slumps, but they need to be given the time to play back into a hot streak. Pirri experienced many highs and lows last season with the Golden Knights, but ultimately ended up glued to the press box in favor of defensive-mind players. Guys like Tomas Nosek and Ryan Carpenter were used over Pirri at the end of the 2018-19 season, up until the infamous Game Seven against the San Jose Sharks.
Pirri (left) experienced some good times in 2018-19 (USA Today Sports)
When he signed his new deal this summer with the Golden Knights, he specifically mentioned his opportunity and credited Gallant, but neglected to acknowledge being relegated to the press box. At the end of last season, we spoke and Pirri said he was “looking for an opportunity” in a new deal, specifically an NHL job, and hopefully he gets it here. I’ll be bold and predict a 25-goal season for Pirri IF he gets a real full-time shot on the third line.
With Bellemare sliding to Colorado, it’s Nosek’s time (USA Today Sports)
An uninspiring unit, the fourth line is essentially made up of a hitter (Carrier), a defensive center (Nosek), and a guy with offensive upside that is limited by his role on the team (Zykov). This line is not especially exciting, especially considering the departure of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the Golden Knights’ resident fourth-line center, penalty-killer, and team leader for the past two seasons. Without Bellemare, this line lacks identity. Sure, Reaves could be used, if they made the cap work, and they could go full bully style, but the line had a better feel with Belly in the mix.
Carrier is still just 24-years-old and his eight-goal, nine-point 2018-19 season is his best of his three half seasons to date. He could hit 10 goals, but could also decide he only wants to hit, and underwhelm in terms of production. Even in the minors (AHL) and juniors (QMJHL) he was never a big point producer and probably won’t suddenly become one at the highest level of hockey in the world.
Nosek is a great penalty-killer and has some upside, but expectations should be tempered when it comes to #92. Last year, he was the talk of training camp and was expected to push for a bigger role on the team, but failed to fulfill those high hopes during the 2018-19 campaign. His 17 points were right on line with his 2017-18 season and something similar wouldn’t be a surprise. He’s going to celebrate a 27th birthday prior to the season’s start and now is the time to take a step for the fourth-liner.
As a waiver-wire, low risk gamble for the Golden Knights, Zykov shows flashes of his offensive upside, but like Pirri doesn’t get much of a chance to establish himself in the league. Zykov’s longest stretch of NHL action was 13 games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season. He also spent five games with the Edmonton Oilers and 10 games with the Golden Knights. He seems to practice well and obviously has the hands and speed to play at the NHL level, but keeps being passed over by his coaches.
Will Zykov get regular playing time? (USA Today Sports)
This fourth line isn’t one that particularly suits Zykov and he may end up with his fourth new team in four years. At just 24-years-old, Zykov could represent untapped potential being passed up by traditional “hockey men” due to his style of play. Gallant likes his team to forecheck, skate hard, hit hard, and play fast. As we have seen with Oscar Lindberg in the past, talented players can look out of sorts in Gallant’s system. Will Zykov get more action or will he be replaced by Reaves or another more grinding AHL player? Only time will tell.
Vegas’ forgotten man was fresh off a 33-goal season in the AHL in 2017-18 before bouncing around the league last season. Even in the AHL, 33 goals is nothing to scoff at and he deserves a shot, a real shot, either with the Golden Knights or a different club. He could be the missing piece to a top-nine, whereas in Vegas, he is MAYBE a fourth line fill-in. In this role, he will be lucky to get more than 10 goals in a full season, on this fourth line. It just doesn’t seem like a fit, but may need to happen, for salary cap reasons.
Thus far in Vegas, there has been a general method to the madness on the blue line. Gallant has shown a propensity for pairing a puck-moving, offensive-defenseman, with a more stay-at-home defensive player. These pairings reflect that mind set, with two returning duos from last season and a third pair featuring an AHL-defenseman making his NHL debut.
McNabb and Theodore:
On this pair, Theodore is the offense, the skater, the flashy one. He was bogged down by the all-but-officially signed Engelland for the first half of the season, but ended the year alongside the solid McNabb. With the confidence in his partner’s defensive game, Theodore could explode this season, after spending the summer with Team Canada in the IIHF World Championships (alongside Marchessault and Stone). The sky’s the limit for Theodore and he really has no ceiling at the moment. He will be fun to watch.
Shea Theodore is the player to watch this season (USA Today Sports)
McNabb on the other hand, is who he is. He can chip in at times in the offensive zone and has been clutch at times, with two game-winning goals in the past two seasons. No moment was greater than his GWG against his former LA Kings in the 2017-18 playoffs, in a series-clinching 1-0 victory. His overwhelming physical presence is big for the Golden Knights and he will rightfully continue to operate on the team’s top defense pair, as the shutdown guy. McNabb is certainly fulfilling his potential as one of my favorite picks from the 2017 Expansion Draft.
Schmidt and Engelland:
At the half-way point, Schmidt inherited Engelland as a partner and his game seemed to slip. Once seen as the star on the blue line, Schmidt is seemingly highlighting the second pair, not by his own shortcomings, but due to his anticipated partner. With McNabb on his left, Schmidt posted sparkling Corsi numbers. Down the stretch, he seemed like a completely different player alongside Engelland. Below is a comparison, thanks to Natural Stat Trick, of Schmidt and Theodore ranging back to February 1.
Schmidt’s ceiling is limited, now that he has to compensate for the less dependable Engelland. He also slid from the right side to the left, to accommodate the new pair, which may also have an effect on his game. When he is comfortable and skating up with the play, he is a dangerous player that the opposition needs to keep a watchful eye on. Hopefully he gets back to that style of play because the team will need it with the departure of offensive-defenseman Colin Miller, who was traded to the Buffalo Sabres as a salary cap casualty.
Schmidt can be very dangerous with the puck (USA Today Sports)
Merrill and Hague:
Merrill has built a loyal, defensive group of fans(USA Today Sports)
Coming off his best season with the team, Merrill is a name that excites a large section of Golden Knights fans. He was sound in his own zone and showed some of the two-way game that made him intriguing to Devils fans when he broke into the league. Merrill was incorrectly scrutinized by many in his first season and bounced back with a solid season playing alongside Miller and Nick Holden. With the younger, more well-rounded Hague expect Merrill to have another solid season. He has the ceiling of a solid second-pair defenseman.
Hague may have the highest ceiling of any Golden Knights player and not just because the young man stands a towering 6-foot-6. Last season with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, Hague collected 13 goals and 19 assists for 32 points. With the departure of Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade-deadline deal, Hague took advantage of his opportunity to shine as the team’s top defense prospect. McPhee has stated that “this looks like the year we’ll put a rookie on the blue line” and Hague has done enough to warrant that spot.
If the team brings back Hobey Baker finalist Jimmy Schuldt, Hague could have some stiff competition for the sixth spot on the defense corps. Also in the mix are Holden, Jake Bischoff, and Zach Whitecloud, but Hague remains my pick for the job. This past month, he looked like a man among boys at VGK Development Camp. Hague could be a very good two-way defenseman who possesses a big shot, with a hard-to-avoid reach in his own zone. It may be a stretch, but his career ceiling could be of a first-pair defenseman, akin to McNabb. For this coming season, I envision a handful of goals, solid play in his own zone, and an added physicality to the Vegas blue line. He will not be a weak link on the team.
Fleury remains the main-man in net (USA Today Sports)
As much as we don’t want to acknowledge it, Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t getting younger. With 439 regular season games played and another 142 playoff games, he definitely has some mileage on his body, much more than a typical 34-year-old. He still has his boyish good looks and youthful glow, but he also has lost time in each of the past two seasons due to injuries. Fortunately for the Golden Knights, they have a young, hungry Malcolm Subban waiting in the wings, who will eventually be an upper-echelon goaltender in the NHL. With a new three-year, $7 million deal kicking in this season, Fleury will continue to be the man until he no longer can.
A former first-overall draft pick (PIT-2003), Fleury has won numerous awards as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL over the past 15 years. As a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, sitting in eighth place all-time for career wins, Fleury’s resume speaks for itself. He still can carry a bad team to wins, which the Golden Knights forced him to prove more than once last season. He still plays at a high level and the only question is his health. A healthy Fleury can lead the Golden Knights on another long cup run and end up back in the Vezina discussion, an award that has eluded him thus far.
Barring any earth-shattering roster movement, the Golden Knights as constructed will be a playoff team. It’s a bit surprising to see the odds so skewed in their favor with so many question marks remaining, but their success thus far suggests more to come. They have a solid group to field top-10 power play and penalty kill units and their depth will cause fits for their opposition at five-on-five. If that third line steps up and performs to their ability, look out world, the Knights are coming. Expecting another Pacific Division/Western Conference championship season, ending with a Stanley Cup, this early on is downright crazy, but the thought that it could happen in Year Three isn't a farfetched one.
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