Our Vegas Golden Knights 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Golden Knights are technically one of the most successful teams in NHL history. Yes, it is a small sample size, but the team has been pushing expectations out the door as they quickly became a competitive team and desired destination for some of the league’s best.
There was a surprising amount of roster turnover this past summer, with some key core players leaving the organization for a variety of reasons. Cap space has quickly become an issue. The amount of lengthy, ~$5-million per season contracts they have given out to players coming off of one decent season where everyone had career years at once is mind boggling.
Fortunately, the players who have signed these deals have, for the most part, lived up to them. But, the team has committed a lot of money to middle line players. They’ve had to make trades to free up space and forego signing some promising depth players due to cap issues. But, Kelly McCrimmon seems to understand the nuances of cap management quite well and, as the incoming GM over the summer, has managed to open up the necessary cap space to fill out the roster for the 2019-20 season.
The Golden Knights will be looking very shortly to have some prospects make the NHL roster. Sustained success when relying on free agency and trading is rare. Cody Glass is almost a guarantee to make the NHL roster to start this season. He is one of the best prospects in the entire NHL and the Golden Knights are a bit short on centre depth to start the year. The team has already dealt some of their best prospects to acquire better players, notably Nick Suzuki (in the Pacioretty deal) and Erik Brannstrom (for Mark Stone). This has left a dent in NHL-ready prospects, but the team still boasting one of the better prospect pools in the league.
It will be interesting to continue to watch the Golden Knights’ playstyle, as they were at the leading edge of the aggressive trap system we have begun to see spread across the league. With the amount of speedy, gritty, defensive minded players (forwards specifically) on the roster, the Golden Knights are able to compete with the best of them. Head coach Gerard Gallant has done an exceptional job at crafting this system that takes the old school trap style with the aggressive use of speed that is dominant in today’s game. A key component of this new school system is being able to control the pace of play through pressure and forcing the opponent to play into your system, as opposed to the previous style of sitting back and slowing the game down or waiting for the opponent to play into it.
A full season of Mark Stone leading the way among the forwards will be an amazing opportunity for him. Although he is definitely recognized as an excellent forward with and without the puck, his playstyle perfectly meshes with that of the Golden Knights. Stone will easily be able to take another step forward in his game this season as he becomes the posterboy for the Golden Knights’ style and potential future captain of the team.
The Golden Knights are led at centre by William Karlsson. The breakout star will be entering the 2019-20 season with a new contract and a chance to establish more consistency in his offensive production. In two seasons with the Knights, Karlsson has scored 43 and 24 goals. We still don’t know exactly where Karlsson’s normal level of offense will fall. But, even if his offense trends closer to the 24 goals he had last season, Karlsson’s two-way play within the Golden Knights’ system ensures he will be a valuable player.
After the acquisition of Mark Stone at the trade deadline, the Golden Knights were able to roll with a line of Max Pacioretty – Paul Stastny – Mark Stone. This combination showed early on that it has the potential to be one of the best lines in the league. Not only do they produce offensively, the trio puts up Corsi numbers to rival the best of them (including the Pastrnak – Bergeron – Marchand line in Boston). The team would be wise to continue playing these three together for the foreseeable future as their second (more like a 1B) line.
Cody Eakin may find himself sliding down the lineup a little bit with the recent acquisitions, but he is an excellent third line centre who can jump up the lineup when needed. He had a career year offensively after spending some time playing in a more offensive role, which is always nice to see out of a more defensive forward. Eakin’s offense may fall a bit this season as his role on the team switches again, but he will be relied on as a shutdown centre and penalty killer, a role he is fully capable of excelling in.
The highly touted Cody Glass is expected to make the team out of training camp. He does slot in as the fourth line centre, but his offensive instincts may find him pushing himself up the lineup in certain situations. Luckily, having two-way forwards such as Stastny and Eakin on the team will give the coaching staff the freedom to give Glass some sheltered minutes early in his career. But, don’t get me wrong, Cody is no defensive slouch either. Glass comes to the Golden Knights’ roster touted as a 200-foot forward, fitting in perfectly with the defensive-minded roster he will be joining. Much like the addition of Mark Stone, Cody Glass is the perfect type of player to excel in Vegas.
Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith are expected to resume their roles alongside William Karlsson as the team’s top line wingers. These three have been an incredibly important part of the success of the team, and are occasionally recognized as one of the top lines in the entire league. They may find the pressure on them reduced this season with the strength of the second line, so we can only expect their performance to get even better. Smith has been a determined competitor on the Golden Knights’ roster. He produces exceptionally well for a winger of his calibre and it is a result of his ability to put himself in places to score. Not to be overlooked is his reliable two-way play. (Anyone else noticing a trend with these forwards in Vegas?).
Alex Tuch will find himself pushed down the depth chart to start the season, which gives the Golden Knights another option on the third line who is capable of scoring 50 points. At the beginning of his second season, Tuch signed a pretty hefty extension for a player of his experience level. One full NHL season, 37 points, and he gets a seven-year, $33.25 million extension. It was a risky signing so early into his time in the NHL, but he lived up to it in his second year by setting a career high with 52 points.
Tomas Nosek and Brandon Pirri are fairly similar players and will be competing for a third/fourth line winger spot. Both are pushing into their prime years and are coming off of 17 point seasons. The Golden Knights will be hoping that one of them will be able to contribute to the offensive punch that Eakin and Tuch can give the bottom half of the lineup.
Valentin Zykov, who spent the 2018-19 season jumping between Edmonton, Carolina, and Vegas, is sticking around for now to add to the competition. He has never really performed well at the NHL level, despite being successful in the AHL, so he should be motivated to perform as it may be one of his final chances to earn a place in the NHL.
Ryan Reaves has become a reliable presence on the Golden Knights bottom forward line, providing a surprising amount of offense for his player type but most importantly giving the team a dominating, physical presence. He is the bodyguard for the team, but is also a decent enough hockey player to have earned a regular place on a roster.
The Golden Knights have a low-key but solid defense. They do not have a superstar, bonafide number one guy, but they do have a collection of players playing exceptionally well within the team’s system. The collective defense of the team increases the performance of the individuals.
Shea Theodore is a young, offensively minded defender who is slowly coming into his own as a talented, two-way defenseman with excellent offensive instincts. He still needs to work on decision making and how aggressively he pursues the puck, as it has been known to throw him out of position. For that reason, Theodore plays very often with Deryk Engelland, who has a strong reputation of being a solid defensive defenseman. Although the two project to play together again this coming season, Engelland is now 37 and is struggling to keep up his speed and mobility with the changes in the game and this pairing may not make it through the season.
Nate Schmidt, another Golden Knight who got a lengthy $5-million contract in Vegas very quickly, pairs up with Brayden McNabb on one of the team’s top two pairings. They are a good match for each other, with Schmidt being a solid two-way defender with offensive instincts and McNabb being a reliable defender with a punishing physical aspect to his game. They will eat a lot of tough minutes for the Golden Knights this season.
To play alongside Jon Merrill or Nick Holden, the team’s bottom pairing has an opening for a prospect. Nicolas Hague is a leading candidate for this spot. His AHL season last year was huge for his confidence and ability to establish his presence on the ice. Also competing will be Zach Whitecloud, who may not get the spot out of training camp but is first in line for being called up. Jimmy Schuldt joined the team at the end of last season, playing in one game for the Golden Knights and recording his first NHL point (an assist). His skillset may be highly valued on the team’s d-core, as he is great at controlling the play and can quarterback a powerplay.
Marc-Andre Fleury is still the starter in Vegas. His statline regressed big time from his stellar 17-18 season, going from a 2.24 to 2.51 GAA and 0.927 to 0.913 SV%. He did play 15 extra games last season compared to the year before, and the team may want to limit him to about 50 – 55 games and split the load with Malcolm Subban to keep Fleury as fresh as possible for a playoff run, considering Marc-Andre will turn 35 early in the season. The team does not have strong goaltending depth, but Garret Sparks and Oscar Dansk are both options to replace Subban if need be.
Another thing the front office will have to keep in mind is an eventual replacement, as the goaltending prospects on the Golden Knights’ roster are nowhere near NHL ready, if they ever make it.
Vegas Golden Knights 2019-20 Prediction
2nd – 3rd Pacific Division
The Golden Knights will be in tough to replace the amount of core, role players they lost this offseason. Their locker room took a major hit and it will be interesting to watch how the players respond early in the season. Luckily for the team, they have an incredibly strong forward group consisting of many excellent two-way forwards, some of whom are among the best defensive forwards in the entire league. The Pacific Division below Vegas did not improve quite enough to show a major challenge for a divisional playoff spot, so it is hard to see them falling out of second or third in the division.