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Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/GoldenKnights

Three Thoughts: Those Golden Knights

By reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup final in their first NHL season with a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets Sunday, the Vegas Golden Knights continue to be the most compelling story in sports right now for a lot of reasons. The storylines are obvious — reaching the Cup final as an expansion team with a group of cast-offs, seeing a city ravaged by tragedy healing as the Knights’ story unfolds. It’s a feel-good tale from top to bottom, even here in hockey Mudville.

The baseline for this unlikely and dramatic script, however, is being written by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who will be looking for his fourth Stanley Cup ring with the Golden Knights after winning his first three with the powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins. Simply put, the 33-year-old Fleury has never been better in the post-season. Without the Flower, this most compelling of stories likely would have come to an end by now.

Fleury did it to the Jets Sunday with 31 saves and he today catches his breath before the Cup final with a post-season record of 12-3, a save-percentage of .947, a goals-against average of 1.68 and four shutouts. Fleury never put up numbers like that with Sid the Kid and Gino with the Penguins — his best previous post-season came in 2007-08 when he went 14-6 with a .933 and a 1.97 GAA.

After losing the first game of the series against the Jets — a great story in their own right — Fleury stopped pucks at a .956 clip in the final four games as the Knights won the series in five games. It’s hardly a news flash, but any team that gets goaltending like that, be it during the regular season or playoffs, is going to win a lot more games than it loses. So, you get what we have here.

Fittingly, on this Vegas roster made up of spare parts, Fleury’s performance this season is also a tale of redemption. Let’s not forget, during the 2017 Eastern Conference final between Pittsburgh and the Ottawa Senators, coach Mike Sullivan replaced Fleury with Matt Murray in Game 3. Fleury was a cheerleader from the bench the rest of the way as the Penguins prevailed over the Sens in seven games and then beat Nashville in six in the Cup final. Then, as the story goes, Fleury was deemed expendable and went to Las Vegas.

ON THE WALL

Add me to the growing camp that believes Edmonton Oilers’ coach Todd McLellan can use ink when putting Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on left wing alongside Connor McDavid to start next season. For all the questions that come with a lousy season like the Oilers had, where RNH plays next year should not be one of them. Despite a disappointing result for Team Canada at the World Championship, RNH again looked right at home with McDavid.

“Getting the chance to play together over here has been great,” said Nugent Hopkins, who was slotted in with McDavid by coach Bill Peters “This is such a short tournament and it’s easier to just pick up where you left off than try to create new chemistry. Every game we play together, I feel we get better and that will only help us be more effective when we get back to Edmonton next season.”

Nugent-Hopkins scored 5-3-8 in 10 games. Just as he did at the end of the regular season with the Oilers, RNH showed he’s smart enough and quick enough to play with McDavid. He knows where to be and when to be there, and that’s half the battle when you’re trying to read off what McDavid wants to do. I don’t see any reason whatsoever why we should see Nugent-Hopkins listed as anything but a LW when camp opens. What say you?

RE-BOOT?

An interesting Tweet from Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer the other day about a former Oiler first-rounder, Magnus Paajarvi, I haven’t given any thought to in years.

Given the corner GM Peter Chiarelli has painted himself into, there’s a need for some value contracts going into 2018-19. I’m just not sure Paajarvi, coming off a contract with an $800,000 cap hit, is a value deal. Cheap? Yes. Value? I’m generally not big on encores unless a team really screwed up by letting a guy get away in the first place, and I don’t put sending Paajarvi away for David Perron in that category.  I don’t see the need for a do-over here.

RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE  

    • Completely agree, but there are actually people out there whining about how Vegas was built and that the team got too many advantages in the expansion draft. I don’t recall those people howling about the talent heist the Knights pulled right after the draft. Feel-good story? No, let’s bitch and moan (in hindsight) about how this came to be. Strange world we live in.

  • KPUZ

    What I love most about the LV Golden Knights story is that a winning team was built in less than one year by a competent GM. This takes away excuses from the Oiler’s brass that this is a process and Oiler’s fans need to be patient. PC should have been fired after last season after the abysmal moves he has made and fear he will continue to make.

    • You are frustrated, which is understandable, but you’re trying to connect dots that have nothing to do with each other. This is a bolt from the blue — how many teams in any sport have been this good this fast? Starting a team with a clean slate is a different animal.

      • 24% body fat

        Yes Robin agree. But how many teams had the cap space and assets the Oilers did.

        That is the frustration. Should have been able to do more than a clean slate. Only obstacles to chia was poo and Fayne. And really for 7.5 mill they were completely serviceable.

  • Consultant

    Thinking about who would be the perfect RW for McDavid and Hopkins…
    Both McDavid and Nuge can shoot and I prefer them shooting rather than trying to find a trigger man.
    I don’t think we need a “Kurri”. Instead it’s a big body that skates a straight line to the net, to open up the lanes. The perfect winger is essentially Lucic from three years ago. I imagine Lucic pictures this too as he is hopefully in some sort of high paced running activity right at this moment. I think Lucic is going to come into camp in great shape. The other guy who could be this guy is Puju, with his size and reach around the net he is perfect for banging rebounds. So Lucic, Puju and Rattie get first looks. Who else? That RW spot is a RW’ers dream.

  • Regarding the Golden Knights, I’ve never been more wrong. I thought McPhee should have picked different players, I thought LA was gonna take them out in the 1st round, San Jose in the 2nd, and Winnipeg in the 3rd. Now Vegas is going to the final and can’t possibly win.

    I also picked Washington to win the cup. I still think they could, but Holtby has to stop the puck, which he hasn’t been doing. 3 goals on 18 shots kind of thing just isn’t good enough. Look at Fleury in Vegas and his stats.
    Obviously, good goaltending makes all the difference. A hot goalie can single handed win the cup.

    • Arfguy

      I think most people were wrong about Vegas. I remember a while ago, I proposed the idea that a defenceman like Nate Schmidt and Jonathan Marchessault are the type of players the Oilers should look for: good players with a chip on their shoulder. I was told by some that Marchessault was worth a 4th round and Schmidt was worth a bag of pucks. I wish I could find that same poster (this was on Instagram) so I could ask what he thought of those two players. Honestly, the poster wasn’t the only one who under-estimated the value of these players, since Marchessault was a throw-in by Florida for taking Riley Smith and Washington didn’t want to give away Nate Schmidt, but had a few NMC/NTC type contracts on defence that they couldn’t adjust in time for the draft.

      While I will give full marks to McPhee for putting together a great time, I cannot also forget that he didn’t have too much success with the Washington Capitals. I am glad he is having success with Vegas, though. It is a very nice story for the NHL and for sports, in general.

  • OILERSORDEATH

    Still bothers me, they haven’t even paid their dues yet, and now their in the finals. So lame. I guess sub par talent and a ton of luck will get ya there.

  • GK1980

    I love and hate Vegas. I’m jealous that they are pulling this off by at the same time what a story! Good on them. Fleury has made key saves but the team overall is relentless in pursuit. Wish my team played life them…..

    • GK1980

      Good goaltending is important but good D makes goalies look good 80% of the time. Fleury made many outrageous saves during the Jets series that got them past the Jets. Anyone of those go in and the series is completely different. Personally I still think The Jets are the better team, Fleury was just unreal.

  • OnDaWagon

    Vegas simply has a very good team.

    I know Fleury is playing great, but that whole group is playing great. Coaching has a lot to do with confidence. If the coach puts you right back out there after making a mistake – even 3rd and 4th line players, then you start to feel confident and part of the team. He continuously does it. Rather than tearing a player down, he builds them up. Good coaching.

    A good coach makes you believe in yourself. When you believe in yourself, you are difficult to stop.

  • C U Next Tuesday

    F Vegas. And F Bettmen for allowing this to happen. Total incompetence by a greedy league.

    Vegas will miss the playoffs next year. They had too many players playing above their head…just like the Oilers last season.

    • Oilman99

      Sour grapes or what buddy, you don’t get to where Vegas got by playing over your head for 82games and three playoff series, it’s not possible. They have a group of players that work their asses off every shift of every game,and have a world class goalie to boot, there is no reason to expect them to miss the playoffs next year, especially when you see how much cap room they have to get even better.

  • Derian Hatcher

    If every layer on the Oilers relentlessly hunted the puck and supported the puck like the Vegas players do, they would do better. Every player has to have their give a crap meter on maximum for a team to succeed.

  • Anton CP

    It is a massive surprise for Vegas in Stanley Cup Finals to anyone however their winning way is really not what the other teams can copy and adapt.

    Ever from the beginning of expansion draft that Vegas was giving opportunity to build a competitive team. Normally a team has to dress 20 men on daily bases however teams are only allowed to protect 8 enforced with NMC and NTC remains intact with each teams. The Oilers were fortunate enough to have enough players in entry level that they don’t have to protect as many key players as the other teams. The most common phrase about “Vegas is build with players that other teams don’t want” is a complete lie. They are not build with the players that other teams don’t want, Vegas has lots of players were important parts to their former teams but the league is forcing them to give it up. Those players are basically teams forced to cut their losses and move on then Vegas just managed to snatch enough talents to compete.

    With all players are new arrivals that they have very little to no locker room issues. Without any track records that they have no pressure on performances. Young players that cannot break into the rosters from their previous team and now have all the chance they want to prove themselves. The truth is, if teams were allowed to keep 9 players instead of 8 that the chance for them to win as much as now is highly unlikely.

    • Anton CP

      I will add that I really do not enjoy the so-called “success story” of Golden Knights. They are the result of Bettman’s careful manipulation of creating a strong team with zero baggage. The last expansion team in North America was NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and then expansion rule have teams to keep 8 players, which any player that is available to Bobcats were guaranteed as the deepest end of bench warmers since the active roster require just 12 players.

      NHL expansion on the other hand that teams can only at maximum to keep 10 players with extra clause that the team can ended up with keeping just 9 players. Also it forces teams to expose all of goalies except the one that teams have to gamble their future with. So, NHL teams are forced to expose more than 50% of their active rosters. It is not really an expansion draft, it is an open buffet for McPhee. It also grant a huge advantage for Vegas to make trades since the GMs have to “bribe” McPhee to not taking certain players that the team want to keep around. McPhee gains tons of favorable trades by offering nothing in return, they are hardly your typical expansion team.

  • Big Nuggets

    The lesson from Vegas as I see it is that sports are indeed 90% mental. These players all had a chip on their shoulder after being slighted by their former teams and that extra motivation was followed by success. Colorado is another example of the teams mind set being as important or more important than the quality in the line-up. After trading away one of their best players they went on a tear which brought them into the playoffs.

    This is why I am not as concerned with filling the RHD position as I am with fostering the right attitude in the team.

    The Oilers have long neglected the need for veteran leadership on the team which is all the more important when we are trying to develop the next generation of star players. When the Sedins retired I read about their appreciation for Naslund. When ever they had a bad game Naslund was always the one to talk to the media to shelter the young guys from all the negativity, when they would win Naslund would let the young guys enjoy the moment with the media. That year with Eakins coaching Hall, Nuge and Eberle were the main guys even though they were still quite raw as players, albeit skilled, and they had to face down the negativity every losing game. Including that incident where the whole team had to walk past a hall filled with booing ‘fans’.

    Now McDavid is the man, and I think he has a champions mental toughness so he will be able to deal with the pressure, but some support would be helpful. The team’s mind-set is somewhat abstract so it is hard to know exactly what is needed but I think some veterans would be a good place to start. Although anytime you mention a veteran to add on the cheap immediately there a 8 guys jumping up to shout that the pkayer has lost his legs and yada yada yada. I would coubter that being an NHL player over an 82 game season takes more than just legs and sometimes the players that can skate still don’t have what it takes. Matt Hendricks did not make the Oilers playoff line-up last year despite being a huge motivator for the team. And many fans proclaimed his legs were gone. This year he was a year older but he did play some playoff games with Winnipeg, despite the fact that Winnipeg routinely scratches multiple players that would easily make the Oilers line-up.

    Mind-set matters, Veterans matter.

    • Anton CP

      I agree with you on almost everything but Hendricks is really not the answer to veteran leadership. It is not the knock on his toughness and heart but if he is lack of enough skills to be on ice often then he can’t really do much for the team. If he is not on ice then he is just an expensive motivational speaker in locker room.

      Still, yes, the Oilers are never being able to find that true veteran leadership, they signed Lucic in hope as the veteran leader that the team was looking for…Unfortunately that Lucic has yet delivered.

      The Oilers need a proven veteran player, not just any veterans. Someone that has a long list of successes and still being able to deliver at advance age.

      • Big Nuggets

        Yeah, I’m not saying we need to get Hendricks back, but some veterans would be nice. If I was GM I would probably try to sign Brodziak or at least I would scout some of the UFAs for someone that can be useful and carries themself like a professional.

  • HardBoiledOiI

    You forgot to mention how Vegas didn’t have to negotiate contracts, attract UFA’s, develope prospects. They were gifted a team of 1st/2nd line forwards and a Stanley Cup winning Goalie lol.
    Keep up the good work Vegas, we all know you earned it.
    #VegasNHLJoke