This is one part of a multi-part series profiling the teams of the Pacific Division from an Oilers perspective.
The Vegas Golden Knights had the season in 2017-18 that everyone thought the Oilers were going to have. The Oilers were supposed to be contenders and the Golden Knights were supposed to be junk, but that ended up happening in reverse.
Now the Golden Knights enter 2018-19 as the NHL’s biggest enigma. Rather than heading into the season as the group of castaways trying to prove everyone wrong, they’ll be the team to beat in the Western Conference. Can the team who had no expectations last season live up to the massive expectations they’ve created for themselves?
What did they do last season?
- 51-24-7 – 109 points (1st)
- 272 goals for (4th)
- 228 goals against (8th)
The Vegas Golden Knights were the shock of the NHL last season. Hell, their inaugural season was one of the biggest shocks in NHL history.
It was expected Vegas would be bad — not, like, Atlanta Thrashers bad because they had expansion draft rules that were much more favourable than their late-90s cousins — but they weren’t. They were good. Really, really good, actually.
Vegas exceeded expectations right off the hop, winning eight of their first nine games of the season. Everybody brushed it off, suggesting the team was just riding an adrenaline high and that they would ultimately crash and burn. The Golden Knights hit a bit of a lull in late October and into November, but then they started rolling again and didn’t stop.
They never crashed. Vegas didn’t have a losing streak longer than three games the entire regular season (ironically, though, their only four-game losing streak would come at the worst possible time in mid-June). They plowed their way through the season all the way to a Pacific Division championship and then they bombed through the L.A. Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Winnipeg Jets on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. They would end up getting stopped by the Washington Capitals in five games, but what this expansion team managed to accomplish was nothing short of legendary.
How did they do it? It’s a question that’s honestly still incredibly hard to answer. Much like how everything went wrong for the Oilers, everything went right for the Golden Knights.
They had a whole bunch of players massively exceed expectations. Nobody thought William Karlsson was going to score 41 goals. Nobody thought Erik Haula and Alex Tuch were going to combine for 37 goals. Nobody thought Deryk Engelland was going to be able to log 20 minutes a night on a very effective shutdown pairing. Nobody thought Marc-Andre Fleury was going to put up a .927 save percentage, especially behind that blueline.
While the team didn’t have the top-level star power of most other teams in the league, they tremendous depth. Their best players might not have been better than anyone else’s best players, but their worst players were better than everyone else’s worst players. There weren’t any weak links on the team. The Golden Knights put together a rag-tag group of players who wanted to prove everyone wrong and Gerard Gallant did a remarkable job squeezing everything out of them.
What did they do in the off-season?
- Major Additions: Paul Stastny (signed in free agency), Nick Holden (signed in free agency).
- Major Subtractions: James Neal (signed in Calgary), David Perron (signed in St. Louis), Luca Sbisa (still a free agent).
- Other stuff: (Signed Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year extension, re-signed Colin Miller to a four-year deal, re-signed Ryan Reaves to a two-year deal).
The Golden Knights predictably lost James Neal and David Perron in free agency. At the expansion draft in 2017, it seemed inevitable that both Neal and Perron would have short careers in Vegas as both players would be dealt as rentals at the trade deadline, but that obviously didn’t happen. I don’t think there’s much of an argument for Vegas missing out on selling Neal or Perron. A trip to the Cup Final is worth more than a late-first and a middling prospect.
Anyways, Vegas managed to make one major signing to replace their two departed veteran wingers, adding two-way centre Paul Stastny on a reasonable three-year deal. Stastny was excellent for the Jets after being acquired at the trade deadline and he’ll fit in nicely between William Karlsson and Cody Eakin as the team’s second centre. They also let Luca Sbisa walk in free agency and replaced him with the thoroughly-solid Nick Holden.
So, on paper, it seems that the Golden Knights are roughly as good as they were last year. But can all of their shocking breakout players do it again?
What’s going to happen this season?
The Golden Knights are a difficult team to predict. Naturally, you’d expect them to regress this season because there’s simply no way they can have so many things go right for them again. Like, William Karlsson isn’t going to score a goal on every fourth shot again, right? There’s no way Deryk Engelland can continue to log heavy minutes like he did last year and age is certainly going to catch up to Marc-Andre Fleury.
It’s easy to take a good hard look at the Golden Knights and view them as nothing more than a fun story about a flash-in-the-pan team that ultimately worked because of a combination of adrenaline and a chip on their collective shoulder. Logic would suggest, then, that since they’re coming into the season as defending Western Conference champions rather than guys who were tossed away for free, there simply won’t be the same energy within this rag-tag group.
But still, there are quite a few things to like about this Golden Knights team. As exciting and convenient as the “let’s prove ’em wrong!” attiude being the driving force behind their success narrative is, Vegas still has a lot of talent on its roster. I pointed out earlier that one of the most important things to Vegas’ success was their depth and the fact their worst players were better than the average worst player. This is a team that, even if Karlsson fails to score 41 goals again, can still grind you to paste with their speed.
They’ve created huge expectations for themselves, but don’t expect them to crash and burn. Will they put up 109 points and run to the Cup Final again? Probably not. But the Golden Knights are a very good bet to make the playoffs in its second season.