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Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Pacific Preview: Don’t expect the Golden Knights to crash and burn

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.

May 30, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Vegas Golden Knights left wing James Neal (18) celebrates with left wing Erik Haula (56) after scoring a goal against the Washington Capitals in the first period in game two of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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?

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on South Las Vegas Boulevard.

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.

Check out Vegas’ salary cap situation at NHLNumbers 

Check out Vegas’ line combinations at Daily Faceoff 

  • TKB2677

    No disrespect to the writer but how can he seriously say that Vegas won’t fall off much? What did Vegas have going for them?
    – Brand new team so no one knew how to game play or what to expect early on. This league is all about match ups and system play. How does an opposing team decide what match ups they want when they have no clue about Vegas because they didn’t exist. Vegas was able to rack up a lot of wins early on.
    – The shooting. Nothing can galvanize a group of people more than a tragedy to rally around.
    – Chips on their shoulders. Every last one of those guys were left unprotected by their teams. They were deemed expendable. To be a pro player, you have to have an ego. Nothing is more of a shot to the ego than your team deciding you aren’t good enough to keep. Everyone of those guys played with a chip on their shoulder and wanted to “shove it down everyone’s throats.” They actually called themselves the misfits in their room.
    – No one including themselves had ANY expectations. Every team thought they would suck. I bet if you asked them, deep down they didn’t expect to be that good. They are an expansion team, expansion teams always are bad. They go into this season as the Western Conference Champs, their is a massive target on their backs. Go ask the Oilers what happens when you get every teams best every night.

    So going into this season, Vegas won’t have ANY of those mental advantages. They won’t have the shooting to rally around, they won’t surprise anyone, none of the players will have chips on their shoulders and they will have the weight of living up to that dream season on them.

    Player wise.
    They let 25 goals, 44 pts in Neal and 16 goals, 66 pts in Perron just walk out. That’s 41 goals and 110 pts GONE. They have to make that up somewhere. The signed Stastny, great. He had 16 goals and 53 pts last year. That was his BEST season in 4 years and surprise surprise in a UFA contract year. His best season previously was in 13-14 season when he had 60 pts. Guess when that was. His contract year. What are the chances he gets 50 pts this year? Based on his history, not good.
    They had Karlsson score 43 goals, 78 pts last year making 1 mill. His previous career high was 9 goals, 25 pts. What are the chances he duplicates last years totals? Probably almost ZERO. Every less goal he scores, they have to make that up.
    Marchessault is a really good player. He was playing for under 1 mill last year and scored 27 goals, 75 pts. With a big fat contract now, will he duplicate those totals? Hard to say.
    Haula had 29 goals, 55 pts. His previous career high was 15 goals, his previous career high in points was 34. What are the odds he pushed 30 goals and 55 pts again? Probably pretty low.

    So they lost goals in letting Neal & Perron go. They brought in Stastny who maybe can replace a chunk of their combined production but still, they didn’t replace all the goals they lost. 3/4 of their forwards all had career years all at once. It’s almost impossible for all those guys to duplicate career years. So every goal less each of them score, they have to replace. Then you factor in Engelland who was a top 4 dman. At 36 yrs old, what are the chances he can give you good top 4 mins again. Unlikely. Then you factor in they lost Schmidt to a suspension for 20 games for PED’s. It doesn’t matter what the testing is like or the amount. Clearly he was taking whatever the hell he got caught with and probably what happened was, it wasn’t completely out of his system when he got tested. He was their top min playing dman that they have to replace. Then you factor in that a HUGE part of their success was goaltending. They got a career year from Fleury. If he had of played more, I think he was one of the finalists for the Vezina. We all saw in the finals that as soon as Fleury wasn’t all world and was just good, they got whipped. Fleury in the finals was alright but not record setting and the Caps bombed them. They lost in 5 games. The chances that FLeury puts up another career year in goal, is pretty slim.

    So considering now of what I said is out to lunch, no way they don’t take a big step back.

  • Joeboot

    Everything went right?? Goalie injuries?? Come on, give Gallant credit for doing a masterful job at playing the “nobody wants us so let’s show them” card. I see a significant regression this year.
    The comment about worst players I disagree with as well, how many teams would have had Engeland on their top 6???
    Again Gallant gets credit for getting players to give 110% and we have McCellan that inspires players to give 90% (I’m being generous).

  • Dapper Dan 3099

    Maybe Vegas and the Oilers can swap this year, everyone will now play Vegas harder than last year since they’re the team to beat (like Edm last year), and Edmonton can go back to being the underestimated underdog that everyone expects will suck (since that tends to work for them). A man can hope!

    • IRONman

      Come now. Vegas has players that put out. Lucic is a coaster, did you guys even go to the games? Vegas has heart, something the Oilers need, McDavid is only player I see going 100%

      • Dapper Dan 3099

        I’m not taking anything away from Vegas, they were a prime example of how far teamwork and heart can get a team. But the Oil had heart two years ago too, not sure what the hell happened last year tho, so I guess we’ll see shortly if any of that heart remains this season for either of those teams

  • TKB2677

    I think Vegas will be in the 80-90 pt range. When 3/4 of your team have career years all at once, it’s not sustainable. Fleury was a .924 in the regular season. Hellebuyck was second with a .924. Rinne won the vezina with a .927. If Fleury played a little more, he would have been a finalist. Fleury is a career .913%. He most likely puts up career average numbers and when he does, Vegas won’t be as good.

  • toprightcorner

    Schmidt suspension hurts them a lot, he is their best dman. Stastney is good, but doesn’t bring the same presence as Neal. Karlsson won’t get near 41 goals, he will settle down to 25-28 goals. That was a Gionta like lucky season when he scored 48 goals and never had more than 29 before or after. They will not make the playoffs, they will likely end up in the range of 86-92 points. They will still be better than any past expansion team because of their speed, but there is no way that many players can repeat career seasons on the same team.

    Snake eyes for Vegas

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      Statsny is more than a Neal replacement; he is a faceoff leader in the NHL. Him between Haula and Tuch is money. While the loss of Schmidt is tough, it’s only 20 games. As many games as they didn’t have Theodore last season. They will miss his defensive ability, but points would likely be replaced by Hunt and Theodore.

      I will freely admit that I’m not overly impressed with their 4th line, but they do have prospects like Glass that are high level. The individual players may not have career years, but they play as a team. They pick up for each other.

  • Goalie injuries and depth was utterly remarkable for Vegas:

    ….Fleury played 46 games, won 29 with .927 and 2.24 GAA <–that's crazy good
    ..Subban played 22 games, won 13 with .910 and 2.68 GAA <–solid back-up
    ..Lagace played 16 games, won 6 with .867 and 3.92 GAA <–not so good
    ….Dansk played 4 games, won 3 with .946 and 1.78 GAA <–what, why didn't he play more?

    Can you imagine if the Oilers had that type of goalie depth? Oh, remember 2006? They did then.

  • BringJordanHome

    Dont think they will have the great season they had last year but as the Pacific Division is a pretty weak one they propably still have pretty good odds for making the playoffs