By Stephen Whyno (AP Sports Writer)
The Vegas Golden Knights’ unpredictable success has put them in an unexpected spot.
On pace for by far the best inaugural season for an expansion franchise in NHL history, the Golden Knights are closer to winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the team with the most points than they are to missing the playoffs. Going into the season, forwards James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron all looked like potential trade bait in the final year of their contracts.
Now they are among the leading scorers for a team in first place.
Marchessault has already been re-signed to a $30 million, six-year contract, Neal was an All-Star and there are no signs that general manager George McPhee will do any kind of the selling off at the deadline that most expected.
“The plan was simple: If we’re in the hunt or a playoff spot, we want to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot,” McPhee said by phone last week. “And if we’re not, we’ll do what teams do when they’re not in the hunt. The focus every day is to be the best we can be and see where we are come the deadline.”
Vegas has a six-game road trip and a seven-game home stand before the Feb. 26 deadline. Visits to Central Division powerhouse Winnipeg, defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh and former McPhee stomping ground Washington will test the Golden Knights, but their jaw-dropping effort so far has given them a nine-point cushion atop the Pacific Division.
In addition to Marchessault, Perron and Neal, William Karlsson has been a revelation with a career-high 27 goals after scoring 28 in his first 183 games. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been as good as everyone thought he would be after missing time with a concussion, and an unheralded blue line led by Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller has done the job.
Vegas has scored the third-most goals and allowed the sixth fewest. Can an expansion team top the list of Cup contenders? Maybe so, along with the Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. Would McPhee see any way of being a buyer at the deadline and potentially cutting into the organization’s surplus of draft picks and prospects?
“It’s hard to answer now because that’s a month away,” McPhee said. “There’s a long way to go between now and then. At this point, we’ll try to stay in it. I don’t know whether we would add. I don’t have the answer to that question.”
Perhaps the Golden Knights’ only weakness is the power play, where they’re 21st in the league. One of the most available potential deadline pickups is Mike Green of the Detroit Red Wings, whose 13 power-play points are tied for ninth among defenseman. He was a 2004 first-round pick of McPhee’s with the Capitals.
Green has a full no-trade clause, so he can pick his destination.
“I think in this league there’s always uncertainty,” Green said during All-Star weekend. “I’ve been around long enough I know how it works and what to expect. I think that’s why I don’t think about it all that much other than I understand the process, and when the decisions have to be made I’ll be ready to make them.”
While Green is a pending free agent who’s expected to be available, New York Islanders captain John Tavares very much isn’t. Tavares is 27 and tied for fifth in goals and points. He’s also the face of a franchise that will soon be moving to the new Belmont Park complex, closer to many members of their Long Island fan base. In the same spot is fellow Canadian Steven Stamkos, who re-signed with the Lightning in the summer of 2016 just before hitting free agency, Tavares said he hasn’t sought out the Tampa Bay captain’s opinion or anyone else’s.
“I try to be myself and be the best I can,” Tavares said. “I don’t think because it’s my contract year my approach or my thought process and the way I play should change. I just go out there on a nightly basis and worry about playing and try and have success and contribute. None of the other stuff comes into my mind when it comes to playing.”
When the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association conducted its midseason award voting, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov edged out the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon for the Hart Trophy. It might hinge on whether MacKinnon can get the Avalanche to the playoffs and who leads the league in scoring. Right now it’s Kucherov in the lead.
“His work ethic, his skill obviously is great,” Capitals star and fellow Russian winger Alex Ovechkin said. “In the next year or next couple of years, he’s going to be the best player or he’s going to be one of them.”
THEY SAID IT
“Hockey’s a funny game. It goes in 10-game segments. We started off 9-2 and then in our last 11, I think we’re 2-9-2. So what team are we?” — New Jersey Devils winger Taylor Hall, who returned Monday after missing three games with a right thumb injury.
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Boston Bruins on Saturday in what is becoming an increasingly likely first-round matchup.
LEADERS (through the All-Star break)
Goals: Ovechkin, 30; Assists: Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia); Points: Kucherov, 64; Ice Time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 27:13; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay), 29; Goals-against average: Tuukka Rask (Boston), 2.16; Save percentage: Vasilevskiy, .931.
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, and Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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