How will Golden Knights follow up historic first season?

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One of the most intriguing teams to watch heading into the 2018-19 NHL season has to be the Vegas Golden Knights because, well, we really don’t know what they are, what they can be, or what they will be.

We do know where they are coming from and what they were. What they were was an unbelievable first-year success story, the likes of which we have not really seen in any of the four major North American sports leagues. To take a first-year expansion team and not only finish with one of the league’s best records, but to also reach the Stanley Cup final and come within three games of winning a championship in the first year of existence is the type of goofy storyline that would be too unbelievable a movie.

Despite that initial success they still seem to be a bit of a mystery heading into this season because so many things went right for them in 2017-18. Typically when you have a team like that, things don’t typically repeat themselves the following year. At least not as you plan them to.

One thing seems inevitable for the Golden Knights heading into year two: There is going to be some regression from the players on this roster, because there were several had career years at the exact same time, from William Karlsson‘s out-of-nowhere 43-goal season, to Reilly Smith becoming a point-per-game forward, to Erik Haula scoring 29 goals, to Marc-Andre Fleury playing the absolute best hockey of his life in his mid-30s.

Another way of looking at it: Just about all of the most experienced players on the roster entering last season went on to have career years in terms of points (Karlsson, Smith, Haula, Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron) or in save percentage (Fleury) in Vegas.

On one hand you could maybe say this was a case of some of them getting an increased opportunity (Karlsson, Haula) and taking advantage of it. On the other, a team that has more than a third of its roster have career years at the same time would seem to be a prime candidate to regress the following season. That does not even take into account two of their top forwards offensively (Perron and James Neal) left in free agency.

Just think about where the regression could come from.

Maybe Karlsson is only 20-goal scorer instead of a 40-goal scorer.

Maybe Smith once again becomes the 50-point player he has been throughout his career instead of the player that was on an 80-point pace last season.

Maybe Erik Haula is better than he ever got to show in Minnesota, but isn’t a 30-goal forward.

Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury see his save percentage drop down to the .918-920 level he typically plays at.

All of those little regressions can add up into a big difference and lead to fewer goals for, and more goals against.

One way to combat that: Bring in better players around them to help make up for whatever regressions might take place. Vegas absolutely tried to do that this summer with the signing of Paul Stastny to a four-year contract in free agency and the acquisition of Max Pacioretty from the Montreal Canadiens.

[Related: Max Pacioretty saga ends with trade to Vegas]

Those are not insignificant additions, and together they should help form what could be an outstanding second line. The addition of Stastny is going to give them significantly better center depth than what they had a season ago, while everything about Pacioretty’s 2017-18 season and his track record in the NHL points to a big bounce-back season.

For as exciting as Vegas was last season a lot of their success was driven by their top line of Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith. When that trio was not on the ice together during 5-on-5 play they were outscored by 18 goals as a team (97-115). The second line, which was primarily made up of Perron and Neal with either Haula or Cody Eakin, barely kept its head above water in terms of goal differential.

Improving the second line behind that top trio (and it appears that Vegas did) is going to be significant. It’s not all going to fall on the top line, and it provides a bit of a safety net for if and when that line regresses a bit.

The big questions are going to come elsewhere in the lineup, particularly when it comes to the bottom-six, where there is a pretty significant drop in talent from the top two lines.

[Related: Paul Stastny smart addition for Golden Knights]

They found a ton of success in the playoffs with a fourth line of Ryan Reaves, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Tomas Nosek, and the group was legitimately good when it was put together, controlling more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring opponents by a 6-0 margin during the regular season and playoffs. You get that from your fourth line you are in good shape. The catch is that production came in less than 150 minutes of hockey. Can you count on that level of production from that group over an 82-game season?

Then there is perhaps the most mysterious aspect of this team: The defense. On paper, it looked to be the weakest part of the team entering 2017 even though there were some intriguing young players, including Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, and Colin Miller. Everyone on this group exceeded expectations, including Deryk Engelland who completed his transformation from part-time enforcer to 20-minute per night defender. But even with the surprisingly good results it was still, for the most part, an average, middle-of-the-pack team defensively when looking at the shot and scoring chance rates against. Most of their success preventing goals came from the fact their goalie — Fleury — played out of his mind throughout the regular season and playoffs.

He is a good goalie. A very good goalie. But he is not a .927 goalie.

Unless the Golden Knights do something to decrease the shot volume he faces, that is going to mean more goals against, especially with Schmidt, one of their top defenders, starting the year with a 20-game suspension.

Put it all together and you have a team that, on paper, should have an outstanding top-six even after some expected regression, a really good goalie, what is probably an average defense, and some question marks in the bottom-six.

Overall, that should be a pretty good team. Maybe not a a 109-point Stanley Cup Final team again. But a team that should be back in the playoffs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

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Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

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When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Blue Jackets’ Milano scores ridiculous between-the-legs goal vs. Stars

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Sidney Crosby scored a wonderful highlight reel goal despite hard-working defense, yet he has some competition for Wednesday’s best one-man effort.

Sonny Milano hasn’t always been able to justify being selected 16th overall in 2014 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there have been flashes of brilliance when he’s avoided landed in John Tortorella’s doghouse. The 23-year-old authored his best NHL effort so far against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, beating Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, and Ben Bishop, making a great move and then finishing his chance with the sort of between-the-legs move you’d see in a shootout.

You’re just not supposed to be able to that at full speed in NHL action, particularly against quality players and Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting in 2018-19.

That goal ended up standing as the game-winner as Columbus beat Dallas 3-2 on Wednesday, too.

So, which goal do you prefer: Milano’s (above this post’s headline) or Crosby’s from the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.