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.
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.