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.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

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.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

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.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

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.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

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.