It has taken George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights front office less than two years to assemble a roster that looks like it is going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.
In year one they rode some stunning play from their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in what was one of the most improbable seasons (individually and on a team level) in league history.
For as good as that trio was, it was also inevitable that their production was going to regress significantly this season (and it has). They are still very good, but their regression, combined with the free agency departures of James Neal and David Perron, meant that the Golden Knights were going to have to make up for that drop in production elsewhere on the roster.
Enter their three big acquisitions from the past year of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and recent trade deadline addition Mark Stone.
Together that trio has formed what is supposed to be the Golden Knights’ second scoring line, but they have been so dominant as a group that we should probably be starting to look at them as their new top line.
In the nine games since the trade deadline the Golden Knights have put together an 8-1-0 record, with their only loss coming against the Calgary Flames in the second half of a back-to-back.
During that stretch the trio of Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone has spent more than 116 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together as a line and been the biggest driving force behind their late season surge. In those 5-on-5 minutes they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin, are controlling more than 65 percent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances that take place when they are on the ice, and more than 75 percent of the high-danger chances.
You would be hard pressed to find a better trio anywhere in the league since the end of February when taking their all around play into account.
From the moment they acquired Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason it was expected they would be the foundation of a newly formed second line, and one that might have been even better than the one they put on the ice a year ago. But injuries to both Pacioretty and Stastny at various times put a dent in those plans, as well as the fact they were missing a stable third presence on their wing.
That is where Stone comes in.
Spending his entire career in Ottawa on what has mostly been a dysfunctional, mess of a team has made Stone one of the league’s most overlooked and underappreciated top-line scoring wingers. But he is a steady 60-point, possession driving player that has always made everyone around him better. That is an incredibly valuable asset in the NHL and is not the type of player that is always readily available.
When you have a chance to acquire one, you should be willing to jump at it. The Golden Knights did.
He is not only in the middle of what is a career year, but he has proven to be an ideal fit alongside Stastny and Pacioretty.
Just look at how their ability to drive possession and scoring chances has spiked since Stone’s arrival.
They are averaging more goals per 60 minutes (0.4 goals to be exact), allowing fewer goals per 60 minutes (2.96 down to 1.55), and have seen a drastic increase in their shot attempts, scoring chance, and high-danger scoring chance numbers.
McPhee paid a pretty substantial price to put this trio together, giving up two of the team’s top prospects (Nick Suzuki in the Pacioretty trade; Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade) and several draft picks (not including the three draft picks he sent to Detroit to acquire Tomas Tatar, who was also sent to Montreal in the Pacioretty trade) and committed a significant amount of salary cap space to them. Immediately after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract extension, and followed a similar path with Stone by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract. Stastny is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million contract.
Given their ages and the long-term salary commitments there is a degree of risk there in future seasons because at some point all of them are going to decline before the end of their contracts. But as shocking as it still is to say, the Golden Knights’ championship window is pretty much wide open at this point, and whenever that is the case you owe it to yourself and your fans to go for it.
The Golden Knights did that by acquiring three of three of the most prominent scoring forwards that were available over the past eight months and assembled them into a new top line that seems to be sending their overall play in the right direction as the playoffs get close.
With the top line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith still in place, and Alex Tuch helping to carry the third line, there is reason to believe that this Golden Knights team might be even better than the one we saw in year one. That does not guarantee them anything come playoff time because their likely playoff path is going to be significantly tougher this season (and their goaltending has not been quite as consistent as it was a year ago), but they have to like their chances.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.