LAS VEGAS — Expectations for the Vegas Golden Knights remain as high as ever two years after reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
With the potential for having its most talented roster yet, in the franchise’s third season, the team expects to challenge in the Western Conference once again.
”We know we got a good hockey team where if we play well we’ll have a chance to win a lot of hockey games,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. ”I think our team gets better every year on paper, but you gotta do it on the ice. It’s one game at a time and go out and play the game and hope to stay injury free.”
One player eager to start the season is defenseman Nate Schmidt, who missed the first 20 games last year while serving a suspension for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Schmidt has been all smiles this year and the liveliest player in the locker room.
”I told Turk (Gallant) I’ll play all seven (preseason) games if it could delete what happened last year in comparison, because it just feels good to be back,” Schmidt said. ”Preseason or not, it feels good to be back in the mix with the guys.”
The feeling is likely mutual as Vegas opened last season 8-11-1 without Schmidt then went on a 19-4-3 tear when he rejoined the team.
KEY PLAYERS: The Golden Knights closed their 2018 season on an 11-6-2 run after Mark Stone arrived via trade with Ottawa. He had five goals and six assists in the 18 games but he really came to life during the team’s seven-game series with San Jose, registering six goals and six assists. His 25 overall games with Vegas was a mere preview of what the team can expect with him in uniform the entire season.
”There’s no secret to how he plays, he’s just the smartest guy out there,” Jonathan Marchessault said. ”He makes everybody look better, and I think that’s probably the best quality to have as a hockey player.”
Stone, Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Karlsson, Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny comprise the top six. Third-line forward Cody Eakin is coming off a career-best 22 goals and 41 points and should be motivated entering the final year of his contract. The 28-year-old downplayed the need for a second straight breakout season, but his performance could dictate where he lands next year.
”When you play the right way, team first, you get rewarded and that’s really what it’s all about when it comes to winning hockey games,” Eakin said.
On defense, Dylan Coghlan may have emerged as the dark horse during the preseason, as the hard-shooting prospect has shown offensive potential that would bolster a third pairing on the blue line.
OUTLOOK: The scoring is there for the Golden Knights, the defensive pairings are solid, and it could come down to the 34-year-old Fleury. Last year he started 34 of Vegas’ first 40 games, including 13 straight during one stretch.
”Common sense says you don’t want to play him as much as you played him in the past, but we’re gonna see how the schedule goes and see how he’s going and see how he’s playing and we’ll go from there,” Gallant said.
Gallant said he’ll confer with goaltender coach Dave Prior on who will be in net each game, and that Fleury has input on his playing time.
”We have a plan,” Fleury said. ”I try to manage my body throughout the season to rest maybe and recover better than I used to.”
PREDICTION: Everyone in the locker room has said it’s time to turn the page. The Golden Knights held a 3-1 series lead in the first round against San Jose last year and a commanding 3-0 lead in Game 7 before losing to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime. It still stings, and Vegas wants revenge. With a healthy lineup, among the best forward groups in the league and Fleury in net, another Western Conference Final is certainly possible.