Golden Knights need Nolan Patrick to reach his potential

Nolan Patrick Vegas Golden Knights
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Since entering the NHL during the 2017-18 season the Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the league’s best teams every year.

They have already played in three Conference Finals, have the fourth most regular season wins in the league, the second most playoff wins, and have consistently been one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders. They are loaded with high level talent all across their roster with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, and Robin Lehner all leading the roster (and until this season Marc-Andre Fleury was in that mix as well).

They have just had one very obvious Achilles Heel that has held them back a little and kept them from actually winning it all. That would be the absence of impact talent down the middle at center.

That is what makes Nolan Patrick, one of their top offseason additions, such a potentially important part of this year’s team.

The need for an impact center

Maybe it’s confirmation bias at play, or maybe it is something really important, but Stanley Cup winning teams always have at least one, and usually two, impact centers leading their roster. Every year. Every team. Without exception. Vegas’ lack of that might help explain why, at least in part, their offense has at times abandoned them in the playoffs.

Just look at the top-two centers on the past 10 Stanley Cup winners.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Every single one of those teams had at least one major impact player at center, and almost all of them had two (only exceptions being maybe the 2019 Blues and 2013 Blackhawks).

Vegas’ top two centers this past season were William Karlsson and Chandler Stephenson. A year ago it was Karlsson and Paul Stastny. All excellent players, but each probably playing one line above where they should have been for a Stanley Cup contender.

If Karlsson and Stephenson are your second-and third-line centers you are probably going to be in a great spot as a contender. But neither one of them is the kind of player that an opposing coach is going to lose sleep game planning over in a best-of-seven series, and none of them are a player that is going to take over a game or a series and drastically change the outcome of it. They are complementary pieces. They are not the centerpiece.

Patrick’s potential

So here is where Patrick enters the picture.

Even though he has not yet become that sort of player, there is still the faint hope that maybe he could still become something close to that.

The start of his career at least made him look like he had the potential to be that for the Philadelphia Flyers. He was a No. 2 overall pick that showed flashes of star power over his first two years in the league, including a playoff appearance in his rookie season where he was one of the most noticeable Flyers on the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Then the injuries happened.

Patrick missed the entire 2019-20 season, throwing a wrench into his development and robbing him of what could have been a crucial year in his progression. When he finally returned during the 2020-21 season he had gone more than 560 games between NHL games and never really played at the level he had displayed in his first two years. He recorded just nine points in 52 games, averaged less than one shot on goal per game, while the Flyers were badly outscored with him on the ice. That resulted in the offseason trade that saw him go to Vegas, Cody Glass and Philippe Myers go to Nashville, and Ryan Ellis go to Philadelphia.

[Related: Golden Knights acquire Nolan Patrick in three-team trade]

There is obviously a rust factor at play there. He was still establishing himself as an NHL player when he lost more than a full year of his development and had to try and readjust to the NHL game with huge expectations following him around. He not only saw his production regress, he simply did not look like the same player. The playmaking, chance-creating, aggressive and skilled center that started to blossom during his first two years in the league was simply non-existent.

He still has that natural ability (the skating, the size, the playmaking) that made him a No. 2 overall pick in the draft, and he is getting a fresh start (something he almost certainly needs) on a Stanley Cup contender where he will be surrounded by impact talent on the wings.

Patrick is far from a sure thing at this point and is definitely now in the “suspect” vs. “prospect” category of players. If he is going to be the player everybody thought he could be when he entered the NHL it is going to have to start happening right now. But this could be the sort of change he needs to reach his potential. If he can, or at least something close to it, it might help Vegas get the one thing it is definitely still lacking when it comes to reaching the Stanley Cup.

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    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced Wednesday.

    The Knights termed the procedure Tuesday as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested early Wednesday morning in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released later Wednesday on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.