Nate Schmidt

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

PHT Morning Skate: Are Bruins best team? Seabrook’s difficult situation

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Capitals are allowing themselves to be inspired by the World Series Champions, the Washington Nationals. (NHL)

• Joe Haggerty argues that the Boston Bruins are the best team in the NHL. (NBC Sports Boston)

Joel Armia always had potential, but he’s finally starting to produce. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Devils’ goaltending is a problem, but it should get better in the near future. (All About the Jersey)

• There’s still a lot of uncertainty regarding Nolan Patrick‘s health. (NBC Sports Philly)

Mitch Marner is confident that his production will start increasing sooner than later. (Toronto Star)

• Who will the Pens use their cap space on? (Pensburgh)

• Veteran Brent Seabrook is currently in a tough situation with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Here are three St. Louis Blues that can step up to fill the void left by Vladimir Tarasenko. (St. Louis Game-Time)

Troy Terry‘s been playing some better hockey for the Anaheim Ducks. (Anaheim Calling)

• Now that Nate Schmidt is back in the Golden Knights lineup, that should allow Shea Theodore to produce more offense. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights’ Zykov suspended 20 games for PED violation

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The NHL announced on Thursday afternoon that Vegas Golden Knights forward Valentin Zykov has been suspended 20 games without pay for violating the league’s performance enhancing substance program.

Along with the suspension, Zykov is now subject to mandatory referral to the NHL/NHLPA Program for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health for evaluation and possible treatment.

The 24-year-old Zykov has appeared in seven games this season, recording two assists while averaging 11 minutes of ice-time per game.

The Golden Knights released a statement in support of the league’s decision.

“We were notified by the NHL and NHLPA that Valentin has violated the terms of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program. We monitor the nutrition, supplement intake, and overall diet of our athletes on a continual basis throughout our entire season. Valentin knowingly used a banned substance without the consent, recommendation or knowledge of our team. We support the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program and respect the decision here.”

Zykov also issued a statement via the NHLPA.

“I’ve been informed that I am being suspended for 20 games under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.  While I haven’t been able to discover how I tested positive, I understand that I am responsible for what is in my body and will accept this penalty.  I want to apologize to my family, my teammates, and the Golden Knights organization and fans.  I will work hard during my suspension to ensure that I put myself in the best possible position to contribute to my team when my suspension is over.”

This is the second time in as many years that a Golden Knights player has been suspended for a PED violation after defenseman Nate Schmidt also missed 20 games a year ago.

In that instance, the Golden Knights strongly disagreed with the results and the suspension. It was reported back in September that Schmidt has been working with the NHLPA to help reform the NHL’s current drug testing program in an effort to raise the minimum standard for suspension. Regarding his suspension, Schmidt argued that an “environmental contamination” was the reason for his failed test, and that the amount that was found was the equivalent of a pinch of a salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

Schmidt appealed his suspension only to have it be upheld.

The fact the Golden Knights were so strong in their statement of support for Zykov’s suspension is a strong sign that Zykov does not have the same argument that Schmidt did, and that any appeal would be unlikely to be won.

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.

Breaking down Golden Knights’ lopsided win vs. Sharks

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The Vegas Golden Knights closed out an exciting opening night of the 2019-20 season by easily handling the San Jose Sharks 4-1 on Wednesday.

Let’s bat around some takeaways from that contest while the Golden Knights hope Nate Schmidt‘s injury is minor, and the Sharks likely hold out the same hopes for Kevin Labanc.

Vegas probably could basically have “two first lines”

Early on in Wednesday’s game, Mark Stone reminded people of why he’s such a two-way force that he’s a rare winger who might be able to win a Selke Trophy. Stone emphatically opened the scoring on a booming power-play goal, added an assist later in the contest, and generally looked like an irresistible force. Cody Glass was Stone’s centermen alongside a possibly rejuvenated Max Pacioretty, while Paul Stastny occasionally took defensive zone faceoffs. Considering how easy Stone and Pacioretty made it for Glass on his first NHL goal, you get the feeling that any line with Stone could be a borderline top trio …

Yet, you can’t declare Stone the consensus player of the game.

That’s because Reilly Smith and the Golden Knights’ more established top line with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault ended up being frighteningly dominant. Smith’s second goal of the night, a shorthanded tally, felt like the story of Wednesday’s game, as Karlsson and Smith passed back and forth against an overmatched Martin Jones.

It’s not just Erik Karlsson; it’s not just Jones

When it comes to the Sharks’ occasional struggles to keep the puck out of their net last season, a lot of people blamed the goalies, especially Jones. Some would say that Karlsson and Brent Burns make life tough for their own goalies, not just opposing ones.

While Burns was available Wednesday — as you could see in him colliding with a teammate during Smith’s SHG — Karlsson had to be a late scratch for personal reasons, and the Sharks still struggled mightily on defense. (Smith actually had another great chance on an early penalty kill, too, but Jones was game.)

Overall, Jones made some tough saves to keep the Sharks within striking distance at times, but this was such a lopsided contest that it didn’t matter.

This growing rivalry should be fun, unless you’re on the ice

Yes, this wasn’t an epic back-and-forth like that notorious Game 7, but these two teams boast the sort of firepower (and beef) that means there’s rarely a dull moment. Imagine if Evander Kane wasn’t suspended.

The Golden Knights have only existed for two seasons plus this opener, yet they’ve been a strong Western presence, accelerating the disdain with opponents, especially their Pacific Division rivals in San Jose.

San Jose needs its top guys to stay healthy

The Sharks did a pretty good job navigating a ton offseason. They could have lost Erik Karlsson. They might have taken a big risk on an aging Joe Pavelski. Timo Meier could have broken their salary cap breathing room.

Even so, losing Pavelski and other players (like sneaky-good Joonas Donskoi) means that the Sharks aren’t as deep as they’ve been in the past. If Karlsson or Burns gets hurt, that defense starts to look shaky pretty quickly. Possibly losing Kevin Labanc could be brutal for a team that’s a little thin on the wings.

In general, the Sharks might be vulnerable to lulls this season when they’re core players can’t suit up. Actually, it might be something head coach Peter DeBoer should try to mitigate; maybe you rest a burdened guy during a back-to-back, or lighten minutes when you have a lead?

To be fair to the Sharks, they didn’t exactly get an easy draw. Even with Schmidt out, Vegas is a daunting opponent, particularly at home.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Golden Knights’ Schmidt shaken up by collision with Sharks’ Couture

Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt exited Wednesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks after appearing to be in serious pain suffering from a knee-to-knee collision with Logan Couture.

As nasty as this rivalry is becoming despite it existing for such a short period of time, it looked accidental. Schmidt’s distress likely explains why a Golden Knights trainer went on the ice even though the Sharks still possessed the puck. Video of the collision is available above this post’s headline.

Vegas ended the first period with a 2-1 lead.

Either way, as strong as the Golden Knights looked through the first 20 minutes, Schmidt missing time would really sting for a Golden Knights team that had to trade away Colin Miller for salary cap reasons. It also must be that much more frustrating for Schmidt, who had a tough start to the 2018-19 as well, thanks to a 20-game PED suspension.

Schmidt will not return to Wednesday’s game. There’s no word yet on the extent of injury beyond the season-opener.

UPDATE:

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.