After improbable debut, where do Golden Knights go in year two?

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The Vegas Golden Knights inaugural season was a wonderful statement on the unpredictability, randomness and downright chaotic nature of the National Hockey League.

At the start of the year expectations were about as low as they could have possibly been for an NHL team, and for good reason. It was a roster that was mostly a collection of second-and third-tier players from all over the league where the initial intention was, presumably, to hope enough of them would perform at a high enough level that they could be flipped at the trade deadline for more future assets to continue building an expansion team from the ground up.

It was going to be a brutally tough job for general manager George McPhee.

Then a bunch of wild stuff happened and expectations suddenly changed to something else entirely — win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Not in two years. Not in five years. Not within the decade. Right. Now.

[Related: Welcome to playoff heartbreak, Vegas]

We realized a lot of those second-and third-tier players were maybe better than anyone thought, including the general managers that willingly gave a lot of them away when they didn’t actually need to. The goalie played the best hockey of his life and masked a lot of flaws on defense for most of the playoffs. A forward that had scored 18 goals in 173 career games on an 8 percent shooting percentage coming into the season suddenly could not miss and finished as the league’s third-leading goal-scorer. All of it together pushed them to the Stanley Cup Final where they fell just three wins shy of doing the impossible.

Now that this improbable, magical season has come to an end, McPhee and the Vegas front office have another tough job ahead of them as they try to build on this season.

There are a lot of big questions here that should lead to an absolutely fascinating offseason.

One of the biggest questions facing them is what they do with leading goal-scorer William Karlsson.

Karlsson is a restricted free agent this summer and after scoring 43 goals and being one of the driving forces of the team’s offense is going to be in line for a substantial raise over the $1 million he made during the 2017-18 season. How Vegas handles this is going to be tricky because at no point in his career did he ever play at a level like this. You can’t really pay him like a 40-goal scorer because you don’t know if he is going to ever be this play again, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest he wont. The best hope is that he is willing to sign a “prove it” bridge deal and show what type of player he really is before going all in on him.

Along with Karlsson’s contract situation the Golden Knights have four pretty significant unrestricted free agents in James Neal, David Perron, Ryan Reaves and Luca Sbisa.

Who do they try to keep (Neal?) and who do they say goodbye (Reaves, Perron?) to in free agency?

But perhaps the most enticing question is what they do outside of their own players, because McPhee is going to have seemingly unlimited options.

The Golden Knights will enter the offseason with more salary cap space than nearly every other team in the NHL. They have 27 draft picks over the next three years to deal from. They has a prospect pipeline that includes three top-15 picks from a year ago. They have what might be the greatest free agency sales pitch ever (We just went to the Stanley Cup Final, we have a ton of money to pay you, oh and we play in Las freakin’ Vegas). All of that makes pretty much any player in the NHL that could conceivably be available in play.

They could, if they wanted to, make a serious run at John Tavares and give the team another superstar to build around alongside Marc-Andre Fleury.

They could, if they wanted to, make another run at trading for Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson and theoretically pay him whatever market value contract he wants beyond next season. Heck, they could probably go after both him and Tavares given the cap space and assets they have at their disposal.

There is, however, a danger in that sort of approach for this team.

The danger: What if the rest of this team, as currently constructed, simply is not as good as it looked this season? It would not be the first time a team went on a lengthy, unexpected playoff run and then came back the next season and cratered across the board.

What if William Karlsson gets re-signed and regresses back to the 8 percent shooter he was in Columbus and Anaheim only scores 15 goals next season? What if Marc-Andre Fleury goes back to the .915 save percentage he has had for most of his career? What if Reilly Smith goes from being the near point-per-game player he was this season to the 45-50 point player he has been throughout his career? What if Neal and/or Perron leave in free agency and Tomas Tatar can not match what they provided over a full season?

Those are a lot of big, important questions and they are ultimately the ones that will dictate where this team goes in the immediate future, perhaps even more than whatever free agent they can acquire or what trade they can make.

At the start of the year we expected this Vegas team to stink. In hindsight, we had no idea how good they were as they stormed through the Western Conference on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. Funny thing is even after doing that we still probably do not really know how good they are or where they are headed in year two.

That, too, is a wonderful statement on the unpredictability, randomness, and chaotic nature of the National Hockey League.

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.

Reaves sits as Golden Knights tweak Game 5 lineup (Update)

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Update: The rumblings appear to be true. With Vegas’ season on the line, Gerard Gallant decided to add David Perron and William Carries back into the mix. Ryan Reaves and Ryan Carpenter, meanwhile, are healthy scratches.

Will the moves pay off? Click here for the livestream.

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For the first time this postseason the Vegas Golden Knights are facing elimination when they enter Game 5 against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night.

For the second game in a row they could be making some changes to their lineup in an effort to change the momentum of the series.

In Game 4 they swapped David Perron for Tomas Tatar, a move that did not really produce the desired results.

Even though coach Gerard Gallant refused to announce or confirm any changes for Game 5 on Thursday, speculation seems to be, based on who did and did not take part in the optional morning skate, that Perron and William Carrier could be back in the lineup in place of Ryan Carpenter and Ryan Reaves.

[Related: Golden Knights could really use one of their fast starts for Game 5]

Both potential moves would be … let’s just say interesting.

Carrier has not played since Game 5 of the second round series against the San Jose Sharks and was playing less than nine minutes per night when he was in the lineup. There probably isn’t much of a difference between him and Reaves on the fourth line, so it would be kind of odd to put him back in at this point. What would be especially bizarre about that switch is the fourth line of Tomas Nosek, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Reaves has, quite surprisingly, been one of the Golden Knights’ better lines recently.

Then again, if your fourth line is playing better than your first three lines it probably is not a good thing.

Perron, meanwhile, is still searching for his first goal of the playoffs after finishing the regular season with 16 goals and 66 total points in 70 games. In his two games before being scratched for Game 4 on Monday he had failed to record a shot on goal and was a minus-3 in the Golden Knights’ Game 3 loss. In his past six games he has just a single point (an assist) and only four shots on goal. In four of those six games he has not recorded a single shot on goal.

We will not know for sure what Vegas has planned until game-time.

When their team has lost three games in a row, has scored only five goals (while giving up 12), and is facing elimination in the Stanley Cup Final most coaches will feel the need to do something to try and shake things up and find a spark. Maybe Gallant will find something here.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final 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.

Life as a Golden Knights player is pretty good in Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — It took 112 years for the city of Las Vegas to finally get a major sports team, and its first year couldn’t have gone any better. 

An NHL expansion team in the Stanley Cup Final? No one was thinking that in the first year, not even Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who famously aimed for “playoffs in three, Cup in six.”

The excitement about the team coming to town was evident in the build up to the their first game. Around 5,000 fans showed up outside T-Mobile Arena in Nov. 2016 to learn the team’s nickname and see the logo. Every game night has been a sellout and winning helped create an even bigger buzz around the city. Life has been pretty good for the players.

“Winning helps, sure. But for it to grow as quickly as it has it’s a surprise,” said defenseman Deryk Engelland, who played parts of two seasons with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers from 2013-2015. “You knew it was going to take some time to grow but you didn’t think it was going to be this quick.”

Go to any Golden Knights practice at City National Arena and you’ll find a packed house. The interest became so great during the playoffs that attendance was eventually limited for their skates, with lines forming outside the rink hours before the players took to the ice. Merchandise sales? Well, just add that to the long list of things tied to this team that went above and beyond.

“It’s crazy to think that there wasn’t any franchise here before,” said defenseman Shea Theodore, “and the love we’re getting from the city and the fans, we’re going out to eat, people are coming up to us and taking pictures.”

Speaking of meals, there have been those times that players have been out to eat and the bill was picked up by a fan. Or, if you’re general manager George McPhee, you’ll get a standing ovation when you walk in somewhere to grab a bite.

“Reap the benefits while you can, someone said,” said defenseman Colin Miller. “They like taking care of us and we try to do the same for them.”

For many of the players, their perception of Las Vegas from the outside — the bright lights, the celebrities, the gambling — changed after they settled in their new homes.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the sense of community there really is in Vegas,” said Miller. “I know I didn’t realize it until I got there. It’s been awesome. The fans are behind you there. It seems like they’re everywhere. Everyone’s got a t-shirt or a hat or something like that. It’s a pretty fun place to call home.”

Ryan Reaves wasn’t a member of the “Golden Misfits” until late February. While with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season, he played a game in Vegas against the Golden Knights and echoed a lot of the same sentiments that had been felt around the league.

“At the beginning of the year, you don’t know how it’s going to work. A lot of tourists going to Vegas. It’s a hot place,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to go sit in a rink for that long when it’s that hot outside, but you get here and everybody was dead-wrong, that’s for sure.”

Some members of the Golden Knights, like head coach Gerard Gallant, like to keep things low-key, so you won’t find him on the strip bumping into any celebrities. Then there’s Cody Eakin, who’s taken advantage of his new city since coming over from the Dallas Stars in the expansion draft. From dining at different restaurants to catching the latest show to go-karting in the desert to hiking and biking, the 27-year-old forward has gotten out to experience much of what Vegas and its surrounding areas have to offer.

“The opportunities are almost endless around here,” Eakin said. “I don’t think you can do them all in one season.”

It’s clear that the love affair between the community and team didn’t take long to get off the ground, and that support has paid off with this fairy tale of a season.

“It’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of recognition in the community right now,” said Eakin. “Guys are going out and you see the signs and Vegas Golden Knights flags flying in the wind attached to cars. It’s pretty special. 

“The community’s happy. The community’s excited. The community’s passionate about it and it translates into us playing for them, playing hard and having fun with it.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Gerard Gallant wanted penalty called on Capitals’ fifth goal

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WASHINGTON — After giving up four consecutive goals to start Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final the Vegas Golden Knights attempted to scratch their way back into it with with a third period rally to cut the deficit in half.

Things, however, quickly derailed again when Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny scored off the rush to give his team some much-needed insurance and put the game away.

The play was set up in the offensive zone when T.J. Oshie completed a drop pass to Nicklas Backstrom inside the blue line, which was followed by Backstrom sending a perfect cross-ice pass to a wide open Kempy to finish the play.

Just as Oshie dropped the puck off for Backstrom he delivered a hit to Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller as he pursued the play, completely taking him out of it.

You can see it in the video above.

After the game Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant seemed frustrated with the lack of a call on Oshie, while also revealing that Miller suffered a broken nose on the play.

“They didn’t see a penalty on it,” said Gallant when asked if he was given an explanation by the officials. “I think everybody saw it. It’s a 4-2 hockey game, he gave him a pretty good elbow, broke his nose, what do you do? They said they didn’t see it. No explanation they said they didn’t see a penalty.”

“Hopefully everybody has seen it and said where’s the call there?”

One person that did not see it that way: Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser.

As frustrated as Gallant and the Golden Knights may have been, Fraser’s take seems to be pretty accurate because you see “reverse hits” like that get thrown all the time without calls being made on the ice.

Closer looks at the replay seem to reveal Oshie didn’t actually catch Miller in the head with his elbow and that the broken nose was likely the result of Miller hitting Oshie’s helmet.

Still, his frustration is understandable. At that point it is still a two-goal game with a lot of time still left in regulation. Kempny’s goal was a huge swing and completely ended Vegas’ comeback attempt.

Earlier in the series Vegas was on the other side of a non-call when Ryan Reaves scored a game-tying goal late in the third period of Game 1 after he cross-checked John Carlson in the back directly in front of the net.

Tensions seemed to escalate after that play as the two teams combined for 34 penalty minutes in the final six minutes of regulation, including 10-minute misconducts for Oshie and Vegas teammates Ryan Reaves and Deryk Engelland.

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Capitals lead series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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.

Golden Knights don’t need to worry about Marchessault

While the scale of concern sometimes feels as overblown as the Vegas Golden Knights’ vaunted pre-game presentation (they are only down 2-1), it’s true that the Washington Capitals gave the upstart expansion team a lot to worry about from Games 3 to 4.

Unlike their Western Conference opponents and just about everyone Vegas faced during the regular season, the Capitals found a way to clog up the Golden Knights’ exhilarating transition game. For all the jokes about Vegas “finally becoming an expansion team,” the real worry is that they looked, almost … flat and boring.

The Golden Knights also saw poor work from their second line, to the point that Gerard Gallant is subbing in Tomas Tatar for David Perron heading into Monday’s key Game 4 on NBC.

[Here’s the livestream link for Game 4. You can also enjoy “NHL Live” before the contest here.]

People might also be worried about the play of Vegas’ first line for the first time during this magical run.

After shockingly keeping pace – and in plenty of cases, getting the better of – the likes of Anze Kopitar, Joe Pavelski, and the Winnipeg Jets’ frightening high-end players, the trio of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault is sputtering a bit against the Caps.

Take Marchessault, for instance. Overall, he has a star-status-affirming 19 points in 18 postseason games, but lately things have dried up. The undersized, undrafted, indefatigable forward has only managed a single assist over the past four games, three of which came against Washington.

Does that mean it’s time to say that the pixie dust has worn off? Maybe for some elements of this team, but don’t blame Marchessault. And the Golden Knights shouldn’t worry about him.

For one thing, he’s putting up the sort of volume of shots that would indicate that he’s “due” for some positive bounces, and maybe those good breaks will come as early as tonight.

Despite coming up with zero goals (but two assists) over the past five games, Marchessault generated a whopping 28 shots on goal. That’s Alex Ovechkin-level trigger-happiness.

Did you yawn at those numbers and that chart (how dare you)?

Well, just consider the sports-car-swagger it takes to make a move like this, which was foiled only thanks to a great save by Braden Holtby:

No one wants to hear this, but in the modern NHL, just about every scorer is going to be doomed by poor luck. Or a keyed-in goalie. Or hitting a litany of posts.

It’s only human to get frustrated, and surely Marchessault must be feeling that a bit. Especially since he’s rarely struggled since the Florida Panthers made the Internet-entertaining gaffe of including him with Reilly Smith during the expansion draft.

The concern would be if Marchessault started getting in his own head too much. If the shot totals and highlight clips are any indication, it seems like he’s plugging away admirably.

Now, sure, it wouldn’t hurt if Vegas found a way to reinvigorate their flow to the speedy, exciting levels they’re used to. Such tweaks would help diversify their attack and take a little bit of the burden off of that top line. It also wouldn’t hurt if Reilly Smith has a rebound contest after an up-and-down Game 3 of penalties and mistakes, and if William Karlsson could get a bit more involved in the attack. Both of those scenarios seem reasonable, and maybe likely.

After praising the hardhat work of the fourth line (Pierre-Edouard Bellmare, Tomas Nosek, and Ryan Reaves), Gallant stated that he wanted his top trio to channel energy from the regular season.

“To a point yeah for sure, Belly and those guys play straight line, they work hard, they contain pucks down low and the way they have been successful in this series has been outstanding,” Gallant said. “Do I want Marchy and them playing like Bellemare? No I don’t. I love Belly, he does his job the way he does it, but our first line has to play the way they have played all season long.”

Even with Barry Trotz’s defensive tactics gumming up the works, Marchessault has been the most consistent source of scoring chances for Vegas.

To some, such work might only count under “moral victories,” but Marchessault and his partners would be better off ignoring the noise and keep doing what they’ve been doing. The goals should come … although as Ovechkin can attest, playoff success can be a fickle beast.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.