William Carrier

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.”

WATCH LIVE: Golden Knights, Sharks renew their rivalry

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Golden Knights were defeated by the Sharks in OT of Game 7 in Round 1 last April after a controversial major penalty was called on Vegas’ Cody Eakin for a cross-check to Joe Pavelski in the third period with the Knights leading 3-0. San Jose scored four times on the man-advantage, while Vegas tallied a goal late to force overtime. Barclay Goodrow won it for San Jose in OT and secured one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history, leading the Sharks into Round 2.

On Tuesday, Sharks forward Evander Kane was suspended three games for physical abuse of an official, stemming from an altercation with Vegas’ Deryk Engelland in San Jose’s final preseason game. Kane swung his stick at Engelland in response to a cross-check, but got a piece of the ref in the process. Then, the ref grabbed Kane and both fell to the ice. Kane appeared to shove the ref while getting back to his feet.

“I get kicked out of the game for getting jumped from behind by a referee,” said Kane. “I’ve never seen a ref take five strides. If you look at his face, he’s getting all this power and he’s trying to drive me into the ice, which is what he did. That’s unbelievable. Talk about abuse of an official? How about abuse of a player? It’s an absolute joke.”

The Sharks and Knights open the season with a home and home series. They open the season Wednesday in Vegas, before meeting again on Friday in San Jose. Vegas is 5-1-2 all-time against San Jose in the regular season. They’ve split their only two playoff meetings.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights
WHERE: T-Mobile Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Sharks-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Timo MeierLogan Couture – Danil Yurtaikin
Lean Bergmann – Tomas HertlLukas Radil
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonKevin Labanc
Melker Karlsson – Barclay Goodrow – Dylan Gambrell

Marc-Edouard VlasicBrent Burns
Brenden DillonDalton Prout
Mario Ferraro – Tim Heed

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith
Max PaciorettyCody GlassMark Stone
Brandon PirriPaul StastnyValentin Zykov
William CarrierTomas NosekRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt
Jon MerrillShea Theodore
Nick Holden – Deryk Engelland

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

Brendan Burke and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will have the call of Sharks-Golden Knights from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

How will Vegas manage Marc-Andre Fleury’s workload?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Golden Knights:

1. How will Gerard Gallant manage Marc-Andre Fleury‘s workload? 

It has to happen at some point, right? Father Time catching up with Vegas’s beloved second son.

Fleury will be 35 before the season is two months old. He had 61 starts last season and it’s quite likely that he receives just as many this season, barring injury.

It just seems that the team isn’t ready to given Malcolm Subban more work. They used him heavily in March and Fleury got some much-needed rest before the playoffs began, but Subban didn’t set the world on fire with his play.

Finding the right workload will still winning games will be a test for Gallant, who hasn’t been as worried in the past about all the starts Fleury has gotten.

But consider this: only two goalies have ever started 60 games and won a Stanley Cup. Fleury, ironically, was one of them, but that was more than a decade ago now.

2. Can they mitigate some of their losses? 

Nikita Gusev, Colin Miller, Erik Haula, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare… all gone.

Gusev stands out for the mere fact of the hype train that followed him. The Golden Knights went out of their way to pluck him from the Kontinental Hockey League where he was regarded as one of the best players — if not the best — not playing in the NHL.

Unable to work out a deal that worked under the tight salary cap in Vegas, he was shipped off to the New Jersey Devils.

Speaking of moves relating to the cap, Colin Miller and all his great puck possession skills were traded off to Buffalo in an effort to find cap relief. Miller is an excellent puck-moving defenseman that will be missed on the blue line.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factorUnder Pressure]

And then there are bottom-six guys in Erik Haula and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Haula’s injury-riddled season limited him to just 15 games. In 2017-18, however, he has 29 goals and 55 points. Bellemare was a solid fourth-liner, meanwhile.

3. Speaking of bottom six, what will that look like? 

Alex Tuch had a career year with 20 goals and 32 assists and will be counted on to provide that secondary scoring outside of Vegas’s stacked top two lines.

Where the other pieces fall into place will be decided at training camp, although it’s probably a safe bet that Cody Eakin will center that third line, at least to start. That would allow for Cody Glass to work his way into the NHL fold on as the team’s fourth-line center.

But you probably don’t want Glass, a very skilled prospect, on the same line as Ryan Reaves.

If Glass has a solid camp, perhaps Eakin gets pushed down to the fourth line and Glass is given Tuch on his right and one of William Carrier, Valentin Zykov or Brandon Pirri to his right.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Golden Knights go for fourth straight win vs. Blackhawks

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The defending Western Conference champion Golden Knights seem to have righted the ship with three straight wins, while the Blackhawks have dropped 11 of their last 14 games (3-8-3) over the past month and find themselves sixth in the Central Division.

Vegas is 4-1-0 since defenseman Nate Schmidt returned from a 20-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. During that stretch, Schmidt has no points, but leads the team in ice time (21:36 per game). After a dreadful start in which Max Pacioretty tallied just four points in his first 16 games, the former Canadiens captain has started to take off with six goals and an assist in the past five games.

In the the nine games since Jeremy Colliton replaced Joel Quenneville, offense has been hard to come by. The Blackhawks are scoring 2.11 goals per game during that span and their power play is just 2-for-21.

“We wanted to buy into the system,” said forward Alex DeBrincat. “We want to have a good team. The core group, they got our attention and told us to really buy in. They were preaching: ‘Forget about the past and move on.’… it was probably a lot tougher for them to move on from that after 10, 11 years, but we’re playing a team sport and they obviously want to win, too. The past is the past.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Vegas Golden Knights at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Tuesday, Nov. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Golden Knights-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsJohn Hayden
Alex DeBrincat – Artem AnisimovPatrick Kane
Alexandre FortinDavid KampfDominik Kahun
Brendan PerliniDylan StromeMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithGustav Forsling
Erik GustafssonHenri Jokiharju
Brandon ManningBrent Seabrook

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith
Max Pacioretty – Cody EakinAlex Tuch
Daniel Carr – Tomas NosekRyan Carpenter
William CarrierPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabb – Nate Schmidt
Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland
Nick HoldenColin Miller

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

MORE: Fleury’s shutouts earning donuts for Golden Knights fans

WATCH LIVE: Golden Knights host Ducks on NBCSN

The NBCSN Wednesday night doubleheader continues with the Vegas Golden Knights hosting the Anaheim Ducks at 10:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Heading into 2018-19, both the Ducks (8-8-3) and Golden Knights (7-10-1) were hoping to begin the season with better records.

While their predicaments seem similar, they’ve gotten to this point thanks to playing very different hockey. The Ducks are being massively out-shot, yet John Gibson is often putting an “S” on his chest and saving the day. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights are often dominating the shot clock, yet Marc-Andre Fleury and others have gone from leaping tall buildings in a single bound to more Clark Kent-level work.

Expect a fun atmosphere in Vegas, especially since the Golden Knights often compete with the lavish pre-game entertainment by playing high-octane hockey.

[WATCH LIVE – 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Anaheim Ducks at Vegas Golden Knights
Where: T-Mobile Arena
When: Wednesday, November 14th, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Ducks-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

DUCKS

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafPontus Aberg

Nick RitchieRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Andrew CoglianoAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Brian GibbonsKalle KossilaBen Street

Hampus Lindholm — Jacob Larsson

Andy Welinski — Josh Manson

Marcus PetterssonBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson

GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith

Max PaciorettyCody EakinAlex Tuch

Tomas NosekRyan CarpenterTomas Hyka

William CarrierPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabbColin Miller

Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland

Nick HoldenJon Merrill

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.