For most teams, the second-best regular-season record in the league and a trip to the third round would be an incredible success. For Vegas, it’s just another year of falling just short of their goals. Can 2022 be different? (AP Photo/David Becker)

Vegas Shuffles Deck Again In Desperate Cup Chase: 2021 NHL Previews

Ever since they entered the NHL in 2017-18, the Vegas Golden Knights have been a whirlwind. Even the most optimistic fans (including their owner) figured this would be the open of Vegas’ championship window if everything went right. They were just a tad off. Instead, that happened right out of the gates, as the Golden Knights stormed to Pacific Division and Western Conference titles in year one. After taking a bit of a step back (3rd in the Pacific, first-round exit) in 2018-19, Vegas has reached the third round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Since entering the league, Vegas has the fourth-best regular-season record. And they have more playoff wins than everybody except the back-to-back champion Lightning.

Most teams would kill for a stretch anything like that. But the Golden Knights have never been satisfied, undergoing massive roster changes after each of those seasons. After their incredible inaugural run, they lost David Perron and James Neal to free agency but replaced them with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty (with costly 2018 deadline pickup Tomas Tatar part of the package), then acquired Mark Stone at the trade deadline; Pacioretty and Stone were also extended shortly after arriving.

They then traded two breakout stars from the Golden Misfits in Erik Haula and Colin Miller to clear cap space before splurging on Alec Martinez and Robin Lehner (who also received an extension) at the deadline. They said goodbye to Stastny and Nate Schmidt in cap clearing moves after the bubble, freeing up the cash to splurge on star defender Alex Pietrangelo. And more recently, they acquired Mattias Janmark at the 2021 trade deadline for two second-round picks.

*Exhale*

Of course, the Golden Knights shopping spree (both as buyers and sellers) didn’t stop this summer; we’ll get into that below. Vegas has moved more talent in the last four years than some teams have had, period. It will all be worth it if the Golden Knights win the Cup. And while Vegas is still largely seen as one of the league’s premier contenders, that’s still a big if. Even the most dominant teams only start the year with roughly a 15% chance of winning it all; the smart bet is always on the field. The Golden Knights have also received concerns about what all their moves may be doing to the psyche of the players that remain; the sudden trade of a certain goaltender gave that message a boost this summer.

Maybe this is a team simply getting too greedy, too soon, and would be better off letting a good thing produce good results. Or perhaps the latest set of tinkers is the jolt of energy needed to finally push the Golden Knights over the hump. Either outcome would be fascinating to watch unfold this season. Here are the players that will lead Vegas towards one of those paths this season.

Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Max PaciorettyChandler StephensonMark Stone
Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith
Mattias JanmarkNolan PatrickEvgeni Dadonov
William CarrierBrett HowdenNicolas Roy

Notably missing from this projection is Alex Tuch, one of just seven 2017-18 Golden Knights players still in the organization. The 25-year old power-forward bounced back to around the 50-point pace threshold after a rotten 2019-20 campaign, but underwent shoulder surgery in late July and will miss six months as a result. It’s worth noting that when Tuch returns, the Golden Knights probably wouldn’t be able to carry any healthy scratches without making a trade; CapFriendly currently lists them at $1.2 million over the cap with a roster of fourteen forwards (including Tuch), six defensemen, and two goalies.

Perhaps Tuch’s absence is the reason GM Kelly McCrimmon decided to use most of the cap savings of trading Marc-André Fleury (more on him later, I promise) to acquire Evgeni Dadonov from the Senators. After tallying 81 goals from 2017-18 to 2019-20, tied with Matthew Tkachuk for 36th in the NHL, Dadonov scored just 13 goals and 20 points last year. Some regression was to be expected after leaving Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and an excellent top power-play unit behind in Sunrise. But Dadonov’s lone year in Ottawa was a total dud. At 32 years old, you can’t rule out that the 25-30 goal-scorer of Dadonov is a thing of the past. If that’s the case, Vegas will have a $5 million mistake on their books for the next two years.

Assuming Vegas keeps their well-known top-six together (which isn’t a guarantee after fading against Montréal in Round 3), Dadonov might not even be the biggest rehab project on his line. It’s been a rough last two years for 2017 #2 overall pick Nolan Patrick. After two decent but maybe a bit disappointing seasons to begin his NHL career, Patrick missed the entire 2019-20 campaign with migraine disorder. He was able to return for a healthy 2021 campaign, but Patrick just didn’t play very well. He looked invisible far too often and recorded just nine points in 52 games (he was healthy scratched four times), sporting a downright horrible 25% on-ice goals. Part of that was because of Philadelphia’s terrible goaltending and Patrick’s possession numbers were better, but still not great.

He’ll probably never be the game-breaker the Flyers expected, but Patrick flashed top-six upside pre-migraine disorder; hopefully, he puts it all together in Vegas. After Karlsson and Haula combined for 72 goals in Vegas’ inaugural season, center has been the Golden Knights’ biggest weakness the last few years. Chandler Stephenson was a nice find by Vegas’ pro scouts; he’s scored 57 points in 92 games as a Golden Knight after registering just 33 in 168 contests over four seasons in Washington (winning a Cup at Vegas’ expense in 2018).

Karlsson’s a solid player, too; not a consistent 43-goal scorer, but good for 60 points or so with strong defensive play. But neither he nor Stephenson is the high-end 1C most Cup winners have. There’s no Brayden Point, Ryan O’Reilly, Nicklas Backstrom, or any other player like that here. It’s why Vegas was so involved at the height of the Jack Eichel rumors. But the cap constraints make that seem impossible.

Vegas’ top-six wingers need no introduction; I could copy and paste last year’s section here and it would suffice. Stone should still have a Selke by now (he was a finalist for the second time in three years in 2021) and is undoubtedly the game’s most complete winger after exceeding point-per-game level for the first time in his career last year, which peaked with an incredible shut-down performance of Nathan MacKinnon in the second round of the playoffs. Not bad in his first year as the Golden Knights’ first captain. He has tremendous chemistry with the shoot-first Pacioretty, who was also above a point-a-game for the first time in his career. Only nine players have scored more goals than Pacioretty since 2019-20; he’s still among the game’s top snipers.

Jonathan Marchessault was his usual self alongside Karlsson last year; 18 goals, 44 points, strong underlying numbers, the usual shtick. But the other member of Vegas’ top-line from year one, Reilly Smith, wasn’t. Last year was Smith’s worst since his rookie season in 2012-13, as he registered just 25 points in 53 games. His underlying numbers look good in a vacuum, but his 52% Expected Goals was actually one of the lower figures on a pretty dominant Vegas possession team. Smith is 30 now, and Vegas will have a big decision to make next summer when the alternate captain is set to become a UFA for the first time in his career. Maybe it was just a pandemic-related one-off, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Brett Howden is the new face on Vegas’ fourth line, coming over in a trade with the Rangers. He does have 178 games of NHL experience at just 21, but, uh, maybe he shouldn’t. Howden has been torched at 5v5; you know it’s bad considering Howden’s 46% Corsi and Expected Goals were easily the best figures of his NHL career. He also tallied just one goal in 42 games last season and has seen his offensive numbers drop each year in the league. Nicolas Roy has been fairly productive for a bottom-sixer the last two years (25 points in 78 games combined) with two solid playoff performances to boot. William Carrier is a traditional physical forechecking force on the fourth line; that’ll be counted on more with Ryan Reaves departing to Broadway via trade.

Defensemen

Alec MartinezAlex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabbShea Theodore
Nicolas HagueZach Whitecloud

Like with Vegas top-six, there’s not much to say about Vegas’ top-four that hasn’t been said already. Two defensive stalwarts on the left in ex-Kings Martinez and McNabb; two all-around stars on the right in Pietrangelo and Theodore. Pietrangelo didn’t get off to an amazing start in Vegas but picked it up as the season progressed. His underlying numbers were some of the team’s worst (though still in the solid 51% range by Corsi and xG). But they were about two percent better compared to his season average over Vegas’ final twenty contests. And he put up a respectable 23 points despite missing 15 games. He and Martinez were tasked with shutting down their opponents’ best players and did so pretty well, leading to a 3-year, $15.75 million extension for Martinez. It’s a risk considering Martinez is 34. But again, it’s worth taking for an all-team like the Golden Knights.

What slack Pietrangelo may have left was picked up and then some by Shea Theodore, who I don’t think I can call one of the game’s most underrated defensemen anymore. He finished 6th in Norris voting for the second straight year, scoring just four fewer points than in 2019-20 in 18 fewer games. He’s an elite puck-mover, skater, and an advanced stats darling. Yes, he does benefit from somewhat cushy minutes thanks to the shutdown work of Martinez and Pietrangelo. But Theodore deserves every bit of praise he receives and has one of the game’s best contracts (four years left at $5.2 million).

Vegas hasn’t received much help from their prospects up-front in their brief existence; only two Vegas drafted forwards (Keegan Kolesar and Cody Glass – traded to Nashville for Patrick). But they do have two under-24 homegrown defenders currently on their blue-line; both of whom scored in Vegas’ Game 7 victory over Minnesota in Round 1. The two were impressive together last year, rocking a 56% Expected Goals and 65% Goals For. The latter figure (64.71%, to be exact) was 9th best in the league last year. Both play solid, modern styles and should be solid pieces for Vegas in the years to come. That’s barring fast-arriving paydays, of course, as both will also be RFAs at season’s end.

Goaltenders

Robin Lehner
Laurent Brossoit

For all the blockbuster trades and free-agent additions Vegas has made in their tenure, none is more controversial than the trade of Marc-André Fleury. The Flower was the team’s backbone in their first two years, especially in 2017-18 when he posted identical .927 save percentages in the regular season and playoffs. He slowed down a little bit in 2019-20, recording just a .905 SV% and was in the negatives of Moneypuck.com’s goals saved above-expected model for the first time since 2013-14. With Fleury at 35, the team went out and acquired Lehner, who thrived down the stretch in 2019-20 and was the team’s starter in the bubble. Vegas’ crease looked like his moving forward.

But then something extraordinary happened. At 36, Fleury delivered the best season of his career, ranking third in the NHL with 17.9 GSAE, third with a .928 SV% (min. 20 games), and won his first Vezina Trophy. Other than one notable blunder, he was strong in the playoffs, too (.918 SV%). But with cap space lacking and Lehner inked to a 5-year, $25 million extension in October 2020, Vegas made the stunning decision to essentially trade Fleury for nothing (technically, it was Mikael Hakkarainen, but Vegas terminated his contract). The move was stunning; how it reportedly went down is inexcusable. Fleury deserved so much better for all he did for Vegas on the ice and in the community. Golden Knights fans will sorely miss him.

The good news for them is the Golden Knights still have a more than capable duo left in Fleury’s wake. After all, Lehner still put up a .913 save percentage for Vegas last year and has the second-best save percentage of any goalie since 2018-19 (min. 50 games). And Laurent Brossoit has put up at least a .918 save percentage in two of the last three years in Winnipeg. He’s been one of the less utilized backups in the league behind Hellebuyck (and behind Cam Talbot in 2017-18), so it will be interesting to see how he performs if Vegas ups his playing time.

The Verdict

There’s little doubt that Vegas will be not just a playoff team this season, but once again one of the league’s elite. Their defense is the same, the forward core is probably better than last year, and the goalie tandem is still solid despite a downgrade. There’s little not to like about this team; they’re solid all-around, with even their one weakness (center) being at least decent. Vegas figures to once again be one of the league’s best 5v5 and PK teams. Hopefully, Dadonov helps boost the league’s 22nd best power-play, though. Only one other team in their division (Edmonton) made the playoffs last year. The Golden Knights are the only Pacific Division team to win a playoff game last year; let alone one round, let alone two. If they don’t at least make it back to the third-round year this season, it will be a devastating disappointment.

Can they get over the hump this year? That’s obviously a harder question to answer. There are lots of really, really good teams that it takes a long time to win the Cup for; the Washington squad that defeated Vegas in the 2018 Final is the perfect example. And for others, like the San Jose squad the Golden Knights battled so fiercely in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs, it never comes to fruition. That’s the business.

Vegas is doing everything they can to win it all; other than crossing your fingers extra tight, that’s really all you can do. The Golden Knights are about to ice their fifth-straight Cup caliber roster. Each time that number ticks up, Vegas’ Cup odds get better. Despite the confusing optics of the Fleury trade, the Golden Knights are still in a better position than ever to bring it home this year. Time will tell if they need to do more (or less) to increase their odds.

Follow Us on Twitter! Also, check out the Vendetta Shop and our partnerships with SimBull (learn more here)!

Vendetta Sports Media is sponsored by Monkey Knife Fight, the fastest-growing DFS site in the industry. MKF’s unique style and gameplay make betting fun and easy. Use our promo code ‘VENDETTA’ or use the link below to get a 100% instant match on any deposit and let them know that we sent you!

Signup now!

All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info and Depth Chart via CapFriendly