Zach Whitecloud took the delay of game penalty that led to Denis Gurianov’s power-play OT series-winner and ended the Vegas Golden Knights season.
But credit the grunt guys: Former Anaheim Ducks teammates Corey Perry (10) and Andrew Cogliano (11) should be recognized for forcing Whitecloud into a precarious position.
It’s Chandler Stephenson’s turnover that is actually more blame-worthy than Whitecloud’s gaffe.
Stephenson (20) is looking to create offense, and tries to thread a difficult (and ultimately dangerous) neutral zone pass through Corey Perry (10) to Nick Cousins (21). Cleverly, Perry re-directs his skate, guiding the puck toward his wheelhouse. That’s a veteran play.
Perry then orchestrates a soft diagonal dump in concert with incoming forechecker Andrew Cogliano’s speed.
The 33-year-old Cogliano (11) shows that he’s still got wheels as his quick feet allow him to get inside on Whitecloud (2). The 5-foot-10 Cogliano uses his speed to establish body position — you don’t want him to get to the puck first, so close to the goal — forcing 6-foot-2 Zach Whitecloud to exercise his superior reach and make a wild lunge at the puck.
Just 1:21 later, Gurianov punched Dallas’s ticket to its first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years.
Loaded Lines, Stocked Blueline, VGK Now Class of West
The Vegas Golden Knights are about as stacked as you can get. No matter how the top six forwards shake out when the season starts, either line could be a number one on any NHL club. Defensively the Golden Knights landed the top free agent prize in Alex Pietrangelo to further bolster a tremendous blueline. And in net, the tandem of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury is among the NHL’s top three. The Golden Knights roster is among the best in the NHL.
It seems like no one is saying it so I will: Vegas is the class of the West.
Look at any list of top this or that, and there’s a VGK player, maybe two on it. They have goal scorers, setup men, defensive specialists and more. They’re deep everywhere, although I admit potentially young down the middle after William Karlsson. They really have all the makings of a team that should see itself in the Stanley Cup Final again this year.
What Happened In The Bubble?
It’s so odd. I spent a good amount of time watching Dallas in the bubble. At no point did they look like a team that was going to end up in the Stanley Cup Final. Yet they plodded along, getting just enough scoring and just enough goaltending to get the job done. It certainly helped that Vegas’ scoring completely flamed out in the later rounds and allowed the Stars to squeak by. But even now I can tell you Dallas is a good team with a good collection of talent, but I can’t say they’re better than Vegas.
Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the scoring dried up at the wrong time. Several sticks went cold in tandem, and the team just couldn’t find the production to win another series or two. If they received average production against the Stars, Vegas very likely would have been playing for the Cup. Instead they were left questioning what could have been.
Vegas has been single-minded in its pursuit of a Stanley Cup, going into win-now mode ever since the Inaugural Season when that team surprised everyone and came up just short of a title. Though much of the original Golden Knights roster is gone, the VGK has never stopped improving. Adding Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Robin Lehner and now Alex Pietrangelo has cost both valued prospects and solid NHL players. You don’t just trade away Paul Stastny or Nate Schmidt without a plan – or the confidence that you can replace their contributions. Some might call it ruthless, but the Golden Knights issue no apologies about wanting to win now.
Even the firing of Gerard Gallant came as a surprise to many in hockey circles. Sure the team was going through a rough patch but it was still a shock given all the Golden Knights had accomplished to that point. Yet Pete DeBoer came in and got the team right back on track, derailed only by the coronavirus shutdown.
I’ve talked to some people who feel that the Golden Knights have overreacted to getting bounced by the Stars with all the personnel moves. I disagree. They’re in a window that will only last for a finite amount of time. Taking advantage of that window sometimes requires difficult decisions involving fan favorites. No one likes to see a guy traded when they just bought his jersey. But credit to GM Kelly McCrimmon for making some difficult decisions that other general managers might have shied away from with little fallout.
One thing that could crop up and present an obstacle is an unsettled feeling in the room. It’s one thing to make deals to improve your team, it’s another to break up team chemistry or rattle locker room confidence by making everyone feel like they’re 30 seconds from being dealt. Humans don’t like uncertainty. We like to know our situation and establish a routine around it. Not knowing how far these shakeups can go could be a real distraction.
If these things had happened during the regular season or even playoffs, I could buy that. But in an unusual off-season any disquiet among the players should settle by the time we get back to business. Yes, it appears this Golden Knights roster needs one more move to get under the cap, but I’d expect them to find a way to use some IR space to do so. This team is the one you’re going to see next season.
Another obstacle could be the mounting tension in goal. Personally it appears Fleury and Lehner are fine, which is great. But off the ice, Fleury doesn’t want to sit. He’s paid as a number one and wants to be one. It’s still not clear what the relationship with Fleury and DeBoer will be like once we get back to games. Fleury has always been a good teammate. It remains to be seen how things will be handled internally, but externally the cracks won’t show. Hopefully there’s an answer here to satisfy all parties.
Dallas is going to have a target on its back all season, and Vegas will be aiming for them early and often. Other teams that (in a traditional conference alignment) Vegas will have to look out for include a motivated St. Louis Blues, the new-look Minnesota Wild, a Calgary Flames team that finally has that stud goalie and perhaps even a reinvigorated Winnipeg Jets. But none of these teams (notice I left out the Oilers who are still a mess in goal) match up with Vegas. The Golden Knights should thank Dallas for the premature exit, because the Stars will start the season marked. Trust me, it won’t take long for that bullseye to switch to the VGK.
By the time we reach the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I expect we will see Vegas atop the West and ready to make another deep run. Once the second center battle is settled the lines will really get a chance to settle into a groove. Pietrangelo’s addition makes the team better in both ends of the ice, and bolsters an already-dangerous power play even further. Both goaltenders are legit 1A goalies and give the team a chance to win every single night. Plus now Shea Theodore will have more room to roam offensively on the second pair and could potentially make an even bigger impact. The ripple effect will elevate the team’s play to a new level this year.
Is it too early to say this is the year? Maybe. But it’s not too early to say this is the best Vegas Golden Knights roster so far.
It’s Time for Glass; Can Young Center Carry Big Responsibility?
The Vegas Golden Knights made some big moves this off-season. One of those was moving veteran center Paul Stastny to the Winnipeg Jets to make room for the signing of Alex Pietrangelo. The trade has created an opportunity in the role of second-line center. Can highly-touted prospect Cody Glass win the battle?
Several candidates will certainly audition for the spot, including Chandler Stephenson, Nicholas Roy, and Tomas Nosek, all capable of playing center. But the real focus will be on the 21-year-old Glass, the 2017 sixth overall draft pick by the Golden Knights.
William Karlsson has earned the role of top center. Since coming to the Golden Knights, he’s posted three straight 30-plus assist seasons. Expectations are he will remain between Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. It’s also worth pointing out that Vegas is in the unusual situation of having two #1 lines. Max Pacioretty led the team with 32 goals and 66 points last season, while Mark Stone led in assists (42) and finished second in points (63). That duo could definitely support an up-and-coming center like Glass with their veteran savvy. The numbers say they’re the top line on many teams. That’s great news for Golden Knights fans.
Stephenson is the player who might be viewed as the immediate answer. His time between Stone and Pacioretty shows he fits in with skilled players. His speed benefits the duo on the forecheck. But can he do it on more of a full-time basis? Before his stint in the desert, Stephenson was seen as a bottom-six grinder. At 26, he has never put up big numbers. His 11-15-26 were all career highs in his first season with the Golden Knights. I like some of what I saw from him on this line.
If Stephenson does get the early nod here, perhaps Glass ends up on the third unit as either center or wing. Teaming him with Alex Tuch could create a third dynamic offensive line. There’s a definite possibility here. It’s tempting to think about.
However… Glass was drafted to be the guy. Is he ready to assume the responsibility?
The Case for Glass
One of the main assumptions of this article is that Glass ends up in the middle. Many times younger players trying to find their way end up on the wing before shifting to center. The main reason is playing on the wing carries less responsibility than the two-way role of center. This is why players like Nosek and Roy enter the conversation, if only briefly. With only half a season of NHL experience under his belt, head coach Pete DeBoer might make a convincing case to stash him on the wing for a bit. I won’t do that.
Placing Glass in the middle, the real battle is with Stephenson to see who ends up with Stone and Pacioretty. With the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, Glass put up massive numbers in his last two seasons. In 2017-18, he posted 37-65-102 in 64 games. The following year, Glass put up 15-54-69 in only 38 games. In both cases, he has shown the ability to be an explosive playmaker who can distribute the puck. Seeing the chemistry of Stone and Pacioretty, it’s understood they can elevate a center’s play. Clearly, Glass has the higher upside of the two.
Glass also saw immediate time on the power play and seems to be a natural fit in the “bumper” role. With the addition of Alex Pietrangelo to the already-dangerous VGK power play, Glass could see time on either unit depending on role distribution. It’s a good problem to have, but Vegas is spoiled for choice offensively.
Room For Improvement
Every player has room for improvement, and much of Glass’s growth will come with age and experience. I’m not too concerned with a faceoff percentage south of 42% or a lack of physical strength – yet. As Glass ages and transitions to his sophomore season of pro, I expect him to learn new work habits. Veteran players and staff serve as a guide for the younger players, and Glass will learn how to take care of his body and his game better. I also would expect him to put in the time towards training and preparation to get stronger and smarter.
Strength will come from putting the hours in the gym. As part of returning from knee surgery and getting ready for this season, I expect Glass to put more time into training. Making his body stronger after a rookie season riddled with injuries has to be a priority.
The mental part of the game comes from reps and preparation. I was fortunate enough to spend time delving into the art of faceoffs with one of the best of his era, Paul Gaustad. Gaustad put a massive amount of time into studying tape and technique. He could bring two or three different techniques into the circle to counter what other players might do on a particular draw. Gaustad also spent a lot of time taking faceoffs at practice and worked hard at his craft. While I don’t think Glass will go to this extreme, it helps to know just like any other aspect of a player’s game, his faceoffs can be improved greatly.
Glass has to dedicate himself to that improvement, but the ceiling gets much higher if he does.
I realize that during the playoffs, Karlsson was playing mostly with Pacioretty and Stone as the Golden Knights struggled to score goals. That last sentence shows a major reason why I don’t think Karlsson remains between those two. Vegas couldn’t find the scoring when it counted most. The wings that have shown they could prop up a center like Glass best are Pacioretty and Stone, not Smith and Marchessault. While Karlsson may stay there, I don’t think it’s likely.
The Bottom Line
Coming out of training camp – whenever it may be – I expect the forward lines to be a fluid situation. Certainly, the Golden Knights will try to find the best compliment for Stone and Pacioretty, especially in a short season with little room for error. But Vegas is deep and is one of the few teams that could afford to be patient with Glass learning a 2C role this year. Putting him on a unit with the tremendous two-way play of Stone could really take some weight off the youngster defensively.
Also, please don’t underestimate the effect of missing time with a major knee injury on a player’s motivation. Glass had a bumpy first year plagued with injuries and will definitely look to put all that behind him and show he’s ready to go.
I believe Glass will get a shot to be a breakout player for the Golden Knights this year. All signs point to him being ready to take the next big step and help the Golden Knights back to the playoffs.
Finally! Vegas Unveils Adidas Reverse Retro Jersey
The Vegas Golden Knights finally took the official wraps off the team’s Adidas Reverse Retro jersey today. Featuring a red body with the secondary logo on the crest and striping that harkens back to the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder, the jerseys will be worn on specially-chosen dates next season.
Every NHL team revealed a Reverse Retro jersey for next season, and we will take a look at all of them in a subsequent article.
Meanwhile, here’s the intro video for the new VGK threads: Reverse Retro Explained
While I suppose it’s easy to say when you’re the victor, the NHL actually allowing a reference to the IHL is impressive. For those who may not know, the International Hockey League attempted to go head-to-head with the NHL in the 90s, much the way the old WHA did. IHL teams boasted plenty of star power, many of whom were household names to NHL fans of the era. In Vegas, fans watched Curtis Joseph, Clint Malarchuk, Pokey Reddick and even Manon Rheaume in net. Big name skaters included Wes McCauley, Petr Nedved, Alexei Yashin and Sergei Zholtok. And a few interesting one-and-dones, including Danny Briere and Glen Gulutzan.
So to throw it back to that 1995 prime for the Thunder is a great tip of the cap to the rich fabric of Vegas hockey history. Starting with the 1968 debut of the Las Vegas Gamblers of the old PSHL and consistently since the early 90s, fans have had a team to cheer for. In a way it’s amazing to think there’s now two hockey teams in the Las Vegas area with the introduction of the Henderson Silver Knights coming this season.
The v-shaped stripes look completely at home with the Golden Knights color scheme. As I said previously, the red body of the jersey looks better in person than it might have in leaks. And I also love the secondary logo moving up front, because it’s unique to Vegas. While I’m not a fan of every RR jersey, the VGK and Adidas knocked it out of the park on this one.
Jerseys will go on sale December 1 through the Golden Knights retail outlets, Adidas’ online store and the NHL’s online store. Additional retailers will be able to carry the sweater starting December 6.