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.