As the Vegas Golden Knights open training camp this Monday, many questions are facing the team. Here are the top five most important questions that need an answer.
How Will Alex Pietrangelo Fit In?
I don’t mean in terms of role. We all know he’s going to be on the top defensive pairing and play a ton of minutes. But just because you go out and sign the big-name superstar doesn’t guarantee success. There’s something to be said for chemistry with a D partner and within the dressing room. Pietrangelo is a leader and former St. Louis Blues captain. How will his leadership role develop with the Golden Knights?
It would not be a major surprise to see him wearing an “A” pretty quickly, but if he doesn’t have one, that’s ok. Head coach Pete DeBoer may opt to let him settle into his new team first before putting the letter on his sweater. It’s not as if Pietrangelo won’t be a leader. But it does take away some of the immediate pressure to guide a team he barely knows. Some guys acutely feel that pressure. Some do not. Getting Pietrangelo comfortable in his new settings is far more important than hurrying to stick a letter on him.
The other role I would expect Pietrangelo to take on is mentoring younger players. Shea Theodore is top of the list. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I think Theodore is a future Norris Trophy winner. He has the ability to put up the offensive numbers that gain notice while taking care of his own end. Mentoring Theodore through this important stage of his growth will be critical to how he matures heading into his prime.
Pietrangelo’s Stanley Cup pedigree and career experience will also significantly impact promising defenders like Zach Whitecloud, Nic Hague, and the recently-acquired Carl Dahlstrom. You can’t overestimate the importance of his guidance during training camp to players who are likely headed back to junior/college/AHL, either. Pietrangelo is someone the young Golden Knights defensemen of tomorrow will look up to for the next several years.
It’s a lot of pressure on one guy, but it was clear from the start where Pietrangelo wanted to be, and the Golden Knights moved heaven and earth to make it happen. Hopefully, the benefits are immediate.
How will Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner Get Along?
We all know Fleury is widely known as a good guy. One who won’t rock the boat, take his starts when he can, and be a good teammate. How do we know this? For over a year in Pittsburgh, he did it with the emergence of Matt Murray, a move eternally debated by Pens faithful. When Pittsburgh needed him to step in and save the team on its way to a second straight Stanley Cup in 2017, he did… and was then replaced in the Stanley Cup Final when Murray was healthy again. If you have any doubt as to Fleury’s understanding of how things work, look who he passed the Cup to after he raised it that year.
It’s not the best situation to be in, but Fleury handles it all with public grace.
Now, the writing is on the wall once again. The Golden Knights signed Robin Lehner to a five-year deal in the off-season, making him the top dog for the foreseeable future. The problem is you now have a backup in Fleury (who still believes he can be a starter) with a cap hit of $7M for the next two seasons. Lehner is paid $5M AAV. That alone will raise questions all season long.
Credit VGK GM Kelly McCrimmon because he tried to get out in front of this early by saying months ago the team was not going to trade Fleury. He made it clear they were happy with the tandem in net despite the high price and were prepared to move forward. It’s no secret the Golden Knights would have loved to move Fleury’s contract. But it didn’t happen. Various reports said the asking price from Vegas was too high or that the team wouldn’t retain (enough) salary. No matter what the case, no move was made.
Having two top goaltenders on your roster is a good problem to have. In fact, the 1A/1B setup is more common than ever, and teams like the Boston Bruins have used it to great effect. Especially in a compacted year like this one, having two starting options will be the difference for regular season and playoff success.
The other unknown is how Lehner will handle the pressure of having a three-time Stanley Cup champ sitting behind him on the depth chart. On the surface, you wouldn’t expect this to be an issue, but you never really know. Having just acquired Lehner last year at the trade deadline Vegas hasn’t seen how he handles a full season yet. I’ll be curious to see it myself.
There could be a big upside to this setup, too. Some players really step up their games when pushed. We’ve seen Fleury do just that before with the Penguins. If Lehner accepts the challenge, in the same way, to perform with excellence, this could be a tremendous season in net for Golden Knights fans. Let’s all hope that this is the case and the rumor mill doesn’t dog the crease all season long.
Who will be the Golden Knights second-line center?
There’s no shortage of candidates for the vacancy created when Paul Stastny was traded to Winnipeg a few months ago. There’s hope for Cody Glass to step into the role after changing his diet and training to put on 20 more pounds. Chandler Stephenson looked good in a small sample size between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone last season.
Whatever the case, it seems the Golden Knights are content to promote from within for this major role. Nicholas Roy and Tomas Nosek can also play center, although it’s a leap to think they’d end up there. Rather they could be moved around accordingly if, say, Stephenson earned the 2C role full time, and Glass isn’t quite ready for prime time yet.
A slightly longer shot here but someone I won’t rule out entirely is Peyton Krebs. Krebs traveled to the bubble with the Golden Knights last season, and the team is clearly impressed with his development. He’s looked good at the World Junior Championship with Team Canada so far, his eight points ranking him sixth among all WJC scorers. The reality is that it would take an amazing camp from Krebs to land here. More likely, he starts on the wing as many young centers do to get a feel for the pace of the NHL game. Once he’s established that he can play at this level, you may see a move to take on the extended two-way responsibilities of a center.
At this point, I think the rooting interest lies with Glass making the jump. If he doesn’t, putting him on the third line with Alex Tuch is not the end of the world, and in fact, might be a tremendous scoring combination for the VGK.
Can DeBoer Get the VGK over the hump?
This is a massive question. DeBoer took over the Golden Knights after the surprise Gerard Gallant firing last season. After taking over, the team won 15 of the next 22 games before the pandemic halted the season. Then the VGK were herded into the bubble several months later and made a run to the Western Conference Final. The bubble experience itself was unique, and DeBoer feels it will help make him an even better coach this season. But it’s not typical, and probably not what we’re going to see when we finally get back to the playoffs in May of 2021.
When DeBoer took over, the defense became more involved in generating offense. Things looked good until the pandemic hit and halted the season. Then in the playoffs, the club struggled to find the net against the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars. One of the major focus points for Vegas is regaining the scoring touch it lost towards the end of last year. If you buy the line that the Golden Knights simply struggled against Thatcher Demko and Anton Khudobin, you might feel better about it. But it doesn’t explain winning only two of the last eight playoff games with a total of 12 goals scored after starting with 10 wins in 12 games. The jury is still out here.
Another question surrounding DeBoer is how the room responds this season. As with any new coach coming in, changes were made. It became clear very quickly that Marc-Andre Fleury would take a backseat to Robin Lehner once the latter was acquired. Plus, with a veteran center like Stastny gone and Nate Schmidt dealt to make room for Alex Pietrangelo, this year’s team will have a different look and feel in some important places. How DeBoer establishes roles will be of major importance in training camp.
This leads nicely into my last big question:
Team Chemistry and the Cap
As I mentioned, Stastny is gone. Schmidt is gone and was quite emotional about it. There were rumors swirling over the off-season about how players were on edge about potentially being traded. Max Pacioretty’s name has been floated several times in the trade rumor mill. So has Jonathan Marchessault. Even now, the Golden Knights remain about $1M over the salary cap for this season.
That’s not an easy thing to have hanging over the dressing room. The salary cap is a modern-day Sword of Damocles hanging precariously over each player’s head. In a normal year, it’s a lot of pressure to perform. But now, the pandemic has flattened the cap and ruined almost every team’s plans for the next couple of years. There isn’t as much available room as was projected, and no one could have seen this coming. Vegas is among the teams caught in the trap, looking to shed some more salary.
Of course, some teams will dodge the cap using Long Term IR (LTIR) as cover. The Tampa Bay Lightning just did this with Nikita Kucherov having surgery on his hip and missing five to six months of action. Since he’s out for an extended period of time, he goes on LTIR, and the team saves his cap hit. Vegas might have had a chance to do that with Robin Lehner having surgery in the off-season, but it looks like that’s not going to be the way McCrimmon plays his hand.
The pandemic has created a loophole for the Golden Knights in the form of the taxi squad. With the AHL not starting for another month (and who knows what will actually happen), the NHL realizes teams will deal with injury issues and is allowing a 4-6 player taxi squad. This could potentially help the Golden Knights juggle players “up and down” without having to transact them to the AHL. Taxi squad players are technically only in case of emergency and could play only under those conditions.
Bumps and bruises will occur, guys will be held out of the lineup, and taxi squad players will play. Oh, and did I mention those taxi squad guys will practice and travel with the team? The only difference is the aforementioned conditions for them to play. They even receive NHL per diem. So look for Vegas to work this avenue to start if no further roster moves are made.
Does this help settle the room and calm the nerves of players who worry about those types of things? Maybe. Certainly, being flat out cap compliant would be the best route. In the absence of that happening, there will still be some looking over one’s shoulder, and that’s not good for peace of mind.
Vegas needs to settle in quickly and get on track because this is a championship-caliber roster. You don’t go out and mortgage the farm to acquire a guy like Pietrangelo to not win the Stanley Cup. The reality needs to match up with the expectations, which have never been higher.
For a Golden Knights training camp roster and schedule, click here.