The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off a run to the Western Conference Final last season. The majority of the core from last season is intact and healthy, and they upgraded on defense by signing Alex Pietrangelo in free agency. Yet there are many hockey observers who do not consider the Golden Knights a favorite to win the Honda West Division this year.
Blame the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado seems to have become this year’s media darling, the sexy pick to win a Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001. The Avs are a great team, led by arguably the league’s best all-around player in Nathan MacKinnon. Colorado’s forward depth is impressive. They got even better on defense when they took advantage of the New York Islanders need to move Devon Toews for a ham sandwich and a bag of pucks, then inked him to a new deal. Oh, and he’s now playing on the top pair with 2019 Hobey Baker winner and last year’s NHL Rookie of the Year Cale Makar.
So I get it. The Avalanche are a force to be reckoned with, and no one will overlook them on the schedule in the west division. There is a feeling that had this team not run into the injuries they sustained last season, perhaps they win it all. I can’t argue with how good the Avs are. But I can tell you I think Vegas is better than people realize.
Maybe it’s a little bit of fatigue with the Golden Knights because they’ve been front-and-center for four years now. Perhaps outsiders see that Paul Stastny is gone and wonder if Vegas has the depth at center needed to keep scoring. Or you see two starting-caliber goalies on the roster and wonder how they can co-exist peacefully. Or… you get the idea. Whatever the reason, there’s no need for VGK fans to feel slighted. I think it will play as an advantage for the Golden Knights.
If you’ve watched Chandler Stephenson play with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, you know he looked more than capable between them. It’s easy to write that off as Patches and Stone making everyone look good (which they certainly can do). Credit is due to Stephenson for stepping up his game when centering the dynamic duo. And if this sticks for the season I think Stephenson is due for a monster year.
Don’t forget, Cody Glass is starting as the third line center and is a very bright spot in the middle for Vegas as well in seasons to come. So question the depth at center all you like, Vegas is just fine there.
In fact, with the upgraded blueline chipping in offensively as well I don’t see goal scoring being an issue for this Golden Knights team at all. When they match up with the Avs, the real question will be keeping the puck out of the net. Matching up with other teams’ top six forwards should favor Vegas as the Golden Knights boast one of the best top four defensive groups in the league.
The other big advantage for the VGK this season is all the attention being focused on the Avalanche. Not since the inaugural season has the weight of external expectations been lighter. There’s something freeing about that, whether players admit it or not. There’s also some motivation in there, knowing that you have something to prove every time you take the ice. It can be a real mental edge to this team to feel like the underdog as well.
Vegas fans shouldn’t mind the Colorado Avalanche getting all the attention in the Honda West Division to start the season. The Golden Knights are still dangerous, still talented, and still hungry to win a Stanley Cup. It will just feel that much better to prove people wrong along the way.