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As Golden Knights training camp opens, 5 storylines to follow

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Robin Lehner Vegas Golden Knights

It seems like yesterday the Vegas Golden Knights were denied by the Montreal Canadiens in their quest to play for the Stanley Cup. But with training camp scheduled to begin Wednesday, 88 days after the Habs won Game 6 in overtime to eliminate the Golden Knights, it’s time to turn the page and move on.

The Golden Knights have a different look as they enter their fifth NHL season. Fan favorites Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Reaves are gone. So is Cody Glass, the team’s first pick from the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The new faces include centers Evgenii Dadonov, Nolan Patrick and Brett Howden.

Fans will be permitted to attend training camp practices beginning Thursday at City National Arena. However, masks are required for entry. The first preseason game is Sunday at T-Mobile Arena vs. the San Jose Sharks, the first of seven games in preparation for the 2021-22 season opener Oct. 12 at home against the expansion Seattle Kraken. So there’s not going to be a lot of time to prepare and evaluate.

So what can we expect from the Golden Knights? Here are five storylines worth following as the team’s quest for the “Cup In Six” continues.

1. Life after Fleury: The departure of Marc-Andre Fleury goes well beyond the love affair with the Golden Knights’ fan base. He was an important component in the team’s locker room and kept everybody loose with his pranks.

Fleury’s play on the ice was also important. He won the Vezina Trophy last season before being shipped to Chicago in a salary cap money-saving move. The future Hall of Famer allowed his teammates to take more chances because they knew they could rely on him to come up with the big save if they screwed up. 

“Flower’s been the heart and soul for quite a bit for our team and our organization, so it’s going to be different, but it just shows you how unstable the world of hockey is,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “No one is safe out there, so you have to stay on your toes and give your best every night.”

Fleury turns 37 in late November. He’s in the last year of his $7 million deal. He has hinted that this could be his last year. If that’s true, perhaps he and the organization can kiss and make up, sign him to a one-day contract and allow him to retire a Golden Knight. Of course, the folks who run the Pittsburgh Penguins might have something to say about that with similar designs to honor the goalie who owns three Stanley Cup rings with the Pens.

For now, enjoy Fleury, even if he’s wearing that iconic red Blackhawks sweater. Circle Jan. 8 on your calendar. That’s the night Fleury returns to T-Mobile Arena. It figures to be emotional and the video tribute will be epic.

2. It’s Lehner’s net: With Fleury gone, the Golden Knights have pushed all their Robin Lehner chips to the middle of the table and are all in. They are counting on the 30-year-old to take care of business in net as the team’s No. 1 goalie.

This is what Lehner has been wanting and now he gets the chance. His coach has his back and his teammates appear to be in his corner as well. And in case he needs an occasional break, the Knights made a smart move and signed Laurent Brossoit in the off-season as Lehner’s backup. Brossoit had that same role in Winnipeg backing up Connor Hellebuyck so he will definitely feel comfortable in that spot.

Lehner is a very different goaltender than Fleury. He is bigger, plays the puck better with his stick, isn’t as acrobatic but still capable of moving laterally in his crease and making the fancy save when required.

He also has an outspoken personality. He won’t mince words on social media, something Fleury never partook in and he isn’t afraid to talk about mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Ultimately, it will come down to performance. Win games and the fans will love him. Falter and they’ll be yelling “We want Fleury!”

3. Power play fixes: Let’s not mince words here, the Golden Knights’ power play sucked last year. They were 22nd in the NHL during the regular season and had the worst power play of the 16 teams during last year’s playoffs.

Something has to change, right?

To that end, the team acquired Evgenii Dadonov from Ottawa, who was very good in finding the net when he was with the Florida Panthers. The Knights also believe Nolan Patrick (more on him in a moment), can give the PP a boost.

What would really help is keeping Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch healthy. When he’s right, Pacioretty is dangerous, possessing a lethal wrist shot that gets on top of opposing goaltenders quickly. He’s normally used at the top of the offensive zone faceoff circle or at the hash marks just below the top. 

Tuch is a big body and he can get to the front of the net and take away the eyes of opposing goaltenders. He has gotten better at redirecting shots, a bit of a lost art, and he has found more confidence in his game overall. The problem is, we won’t see him until midseason as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Peter DeBoer has entrusted the power play to assistant Steve Spott, who was with DeBoer in San Jose. Spott caught a lot of heat, especially during the playoffs, when the Knights failed to convert more often than not. What adjustments will be made to the team’s philosophy this year? It can’t the same old, same old. That will not fly.

4. Where does Patrick play?: Nolan Patrick is going to be given a chance to make a fresh start after a tough four years in Philadelphia. The 23-year-old center has talent — he was the No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft after all, but he needs to find a comfort level.

DeBoer has several options. He can play Patrick on the third line, likely with Dadonov and  Mattias Janmark. He can give him a shot to center the Golden Knights’ top line playing him with Pacioretty and Mark Stone. He could wind up playing on the fourth line with William carrier and Keegan Kolesar. He likely will get some time with the second power play unit as well.

GM Kelly McCrimmon knows Patrick well from their junior days together with the Brandon Wheat Kings. McCrimmon knows what Patrick is capable of doing when he’s healthy and engaged. The hope is the change of scene reboot gets Patrick’s career on an upward trajectory.    

5. Can a rookie crack the lineup?: Realistically, it’s going to be tough to make the opening night roster. The defensive pairs appear set. There’s little space up front. The team is set in goal.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And if you’re Peyton Krebs, Kaedan Korczak or Jack Dugan, you have to come to camp with the mindset you are good enough to play in Vegas instead of Henderson, the team’s AHL affiliate.

As forwards, Krebs and Dugan face stiffer competition trying to make the team. Both looked very good at the recent Coyotes Rookie Faceoff Tournament in Arizona and with Silver Knights GM Tim Speltz looking on, they left a positive impression. But it’s a very different scenario skating against NHL veterans than rookies and prospects. Let’s see how Krebs and Dugan fare when they get their opportunities during the preseason.

Korczak may have a better chance to stick. Yes, the Golden Knights’ D pairs are set and Dylan Coghlan appears to be the swing seventh guy on the blue line. But all it takes is an injury or two and suddenly Korczak is dressing at T-Mobile Arena instead of the Orleans Arena. He has the physical style of game that DeBoer is looking for and he is good at moving the puck out of his own end. He will undoubtedly get a long look during the preseason and perhaps get to play with Alex Pietrangelo or Shea Theodore or Alec Martinez.   

The good news is there are some talented youngsters in the system. The bad news is there may not be room for them right now to play in the NHL.

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