Year Five for the Vegas Golden Knights has arrived. And it’s going to look very different from the previous four. But the goal hasn’t changed. It’s still “Cup in Six.” That’s the mandate from owner Bill Foley.
Marc-Andre Fleury is in Chicago. Ryan Reaves is in New York. Cody Glass is in Nashville. Nick Holden is in Ottawa. The departures of Fleury and Reaves are the big ones. Both were fan favorites. Both were influential in the locker room.
Coach Peter DeBoer finally had a full training camp with seven preseason games to experiment and assess his lineup. And he needed the time. Injuries to defensemen Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and Zach Whitecloud and forwards Nicolas Roy, William Carrier and Brett Howden gave DeBoer a chance to evaluate the team’s youngsters, particularly forward Peyton Krebs, the team’s top draft pick in 2019 who was placed on the 23-man roster submitted to the NHL Monday.
“We were able to get a long look at our young players,” he said.
The Knights went 3-4 during the preseason, which should not set off any alarm bells. They have McNabb back and Theodore is ready to return after practicing with no restrictions on Monday. But there are things to ponder as the season begins Tuesday against the NHL’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken.
Here are five storylines to follow as the puck drops on the 2021-22 season:
1. Is Lehner ready to lead?: With Fleury’s departure, Robin Lehner has the net as the team’s No. 1 goaltender. He worked in the offseason on getting into shape, both physically and mentally. Don’t dismiss the mental art of this as Lehner, who is bipolar and suffers from depression, is a mental health advocate and recently made his feeling known about player health and prescription drugs in a series Tweets that got the NHL’s attention and were addressed in a phone conversation between the player and league.
“It was a long preseason but I’m ready to go,” Lehner said after Saturday’s preseason finale. If he’s not, the Knights do have a proven backup in Laurent Brossoit, formerly of the Winnipeg Jets. They may not win the Jennings Trophy as the league’s top goalie tandem, but the Knights are in good shape in goal.
2. Special Teams troubles: The Golden Knights’ power play woes last season have been well documented and DeBoer tried to head things off at the pass at the start of training camp saying the PP would be evaluated throughout the year and not to pass judgement until season’s end. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way and the power play will be under the microscope starting Tuesday.
It actually looked decent during the preseason with Alec Martinez doing a pretty fair Alex Ovechkin imitation setting up an “office” at the right faceoff circle and ripping shots. And with Theodore expected back, the Knights will have a solid presence at the point with Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo. A healthy Max Pacioretty also helps and the addition of Evgenii Dadonov in the “bumper” spot in the middle of the ice will give the PP a boost.
The team’s penalty kill, which has been good in the past, was subpar during the preseason as DeBoer was trying to avoid using his top-six forwards exclusively in that situation. The Knights’ kill rate during the seven preseason games was just over 70%.
“We’ve got to tighten that up a bit,” he said of the PK following the preseason finale in San Jose.
3. Can Patrick regain his confidence?: Nolan Patrick was supposed to be a star in this league after the Flyers selected him No. 2 overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. So far, it hasn’t come to fruition, which was why Philly moved him to Nashville, which quickly flipped him to Vegas for Glass, who was the No. 6 overall pick in that draft.
Patrick has dealt with injury issues going back to his junior hockey days and he never was quite right with the Flyers. But he gets a fresh start with the Golden Knights and he became more comfortable with his new team as training camp went on, which was encouraging. He also has stayed healthy, which is even more encouraging.
Right now, it appears Patrick will center the third line with Dadonov and either Peyton Krebs or perhaps Keegan Kolesar, who had one of the best camps of any VGK player. At some point, Patrick will likely skate with Alex Tuch once Tuch returns following shoulder surgery in the offseason. He’ll also get a spin on the second power play unit which should boost his confidence. Let’s see if he can get off to a good start.
4. Will Pietrangelo pick up where he left off?: We all saw how Alex Pietrangelo struggled through most of his first season with the Golden Knights. A new team. A new system. New teammates. New town. Getting his family acclimated to Las Vegas after spending his entire career in St. Louis. We get it. But when Pietrangelo showed his All-Star form during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Watching him in training camp and during the preseason, he continued his dominant play and he got a nice piece of news last week when he was one of the first three players announced to play for Canada in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
“It took a little longer than I hoped to settle in but everything is great,” Pietrangelo said of finding his comfort level.
With Pietrangelo playing at a high level, it helps the Golden Knights’ quest to fulfill their owner’s mandate.
5. Will they start fast?: Every team wants to get off to a good start and the way the schedule sets up, the Golden Knights will have the opportunity to do so.
It starts Tuesday against an expansion team. The Knights will host the Kraken twice in the first 20 games on the schedule. They’ll have a six-game homestead in mid-November which will include games against Seattle, Vancouver, Columbus and Detroit along with Carolina and Minnesota. There’s also an early November road trip to Canada for games against Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal which finishes up in Detroit. A successful trip and a strong run during the six-game homestead should put the Knights in good shape in the Pacific Division.
Five of those first 20 games come against Pacific opponents, including an Oct. 22 game against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. The last time the NHL played a full schedule in 2018-19, the Knights went 15-8-2 in divisional play (they were 16-6-3 in the Pacific their inaugural year in 2017-18). They figure to do better this time around.