When your first prediction projects a playoff miss for the team that goes on to win the Stanley Cup, you know it isn’t a banner year in terms of prognostications. So, after taking some lumps on my 2022-23 Vegas Golden Knights predictions, I am back for another round of looking ahead at what the future holds for the defending Cup champions.
Without further ado, let’s look ahead and hope that crystal ball is working a little better this time around.
1) Vegas Finishes Second in the Pacific Division
Last season’s Pacific Division title came as a result of the Golden Knights holding the surging Edmonton Oilers off in the regular season’s final stretch. Their last 10 games saw the club go 6-1-3, doing just enough to withstand Edmonton’s nine-game season-ending win streak and claim the division crown by two points.
After narrowly besting the Oilers last season, don’t expect the same result this time around. Much of that comes down to Vegas, who would be wise to conserve themselves during the regular season, given last year’s demanding playoff run and the veteran nature of the roster. Both teams should occupy the league’s upper echelon, but Connor McDavid is likely poised to take another step forward, while the Golden Knights might take a small one back.
2) Adin Hill Holds Onto the Starter’s Job
The popular trend, at least when it comes to the predictions of ESPN and my colleague Eric Cruikshank, seems to be projecting Logan Thompson to return from injury and reclaim the crease. To be sure, the 26-year-old certainly proved himself as a No. 1 starter, playing so well in the first half of last season that he earned an All-Star invite. What he didn’t prove, however, was that he could stay healthy for a full year.
Thompson is now healthy and looking to regain the No. 1 job, but so is his schoolmate, the newly re-signed Cup hero Adin Hill. Hill also hasn’t held the top job in net for a full season, but he earned the team’s trust by backstopping Vegas through the postseason with a .932 save percentage (SV%) and 2.17 goals-against average (GAA). With a tight defense still in front of him, don’t expect Hill to falter to the point of surrendering the top job, or at least his share of their possible tandem duty.
3) Golden Knights Get Active at Trade Deadline
General manager Kelly McCrimmon has always enjoyed a good momentum-boosting trade deadline deal, even if the club’s cap situation hasn’t always allowed for it. Last season, he found a way to land Ivan Barbashev, Teddy Blueger and Jonathan Quick, although only Barbashev made a notable impact. The year prior, Vegas’ trade for Jack Eichel ensured that the heavy lifting was done early, and there was little opportunity to do much more.
This time around, things could be different. Once Robin Lehner returns to long-term injury reserve (LTIR) as the season starts, the Golden Knights will hold roughly $850,000 in cap space. While that’s not enough to land an impact player, it could certainly help add value to what could be brought in if additional money gets sent out. Furthermore, injuries can be reasonably anticipated at some point along the way, considering the physical toll of the Cup run. That means more potential space created by LTIR, as well as more possible holes in the lineup.
4) Pavel Dorofeyev Offers Most Production Among Young Forwards
The departure of Reilly Smith, coupled with no immediate, externally sourced help ready to step in, means that the Golden Knights will be leaning on their pipeline to help step in and shore up the depth. Therefore, expect opportunities for youngsters — both in the preseason and entering the regular season, too.
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Last season, it was Paul Cotter who seized a larger role with his versatility, appearing in 55 games and scoring 13 goals. Pavel Dorofeyev, meanwhile, got a look in 18 games, scoring an impressive seven goals that put him on pace for 30 over a full season. Cotter still looms large in the club’s plans for the upcoming season, but don’t be surprised if the 22-year-old Dorofeyev can prove his ability to produce offensively at the NHL level.
5) Mark Stone Plays Over 60 Games
How incredibly frustrating must it have been for Vegas captain Mark Stone to emerge out of the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, only to suffer through a wave of injuries that have held him to 80 games over the last two seasons combined? Of course, much of that frustration melted away over the course of last year’s playoff run, as the 31-year-old returned from the sidelines to suit up for all 22 postseason games, contributing 11 goals and 13 assists.
Significantly, Stone toughed out some serious punishment en route to the Cup, withstanding a targeted effort by the Oilers focused on his surgically repaired back and a vicious crosscheck to the face by Jamie Benn in the Western Conference Final that earned the Dallas Stars veteran a two-game suspension. He also revealed his Cup-clinching hat trick was recorded with a broken wrist. The Golden Knights coaches and management figure to monitor his usage over the 82-game season, meaning that he won’t play every night, but he’s already passed plenty of tests to show that his body can hold up.
6) Marchessault Stays, Stephenson & Martinez Depart
Back in mid-August, buzz surrounding a Jonathan Marchessault trade hit the rumor mill. The whispers made some sense, if only in the type of cold, business-like way we’ve seen Golden Knights management operate in the past. If the pending free agent doesn’t have a long future in Vegas, Vegas might as well maximize value on his way out the door. It had just been a matter of weeks since Marchessault’s long-time teammate Smith was shipped out.
Much to the relief of fans of the Conn Smythe winner, a trade never came to be. Now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club keep the 32-year-old around. There remains no certainty past this season, but the Golden Knights know how integral he was to last spring’s playoff run and could theoretically hold firm on a steep asking price with the knowledge that, at worst, he could serve as an ‘own rental’. That said, I feel the situation is simply too mutually beneficial at this stage and that both sides want this relationship to continue past this season.
The same, however, probably can’t be said for fellow pending unrestricted free agents Chandler Stephenson and Alec Martinez. Stephenson’s remarkable developmental arc — from fringe forward in Washington to top-six mainstay and second-leading scorer for the Cup champs — has likely priced him out of Vegas’ range. Meanwhile, Martinez will be 37 once next season rolls around. Given his depth role at this stage of his career, he could likely be replaced with a younger, cheaper blue-line option.
7) Golden Knights Call On Defensive Depth
Speaking of the blue line, the Golden Knights were blessed with health and consistency among their defensive unit last season. Four defensemen (Pietrangelo, Martinez, Brayden McNabb and Nicolas Hague) played in more than 70 games while logging significant ice time (only Hague saw fewer than 19 minutes per game). That kind of reliable presence made it considerably easier to find viable solutions for injuries to Zach Whitecloud and Shea Theodore.
While you never want to predict an injury, that good fortune seems destined to run out at some point. Given the age of most members of the Vegas blue line and the toll of the Cup run, players will inevitably miss time. Thankfully, the club is equipped to handle back-end losses. Ben Hutton is back, as are Daniil Miromanov, Braydan Pachal and Kaedan Korczak. The Golden Knights also added Dysin Mayo last February and signed tough guy Mason Geertsen in free agency to further beef up the unit.
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8) Jiří Patera Starts 5-10 Games
It’s easy to feel good about a goaltending tandem when one netminder is a reigning All-Star, and the other just led your team to the championship. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that neither Hill nor Thompson have managed half a season’s worth of games yet in their NHL careers. Throw in the departure of Laurent Brossoit to Winnipeg, and you’ve got a very real possibility that some insurance between the pipes will be required.
Unfortunately, there is no viable, proven option within the organization, unless you count the injured Lehner. Enter Jiří Patera. In what was a very small sample size, the 24-year-old managed wins in his first two NHL starts last season, recording a .929 SV% and 2.50 GAA. Patera wasn’t as strong over 31 games with the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights last season, although he didn’t have the Vegas blue line in front of him. Whether as another development opportunity or just by necessity, expect to see the Czech netminder back in the NHL at some point this season.
9) Second Line Wing Job Remains in Flux
By trading Smith and re-signing Barbashev, the Golden Knights have basically reverted back to their pre-deadline forward depth from a year ago, one player shy of a bona fide top-six. But while that might leave the lineup feeling a little incomplete up front, the truth is that very few teams have a firmly defined top two lines, particularly in the preseason.
Assuming Vegas opts to keep the dynamic trio of Eichel, Marchessault and Barbashev together to start the season, there would remain a decent-sized hole beside Stone and Stephenson on line two. Brett Howden will probably get a look, as will the likes of Cotter, Dorofeyev and probably Nicolas Roy. While it’s always possible that one of those players seizes the opportunity and claims the role, the likeliest scenario is a second-line-by-committee approach.
10) Vegas Falls to Oilers in Round Two
Will this be where I’m once again proven foolish? While I’m not suggesting (again) that the Golden Knights will fall short of the postseason, I do think that the grind of last year’s run could take its toll. As of now, a second-round rematch with Edmonton looks very possible, which would mean another dose of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
After losing to the ultimate Cup champs in consecutive years and slowly growing into a Cup-or-bust label, the Oilers look like a true threat. Vegas was able to absorb their speed and match physicality in last season’s six-game series, but I anticipate an even more formidable Edmonton squad this time.
Yes, I acknowledge that this could all result in a humbled future article wherein I own up to the fact that I may not be an expert psychic. But with a roster featuring plenty of returnees and few significant changes that could impact their standing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference, this season theoretically should be an easier one to project — I hope.