The Vegas Golden Knights faced a major salary cap problem during the offseason. Management had some tough decisions to make. They paid the Toronto Maple Leafs to take David Clarkson’s contract off their hands, and out went Erik Haula, Colin Miller, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Ryan Carpenter to make room for contract extensions to core players like Alex Tuch, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, and Nate Schmidt.
No one can predict what will happen in the coming season (who guessed the Golden Knights would make it to the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season?), but here are my two cents: The Golden Knights have a roster built for success and will look to challenge for the Stanley Cup. With a full season of Schmidt and Mark Stone, they will look for another division title, which leads to my first prediction.
Prediction One: Pacific Division Title
This isn’t much of a prediction, but who thought the Calgary Flames would win the division last season? Given the parity in the league, it is tough to count any team out. The Flames have almost the same roster as last season and the San Jose Sharks lost a key piece in Joe Pavelski, but they have a number of leaders to help them win hockey games.
With the addition of Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes and the players brought in by the Vancouver Canucks, both teams should surprise the league this season. The Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings have new coaches, and you can’t discount what a change of energy will bring to a locker room.
In their short history, the Golden Knights have won more games than any other team in the Pacific Division, with 94. They have the big names, offensive power, and shutdown ability to keep making noise and win another division crown.
Prediction Two: Marc-Andre Fleury Wins the Vezina
Marc-Andre Fleury has won three Stanley Cups, is a four-time NHL All-Star, won the top goaltender and MVP awards in the 2003 World Junior Championships, and is an Olympic gold medalist, but believe it or not, he has never won a Vezina Trophy. In fact, he has never been a finalist. Fleury has received votes in recent years, but was never in the top three. This is the season that changes.
Fleury was second in the league in shutouts last season, putting up eight goose eggs. In the last five seasons, no other goalie has more.
He finished the preseason with a 2.03 goals-against average along with a .930 save percentage and will look to carry that momentum into the regular season and finally receive some love as the league’s top goalie.
Prediction Three: Special Teams Will Be Top 10
In their first season, the Golden Knights’ special teams were top 10 in the league, but they took a dip last season. The penalty kill fell to 12th, and the power play dipped all the way to 25th. The team lost David Perron and James Neal, two creative pieces of their extra man unit. However, those numbers should go up drastically this season.
A full season of Stone will help both special teams. He led the league with 122 takeaways in 2018-19, 22 more than second place Aleksander Barkov. In fact, he has 503 over the last five seasons. Ryan O’Reilly comes in second over that span with 362.
Stone has a strong two-way game and was nominated for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward last season, but lost to O’Reilly. Adding a player of his caliber would help any team and with the Golden Knights, he will help their penalty kill immensely.
On the power play Stone will be another weapon on the ice. He possesses great vision and can find the open man back door or put it home with his hard, accurate shot. His career shooting percentage is almost 16% so anytime he has the puck, he is a threat to shoot and will keep the opposition’s defense honest.
Another sniper on the team, Max Pacioretty, will also help on the man advantage. He suffered through some injuries over the past couple of seasons, but looks healthy as he led the league in preseason scoring with six assists and 10 points. Pacioretty also has five 30-goal seasons under his belt and with his health at 100%, he is primed to get back to that plateau.
Prediction Four: Rookies Make an Impact
Given the the cap crunch, the Golden Knights need contributions from young players on entry-level contracts. With the number of draft picks they’ve accumulated, by taking on other teams’ mistakes, they have a few prospects ready to make the jump.
Cody Glass finished the preseason centering a line with Stone and Pacioretty. He is a tremendous skater and has elite vision. Playing with those wingers will help his transition to the NHL, and be a competitor night in and night out. He is ranked No. 5 on Josh Bell’s Top 100 Prospects and is my bet to win the Calder Trophy.
On defense, the Golden Knights have rookies Nic Hague and Jimmy Schuldt. Both defenders have size and can move the puck. Hague was a second-round pick in 2017 and will replace Miller on the blue line with his booming shot from the point and Schuldt was a free agent signing out of college who is another two-way defenseman who can slot in on any of the pairings.
Once the games start, anything can happen. These are my predictions for the 2019-20 NHL season, share yours with me on Twitter @LAM1926.