Most of the time, writing about a Stanley Cup contender like the Vegas Golden Knights is a lot of fun. When they get upended shy of the Cup Final by a surging Montreal Canadiens team, though, it’s less fun. Also less fun: writing a preseason prediction retrospective when things didn’t exactly go… well, just read on and see.
Here are 10 predictions I made before the start of the shortened 2020-21 NHL season, and how they ultimately panned out. Fortune teller probably isn’t a future career option for me!
1) Vegas Will Win the West
Ooh, so close! The Golden Knights actually finished the season as the NHL’s only 40-game winner, but their 40-14-2 mark included five fewer regulation wins than the Honda West Division rival Colorado Avalanche, who matched their point total (82). Of course, the clubs’ hard-fought battle for the division title ultimately decided the race for the Presidents’ Trophy.
Vegas ultimately got the better of the Avs after rallying back from a 2-0 deficit to win their second round playoff series in six games. But the prediction said nothing of who would advance further; it simply predicted the division outcome. And while both teams had 82 points, only Colorado was crowned West Division champion (and Presidents’ Trophy winner). Perhaps one fewer game with five defensemen or 10 forwards would have made a difference for Vegas.
2) Alex Pietrangelo Will Win the Norris Trophy
Though he returned to form in the playoffs, the regular season – the body of work upon which award consideration is based – was not kind to Alex Pietrangelo. Carrying the weight of big expectations after joining Vegas on a seven-year, $61.6 million free-agent contract, the former St. Louis Blues captain suffered through a slow adjustment period, a two-week stint on the COVID-19 list, and an undisclosed injury that cost him most of March.
In short, Pietrangelo wasn’t really among the best defensemen on his own team, let alone throughout the league. There remains plenty of optimism for next year on the strength of a postseason that saw him rank second on the team in points (12) and plus/minus (plus-8) and first among Knights skaters in ice time (25:07) and shots (76). For prediction purposes, however, this one flopped.
3) Fleury, Pacioretty Will Stick Around
Hey, I got one! As the Golden Knights headed into the season right at the cap ceiling, plenty of trade speculation centered around the twin $7 million cap hits of veteran netminder Marc-Andre Fleury and first-line left winger Max Pacioretty. Of course, neither man was moved – and with good reason, as Fleury kicked off a remarkable renaissance season and Pacioretty provided a key component to a potent top line.
Fleury is, of course, the big story here. With the newly re-signed Robin Lehner starting slowly in his recovery from off-season shoulder surgery (more below), the 36-year-old made the most of his largely unchallenged opportunity in net. He would go 26-10-0 with a .928 save percentage and 1.98 goals against average en route to his first career Vezina Trophy. Who knows where Vegas would have been this season had a trade panned out?
4) Robin Lehner Faces Recovery Challenges
Lehner didn’t face recovery challenges insomuch as he faced ‘life as part of a goalie tandem’ challenges. He recovered in time to start Vegas’ season opener, stopping 20 of 22 shots to help the club to a 5-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. After an ensuing win over Arizona, however, the Swedish netminder suffered through a bit of a brief slump, allowing eight goals in two games.
That wouldn’t typically be a big deal, except that he was sharing time with Fleury, who allowed nine total goals over his first five games of the season – all wins. You can’t blame head coach Pete DeBoer for riding the hot hand in net, but you also can’t fault Lehner – who, to his credit, has proven to be a good sport about the tandem arrangement – for feeling a little cast aside.
5) Three Undrafted Players Man the Vegas Blue Line
Ironically, my initial forecasting anticipated that Nick Holden would be the automatic lock on the back end, owing to being a reliable 62-game presence across each of his previous two seasons in Vegas. However, his $1.7 million cap hit proved tough to absorb for the capped-out Knights, limiting the 34-year-old to 17 regular season games before he became a playoff mainstay.
On the other hand, fellow undrafted free agent Zach Whitecloud emerged as a workhorse, averaging nearly 18 minutes on a loaded Vegas blue line. Finally, Dylan Coghlan got into 29 regular season games with Vegas, but couldn’t crack the playoff lineup.
6) T-Mobile Arena Opens to Fans During the Season
The sight (and sound) of an empty T-Mobile Arena was one of an endless litany of surreal experiences as part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Good thing, then, that it didn’t last. By the start of March, ‘the Fortress’ was able to host up to 15 percent capacity, as per health and safety protocols in Nevada. By season’s end, the Golden Knights were able to play to a full house in time for the club’s second round series against the Colorado Avalanche. (from ‘T-Mobile Arena back to full capacity for Golden Knights games,’ Las Vegas Sun, 05/29/2021)
7) Cody Glass Tops 25 Points
It was a season to forget for Cody Glass, who failed to stick in the everyday lineup due to a confluence of factors and, as a result, did not take the step forward that many anticipated. The 25-point threshold represented what would have roughly been a doubling of Glass’ rookie season production in a shortened season, but the looming possibility of an increased role and potential top-six position made such a jump seem plausible.
Instead, Glass became the poster boy for cap-related roster machinations, constantly bouncing between the big club, taxi squad and AHL on account of his waiver exempt contract status. It didn’t help matters that he didn’t show much during the rare extended stretches he did get in Vegas, managing just 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 27 games. It’s far too early to give up on the 22-year-old, but 2020-21 wasn’t what Glass had hoped.
8) Henderson Silver Knights Reach Postseason in Expansion Year
Tabbing an expansion franchise for a playoff spot in Year 1 should be bold enough, but I had no way of knowing just how bold this prediction would actually be. The Pacific Division was the only segment of the AHL to host any kind of postseason play, thereby ensuring that the Henderson Silver Knights’ division-leading 25-13-0-1 regular season mark didn’t go all for naught.
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In the end, not only did the Silver Knights participate in postseason play, but they were one of just seven teams to boast that distinction. When the dust settled, they advanced as far as the division finals, falling 2-1 to the Bakersfield Condors in a best-of-three series. Of course, it’s hard to know exactly how this historical oddity will be remembered in the long run.
9) Mark Stone Leads the Team in Scoring
Up until a disappointing Stanley Cup Semifinal series against the Montreal Canadiens, it was the year of Mark Stone in Vegas. He was named the first captain in franchise history, then he led the Golden Knights with 61 points (21 goals, 40 assists) and earned a nomination for the Selke Trophy.
In short, he was a force on both ends of the ice. While the Selke nod identifies Stone as one of the top defensive forwards in the league, let’s not downplay his scoring exploits. The 29-year-old winger finished 10 points clear of any teammate in points and finished tied for 10th league-wide in plus/minus (plus-26).
10) Vegas Will Win the Cup
If you’re keeping score at home (note: I know that no one is keeping score at home), that’s four correct predictions out of 10. Chalk it up to an unpredictable 56-game season or whatever, but it wasn’t exactly a great showing on my part. Suffice to say, things could’ve gone better this season – for both myself and the Golden Knights!
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.