One look at the NHL standings, and, for Vegas Golden Knights fans, it may seem as though all is right in the world. But the club’s lofty – and expected – standing atop the Pacific Division masks an uneven start to the 2021-22 season. Sure, the offense has been potent, and they’ve navigated through some tricky injury absences, but they’ve also allowed 116 goals (just under three per game) and are already plagued with depth issues before fitting in Jack Eichel’s $10 million cap hit.
We’re not talking disaster here, but there are definitely bumps in the road that still need to be ironed out for any hopes of a deep postseason run to come to fruition. The good news: with Eichel skating with the team and getting closer to a return/debut, the Golden Knights are still growing into what they will be by playoff time.
Since we don’t yet know how things will exactly shakedown when it comes to looking ahead for Vegas, the club’s current, postponement-influenced six-day break between games offers a good opportunity to take stock of where things stand at what is just about the season’s mid-point (from “2 Golden Knights games in Canada postponed by NHL,” Ben Gotz, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 12/31/21). To do so, let’s look at three Golden Knights who have over-achieved and three who have under-achieved through 39 games thus far.
Over-Achieved: Chandler Stephenson
The MVP of the season’s first half, Chandler Stephenson, has produced consistently regardless of who has been flanking him, putting to rest any notions that his play was buoyed by having Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty as linemates. As nearly a point per-game player (36 points in 38 games), the 27-year-old leads the team in scoring and has eight more assists than any other Golden Knight.
In Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Stephenson set a new career-high points total, highlighting his rapid improvement. The trust he’s earned from head coach Pete DeBoer during this breakout is exemplified by the 19:31 in average ice time he’s getting, the most of any Vegas forward.
Stephenson’s role will likely change once Eichel is inserted into the lineup. Still, that won’t take away from the former Washington Capitals’ significance to an injury-marred team, and his standing as a home run trade acquisition and incredibly valuable asset (he remains under contract for two more years at $2.75 million per season).
Under-Achieved: William Karlsson
A broken foot suffered in an Oct. 29 game against the Anaheim Ducks kept William Karlsson out of the entire month of November. Still, that doesn’t fully explain away the other 24 games, wherein the Swede has mustered just five goals and 11 points. Sporting the same number of points as depth defenseman Dylan Coghlan, Karlsson’s production trails well behind fellow “Misfit Line” colleagues Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.
But the more troubling comparison for Karlsson comes in regards to his fellow top-six center Stephenson. Basically, Stephenson earns less than half of Karlsson’s annual salary ($5.9 million to $2.75 million) while outplaying him significantly this season. The 29-year-old has been too important to the Golden Knights franchise to make this a long-term problem yet, but it does complicate the reshuffling plan once Eichel’s added to the depth chart down the middle.
Over-Achieved: Nicolas Roy
Nicolas Roy doesn’t tend to draw much attention as a depth forward on a roster filled with big-name talent. Quietly, though, the 24-year-old is having his own breakthrough season. Having already recorded a career-high 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 35 games before recently being placed in COVID protocols, he’s offered reliable contributions while serving a bevy of different roles throughout the lineup.
Already a steady defensive presence with good size (6-foot-4), Roy’s season to date has highlighted a developing offensive dimension to his game. It took the Calder Cup champion just 30 games this season to set a new career-best scoring mark. His multi-layered contributions have been integral in solidifying the center position in Vegas, an area of questionable depth even before Karlsson’s broken foot, the injury absences of Brett Howden and Nolan Patrick, and Peyton Krebs’ trade to Buffalo.
Under-Achieved: Nolan Patrick
You’ve got to feel for Patrick at this point. Poor guy missed two months with an undisclosed injury and lasted all of five games before entering COVID protocols last Wednesday, amounting to all of nine games this season. Adding insult to injury, he was also on the receiving end of some brutally blunt commentary from Philadelphia Flyers senior vice president Bobby Clarke, who admitted on “The Cam & Strick Podcast that “None of our scouts wanted Nolan Patrick.”
Disparaging comments from an executive from his former team aside, nine games isn’t nearly enough of a sample to offer fair evaluation on the former No. 2 overall pick as a Golden Knight. But couple some underwhelming production in those games (one goal, two assists) with an inability to stay on the ice, and it’s hard to argue that the 23-year-old acquired for Cody Glass hasn’t under-achieved to date.
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Over-Achieved: Reilly Smith
On the other end of the spectrum from the injury-marred Patrick is Smith, a Vegas original who stands as one of just three Golden Knights (along with Keegan Kolesar and Brayden McNabb) to have played in each of the team’s 39 games this season. That durability has come with consistent scoring, recording 11 goals and 29 points, and having endured more than one pointless game in a row on just two occasions.
Vegas fans may not want to hear it, but Smith is setting himself up nicely for a well-earned payday once he becomes a free agent this summer. His contract status and the club’s tight cap situation have invited trade speculation, but the 30-year-old has also proven valuable enough to be a hard player to part with ahead of the forthcoming playoff run.
Under-Achieved: Robin Lehner
Apologies to the many fans of the candid and resilient Robin Lehner out there, but the Golden Knights starting netminder has been exceptionally “meh” this season. Among the 29 goalies with 20 or more starts, the Swede ranks 21st in goals-against average (2.91) and 24th in save percentage (.905). He has battled through a lower-body injury at times this season, but the bigger and more sobering reality of the season’s first three-plus months has been that the 30-year-old simply hasn’t been good enough.
He’s rarely asked to steal games given the blue line talent on the roster, but there are nights where he’s struggled even to keep his team competitive. Considering Lehner was handed the keys in the Vegas net this season following the trade of Marc-Andre Fleury, it’s certainly a sub-optimal time for these struggles.
While they certainly hope to boast the same standing when all is said and done, the Golden Knights surely realize their second half may not much resemble their first. The Eichel factor looms large, especially since owner Bill Foley suggests that he’s a few weeks away from getting into the lineup. That changes things up for just about anyone in black and gold, offering something of a reset and signifying how real the possibility of a Cup run can be this year.