A new year has begun and a new NHL season is about to. From the outset of 2020, no one could have predicted where we’d wind up by year’s end. But here we are, ready to embark on a 56-game season beginning in January that will see the Vegas Golden Knights battle the same seven teams exclusively in the newly realigned West Division.
The forthcoming reality might be unfamiliar and very different, but at least we now know what to expect. The schedule is out and the Golden Knights’ roster largely seems to be settled, save for a cap-minded tweak here and there. Looks like as good a time as any to look into the crystal ball and make some bold predictions for the upcoming season, some of which will surely look foolish when all is said and done.
1) Vegas Will Win the West
No, the Golden Knights will not repeat as Pacific Division champions this season. They will, however, stand as the NHL’s first (and potentially, only) West Division champions by season’s end.
The top of the West promises to be hotly contested, given that the division features three clubs (Vegas, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues) clearly in a tier above the rest. None of those three teams want to face one another in the first round of the playoffs, and a finish atop the division would likely prevent that.
While the Avalanche and Blues both finished with more regular season points a year ago, Vegas added the offseason’s biggest prize in Alex Pietrangelo and get a full season with Pete DeBoer behind the bench.
2) Alex Pietrangelo Will Win the Norris Trophy
Despite being in the upper echelon of NHL blueliners for a number of years, Pietrangelo has never even been named a Norris Trophy finalist. And yes, the award remains largely offense-focused and the usual suspects (Victor Hedman, John Carlson, Roman Josi, Drew Doughty) should all still qualify this season.
But what will a new team and new system do for Pietrangelo, who will play his former team eight times? His 2019-20 numbers (16 goals, 36 assists) weren’t that far off from eventual winner Roman Josi (16 goals, 49 assists for the Nashville Predators), and the chance to quarterback the top power-play unit and potentially play with Shea Theodore should help his candidacy. So, this could spur the narrative that Pietrangelo has been overlooked for the award.
3) Fleury, Pacioretty Will Stick Around
Marc-Andre Fleury and Max Pacioretty aren’t just Vegas’ most widely speculated trade possibilities, they are two of the most buzzed-about trade candidates league-wide. Each will count for $7 million against the cap for the upcoming season on a team that still has to get creative to get under the $81.5 million limit — and Fleury could end up backing up Robin Lehner.
However, once the season gets underway, a trade becomes considerably more difficult for general manager Kelly McCrimmon. Finding a taker for such a significant contract is no easy feat, and is complicated further by both the likely need to take a significant contract back in return and by the limited no-trade clauses both men possess. Trading either respected veteran would also send a rather puzzling message to the roster as the organization hopes to contend for the Cup.
4) Robin Lehner Faces Recovery Challenges
The news on Robin Lehner has been nothing but rosy after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The newly signed netminder was expected to be healthy by training camp, and it appears as though he’s ready to go. That’s the good news.
But the Golden Knights don’t simply need their de facto No. 1 goalie to be ready to go, Lehner needs to be sharp. Vegas’ early season schedule sees them play every other day through to the end of January, but with no back-to-backs, meaning that the 29-year-old Swede will likely be looked upon to handle most duties between the pipes over that time. With little time to get game-ready and then instant, on-going pressure, there’s sure to be a bit of an adjustment period.
5) Three Undrafted Players Man the Vegas Blue Line
Missing out on getting drafted doesn’t spell the end of an aspiring hockey player’s NHL dreams. Nick Holden, for example, has recovered from not hearing his name called at the 2007 Entry Draft into what will soon be a 10-year career in the league. Holden could also have some undrafted company on the Golden Knights’ blue line this year.
Zach Whitecloud got into 16 regular season games before the pause and then played in each of the team’s 20 playoff games. The 24-year-old is all but guaranteed to get the first crack at a depth role with the club, possibly alongside Holden. Apart from Whitecloud, don’t discount the possibility that Dylan Coghlan also gets a look after two strong seasons with the Chicago Wolves.
6) T-Mobile Arena Opens to Fans During the Season
No, I don’t have any inside knowledge of the manner in which Nevada’s health authorities are handling the COVID-19 pandemic or how their ever-changing protocols and restrictions will evolve. So, call it a hunch, if you will, but I see a scenario where the Golden Knights will be able to welcome a limited number of fans into T-Mobile Arena before the regular season ends in May.
For now, the state’s restrictions, which are currently set to expire on Jan. 15, would rule that possibility out. But if Nevadans can help limit the spread post-holidays and if vaccine distribution can continue as scheduled, there’s no reason to think that an ease in regulations isn’t possible. The state already allowed nearby Allegiant Stadium to host fans at a college football game.
7) Cody Glass Tops 25 Points
If the production of Cody Glass during his injury-riddled, 39-game rookie season were extrapolated out across a full 82-game campaign, he would have had exactly 25 points. Now, even a fully healthy 2020-21 season won’t enable the 21-year-old to play 82 games, but he might notch 25 points anyway.
Many observers have their eyes set on a potential breakout year ahead for Glass, who will likely replace the departed Paul Stastny as a middle-six center/forward stalwart. If he can stay healthy, the chance to play alongside the likes of Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault or Reilly Smith, opening the door for significant production.
8) Henderson Silver Knights Reach Postseason in Expansion Year
With the American Hockey League (AHL) eyeing a Feb. 5 start to the season, the Henderson Silver Knights can begin thinking about their first step as a new franchise. There would be an easy and obvious parallel to be made to their parent club if the Silver Knights were to reach the postseason in year one, but it wouldn’t be quite the same type of underdog story.
Henderson currently has just three players under contract, one of which is former first-round pick Ryan Murray. But as camp gets underway, Murray will be joined by an array of AHL-eligible Knights hopefuls who don’t yet crack the main roster or taxi squad. In short, they’re likely to look a lot like last season’s Chicago Wolves, Vegas’ previous AHL affiliate who were firmly in the Western Conference playoff mix before the 2019-20 season got scrapped.
9) Mark Stone Leads the Team in Scoring
Last year, it was Pacioretty who led the way offensively, posting 32 goals and 66 points in 71 games. But when he went cold in the postseason (eight points in 16 games), it was Mark Stone who picked up the slack, registering seven goals and 10 assists in 20 playoff games — Theodore had seven goals and 12 assists from the back end.
Pacioretty is now 32 and while that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s washed up, he’s probably due for a bit of regression from his 2019-20 totals. Stone, on the other hand, is 28 years of age and already has a 33-goal campaign under his belt. He should benefit from the presence of the power play quarterback and defensive stabilizer Pietrangelo, as well as a potential bounce-back season from William Karlsson.
10) Vegas Will Win the Cup
While we’re making predictions, we might as well make the biggest one of all. For all the player movement we saw this offseason, it’s easy to forget that no one reeled in as big a difference maker as the Golden Knights did in adding Pietrangelo to an already loaded roster. Sure, the loss of Nate Schmidt will hurt, but the former St. Louis Blues captain represents a clear upgrade.
Pietrangelo aside, this is a team that has come close before and now looks primed to take a serious run at the Cup. So, too, could the West Division rival Avalanche, but goaltending remains a big question mark. The Dallas Stars added little while losing Corey Perry to free agency, while the Tampa Bay Lightning will be without Nikita Kucherov for at least the regular season. This might just be Vegas’ time.
Be sure to check back (or don’t) in a few months to see how wrong I am!