Golden Knights’ 4 Options to Replace Pacioretty on Top Line

At the end of the day, the Vegas Golden Knights simply couldn’t afford the luxury of keeping Max Pacioretty around on the final year of his contract for $7 million. Trading him to Carolina makes sense on the cap sheet, but what it means on the ice is a different matter entirely. With Pacioretty gone, a significant hole opens up on Vegas’ top line alongside Jack Eichel and Mark Stone, a group that admittedly existed more in theory than practice after an injury-marred 2021-22 campaign.

Obviously, new head coach Bruce Cassidy could break up Eichel and Stone and re-configure the forward corps. After all, his predecessor Pete DeBoer was left to constantly mix and match last season while navigating rampant injury issues. But as general manager (GM) Kelly McCrimmon attempts to construct the best (cap-compliant) version of the Golden Knights, the absence of Pacioretty creates a considerable challenge to overcome.

So, who will step up? Let’s look at some of the main candidates in Vegas who might be poised to step into Pacioretty’s skates as a top scorer and on-ice leader.

Chandler Stephenson

Chandler Stephenson probably has the inside track on the top line role – and with good reason. Already bringing value as a versatile center on a bargain contract ($2.75 million average annual value), the 28-year-old obliterated his previous career-highs in just about every offensive category last season. He cracked the 20-goal plateau for the first time, led the Golden Knights with 43 assists and wound up with 64 points while playing 79 games, more than any other forward.

Chandler Stephenson Vegas Golden Knights
Chandler Stephenson, Vegas Golden Knights (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

All that to say, Stephenson was probably Vegas’ best player in 2021-22. He was asked to fill a litany of different roles up and down the lineup, and, as such, became one of the most valued assets in DeBoer’s toolbox. Under Cassidy, it seems likely that he could enter the season with a clearly defined role. He played the wing at times last season and gained experience and some valuable chemistry on the top line, making him a logical favorite to lock down the role.

Sakari Manninen

In response to the inevitable “wait, who?!” reactions from some readers, Sakari Manninen is a newly signed Finnish forward and former Kontinental Hockey League standout who played an integral role in his country’s 2022 Olympic gold medal and past two World Championship triumphs. The 30-year-old arrives in North America with a highly decorated resume, even as he has to adjust to a different game and figure out how to best use his small 5-foot-7 frame on the ice.

So, why not try him with Eichel and Stone? While playing on the top line of a Stanley Cup hopeful brings some pretty significant pressure, Manninen will have an elite center and a dynamic two-way threat to do the heavy lifting, along with plenty of other veterans in the Golden Knights locker room to lean on for advice. For his part, Manninen is a proven winner at just about every other level of hockey.

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Jonathan Marchessault

Who was the Golden Knights’ leading scorer last season? That would be Jonathan Marchessault, a Vegas original who doubles as the franchise’s all-time points leader. Marchessault has been a critical component of the all-original “Misfit” line with William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, a trio that can now be reunited thanks to Smith re-signing with the organization.

Jonathan Marchessault Vegas Golden Knights
With the Misfit Line apparently in jeopardy, isn’t it time to see what Jonathan Marchessault can do with Eichel and Stone by his side? (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Not so fast, though, That group has struggled in recent years, inspiring Cassidy to openly suggest that he will look to split them up. Assuming the new bench boss follows through on his word, why not give the popular 31-year-old a shot up top? There’s the risk that it could thin things out further down in the lineup, but a fully loaded top line is precisely the type of gambit you take early on to see how it looks on the ice, particularly if you’re a new coach trying to make your mark.

External Addition

The most exciting option on the wing came off the board when Matthew Tkachuk was traded to Florida, which is too bad since McCrimmon was surely set to make a brazen run at another superstar and NHL fans around the league were undoubtedly prepared to revolt if Vegas somehow landed him. That’s all moot now, but that’s not to say that the club won’t have an eye on possible outside help anyway.

Paul Stastny Vegas Golden Knights
A second go-round with Paul Stastny makes plenty of sense for Vegas. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the topic of the still-technically available Patrice Bergeron, Cassidy mentioned at his introductory press conference that “I’d like to take him with me,” so perhaps there’s still a path to pull off a shocker and bring the career Boston Bruin to Vegas? More likely would be a smaller move for someone that can play throughout the lineup, which is where a reunion with former Golden Knight Paul Stastny makes a lot of sense.

While we can never entirely rule out a splashy, attention-grabbing move since that’s just the Vegas way, the most likely path here is trusting the talents of Stone and Eichel to elevate the third guy on their wing, whether that’s Stephenson, Manninen, Marchessault or even a breakthrough youngster (Brendan Brisson, perhaps?). Regardless, the possibility of flanking two All-Star talents means there’s a big opportunity to be had when training camp gets going in September.