After 123 unbearable days, the NHL has resumed the 2019-20 season. Though we are not quite at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, sounds of pucks hitting the glass, sticks tapping for a pass, and the coach’s whistle began around North America on July 13 with the official opening of training camp. All 31 teams are presumably healthy and raring to go for this year’s race for the Stanley Cup. That is the case for the Vegas Golden Knights. Here are four takeaways from week one of training camp part two.
Phase 2 is the Key
After four months off and only two weeks to prepare for life in the bubble in Edmonton, you might expect things to get off to a bit of a slow and sloppy pace at training camp. But the Golden Knights came out flying on day one. There was no sign of conditioning drills as the players jumped right into systems and strategy as the assistant coaches and head coach Pete DeBoer led them through drills. After 40 crisp minutes of drills and a quick resurfacing, the team returned to the ice for a very spirited scrimmage.
When asked about the day one practice, DeBoer credited the team’s preparation during Phases 1 and 2.
The large majority of them have been in town and have participated in Phase 1 and 2. There’s been a real commitment by the group to be able to start camp and be able to get into what we did today, at the pace they were at today. It’s a real testament to the heavy lifting those guys have done voluntarily over the last four or five weeks,Head Coach Pete DeBoer’s post-practice Zoom press conference on July 13, 2020.
Where’s Flower and Lehner the Great Wall?
During the layoff, the talk about the Golden Knights’ goaltending situation revolved around two questions: Who is going to be the starter and can the Golden Knights afford to keep Robin Lehner past this season?
Who knew, out of nowhere, a whole new drama would come to light, courtesy of the Golden Knights who stream practice daily. Day one and there is no sign of Marc Andre Fleury. Suddenly his absence was the only thing on the minds fans. Both Pete DeBoer and general manager Kelly McCrimmon were deluged with questions about the missing Flower. Generic answers like “Nothing to worry about” and “General maintenance day” did little to quell the rising concern.
Two more days and no sign of the Flower?. The local news is hot on the story, covering it like a murder mystery. However, fans continue to get stonewalled with the same generic answers which now includes, “We expect he’ll be on the ice by the end of the week.” Needless to say, that is not satisfying. More and more fans are fearing the worst, without any idea what the worst may be – please don’t let it be COVID-19!
Thursday was a day off for players and a dark day for the press, which ramped up the hysteria to a higher level.
Sweet salvation arrived on Friday Morning at 10:04 a.m. when The Flower made his first appearance at training camp. The collective sigh of relief was felt city-wide like a gust of fresh air.
With all the attention paid to the great Flower Mystery, I would be remiss for not mentioning the Golden Knights’ other big story in net. Robin Lehner has been nearly unbeatable since the beginning of camp.
Before all the keyboard warriors get their dander up and start with, “It’s only training camp.” Stop! Scorers always want to score goals, whether it’s in practice, games, or on X-Box against their kids. The Golden Knights have an impressive lineup of players who can score, but this week, Lehner has been in midseason form. So much so that players were chirping when they scored on a drill.
Mystery Solved: 3rd and 4th Lines Set
Another mystery for the Golden Knights to resolve after the layoff was the makeup of their 3rd and 4th lines. For the first time since he took over the team in mid-January, DeBoer has a completely healthy team. That luxury leads to big decisions.
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We didn’t have to wait long to see those decisions. By Tuesday, the 3rd line featured rookie Nicolas Roy at center between Chandler Stephenson and Alex Tuch. Who has been the Achilles heel for the Golden Knights this season has morphed into a legit scoring threat. After 27 trips back and forth to Chicago, Roy has earned his place on the roster and the trust of DeBoer and the coaching staff. Having the team’s two fastest skaters on his wings makes the third line arguably the best it has been in franchise history.
The new-look 4th line features Nick Cousins at center between bruising wingers Ryan Reaves and William Carrier. I could pen an entire article about why this line is now even more of a nightmare to play against, but I’ll just give you the highlights.
Cousins is the only true agitator on the Golden Knights. Having Reaves and Carrier (ranked first and second in the NHL in hits) on his wings assures that mayhem will ensue every time they are on the ice. Throw in that both Reaves and Carrier were on track for career highs in goals and points, the new look 4th line rounds out a very solid group of forwards heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The New Look Power Play Units
As with most Stanley Cup runs, special teams play a vital role. With four months to watch tape and meet with the coaching staff, the Golden Knights have a pair of new power-play units for the playoffs, and on the first unit, Deboer spared no firepower. Power-play unit one is stacked.
Opting for a four-forward setup, Power Play One will be quarterbacked by Shea Theodore. He will be joined on the point by Jonathan Marchessault. Upfront, Paul Statsny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone will be reunited. There are a ton of superlatives that describe how this unit should perform. The one that comes to mind first is devastating. Statsny is the ultimate facilitator, and with snipers in both circles and points, Power Play One should be very difficult to defend against for even the best penalty-kill units in the league.
The Golden Knights’ second power-play unit is a bit more traditional with two defensemen and three forwards. While lacking the all-out firepower of Power Play One, the second unit is still offensively capable but with the added versatility of two defensively responsible puck-moving defensemen, Nate Schmidt and Alec Martinez.
Upfront on Power Play Two is William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Alex Tuch. At 6-foot-4 and 220 lbs, expect Tuch to be the net-front presence flanked at the dots by Karlsson and Smith. At the points, Schmidt and Martinez are capable puck-movers with offensive upside. I believe most of the damage Power Play Two will do is going to come from the forwards, while the unit as a whole is solid through 200 feet.
There you have it. Week one is in the books. Four more skates until the boys head off to Edmonton, hopefully until late September. Did I mention that the weather will be perfect for a parade down the world-famous Las Vegas Strip in early October? Hang on, it’s going to be a ride like no other!