Here we are amidst the early days of 2023 with the Vegas Golden Knights having just begun the back half of their 2022-23 season and currently enjoying a rare four days off in between games. In other words, it seems like the perfect time to sit back and take stock of where the team sits at what is roughly the season’s mid-point.
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While we tend to get lost in the hand-wringing over a disappointing loss or a mini-slump, this is clearly an improved Golden Knights team, and no one dispiriting home defeat to the rival Los Angeles Kings will change that. After all, you don’t jump from a .573 points percentage to a .667 mark without some serious internal improvement.
Even after coming down to earth a bit recently and seeing some of their early injury luck dry up, Vegas remains in a cushy position atop the Pacific Division. That can be attributed to a mostly healthy and impactful Jack Eichel, improved play in net thanks to All-Star Logan Thompson and the significant influence of head coach Bruce Cassidy.
Rather than offer a blanket statement that the club has improved in many facets of the lineup (no, duh!), let’s go a little deeper and explore who has enjoyed the biggest jumps in performance from last year to this one, as well as who has seen a bit of a slide.
Up: Jack Eichel
As has already been covered in publications like Sports Illustrated and The Athletic (from ‘Jack Eichel is back among the NHL’s elite — ‘I don’t take anything for granted anymore,’ The Athletic, 11/28/22), Eichel is back playing at the type of superstar level he enjoyed before suffering his career-altering neck injury. His 1.1 point per game mark represents an improvement on the 1.03 average he posted between 2016 and 2020 (his peak years to date). And it’s certainly better than the 0.74 mark the 26-year-old posted last year.
Prior to incurring a lower-body injury that cost him 11 games, Eichel was blowing the performance from his Vegas debut out of the water. Compared to last season, the native of North Chelmsford, MA has produced seven more points in five fewer games played. And lest there was any concern over his effectiveness upon returning from injury, he tallied a goal and two assists in his very first game back.
Down: Zach Whitecloud
While no Golden Knight is yearning for a return to the frustrating 2021-22 season, Zach Whitecloud probably wouldn’t mind the kind of ice time he enjoyed a year ago. With Alec Martinez and other blueliners missing substantial time last year, the 26-year-old – who missed 23 games of his own – racked up nearly 19 minutes per night. That amounts to over two minutes more than Whitecloud had averaged in 30 games this season before suffering a leg injury that will keep him sidelined long-term.
Even before the injury, Whitecloud’s season had been one to forget. In 59 games of predominantly top-four duty last year, he recorded eight goals and 19 points, representing better than half of the career production for the defense-first blue liner. In contrast, he has mustered a meager one goal and five assists in a diminished role this year. Moreover, on top of being impactful enough to earn a team-best plus-21 plus/minus rating last year, he currently sports an even plus/minus.
Up: Mark Stone
Mark Stone didn’t really need to improve this season so much as simply stay on the ice. As one of just six Golden Knights to appear in all 42 of the team’s games to date, that mission has been accomplished so far. Stone’s 17 goals and 38 points, coupled with exceptional two-way play, represent typically strong performance from the Vegas captain.
Most encouraging has been that he hasn’t missed a game while averaging 19:45 of ice time each night, second among forwards on the team (Chandler Stephenson has averaged 19:53). Stone is already five games clear of his total from last season while posting numbers roughly in line with his career-best 2018-19 season, during which he was acquired by Vegas.
Down: Phil Kessel
While Phil Kessel’s 2021-22 season didn’t take place in Vegas, the free-agent contract he received from the Golden Knights came as a direct result of his 44-assist effort with the Arizona Coyotes. If Kessel, so the thinking went, still had the motivation and play-making proficiency to register 44 assists with the lowly Coyotes, think of what he could do with better linemates.
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Although the NHL’s ironman has enjoyed a nice rebound in the goal-scoring department (he has seven in 42 games after scoring eight all season in Arizona), production has been lacking otherwise. When Cassidy was asked about what Michael Amadio did to take Kessel’s spot on the top line in a late December loss to the Sabres, the coach replied, “it was less about him and more about who was there that wasn’t getting it done,” (from ‘Is Phil Kessel’s ironman streak in jeopardy with Golden Knights?’ Jesse Granger, The Athletic. 12/20/2022).
Up: Logan Thompson
This one probably doesn’t take much explaining. Last season saw Thompson thrust into a significant role between the pipes amidst injuries to Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit. The 25-year-old handled himself incredibly well given the circumstances (10-5-3 record, .914 save percentage, 2.68 goals against average), so much so that the Golden Knights front office didn’t feel the need to make a panic trade when hip surgery ended Lehner’s season before it began.
Still, going into a full season as the de facto No. 1 (Vegas added Adin Hill as something of a 1A) for a team with playoff aspirations was something entirely different. And yet, Thompson’s numbers remain eerily similar to a year ago (.914 SV%, 2.66 GAA), albeit on a far more successful Golden Knights team. This continued consistency earned the rookie an All-Star nod and has him in Calder Trophy contention as well.
Granted, there’s room for improvement here, particularly when it comes to scoring depth. Still, it’s an encouraging sign that the growth from last season to this one comes in more significant areas than the decline. Eichel and Stone represent key, top-line forwards, while Thompson represented a major risk as a relative unknown filling a role of massive importance. Comparatively, disappointing play from a bottom-pair defenseman (Whitecloud) and a depth forward (Kessel) is manageable. To this point, the Golden Knights have gotten much-needed production where it matters.
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.