A new NHL season for the Vegas Golden Knights brings a new round of predictions. Now, the last time I did this, my results were admittedly mixed at best. Undeterred, it’s time to get back on that horse and give it another go ahead of the 2021-22 campaign!
Here are 10 predictions ahead of what should be a full, mostly normal 82-game slate for the Golden Knights:
1) Vegas Sets a New Franchise Points Record
Looking back, it still somehow seems impossible that the Golden Knights recorded 109 points in their very first season of existence. To reach that mark, the club had to average 1.329 points (out of two) per game. During last year’s shortened, 56-game campaign, Vegas actually averaged 1.464 points to finish with 82 during the regular season.
Yes, it goes without saying that Marc-Andre Fleury’s Vezina-winning campaign and a heavy slate of games against lowly Honda West Division opponents like the Kings, Ducks and Sharks contributed. But Robin Lehner, when healthy, has Vezina potential. And incredibly, just one of Vegas’ seven Pacific Division foes reached the postseason last year (Edmonton).
2) Lehner Stays Healthy and Holds His Own
Weighing heavily on whether prediction No. 1 comes true will be the health and overall performance of Lehner, the new undisputed No. 1 goalie. It’s worth noting that the last time the Swede manned the crease for more than half of his team’s games, he won the Jennings and Masterton trophies and finished third in Vezina voting. But he’s also never started 60 games in a season and missed a month last year due to concussion symptoms.
So while another Vezina-level goaltending performance would obviously be a boon to the Golden Knights, a healthy and solid season from the 30-year-old would still be a welcome result. Given the organization’s depth, especially on the blue line, even decent netminding should be enough to keep them among the league’s top teams.
3) Stephenson Finishes the Season as No. 1 Center
For a franchise with the success and star power of Vegas, the presence of a true, No. 1 center has proven elusive. That apparent void has persisted in spite of constant trade speculation (Jack Eichel is the most recent focus) and lofty expectations for young, developing players (first Cody Glass, now Nolan Patrick and possibly Peyton Krebs). Since being acquired nearly two years ago, Chandler Stephenson has always felt like something of a placeholder.
And yet, in unlikely fashion, Stephenson continues to produce in the No. 1 role. Perhaps 14 goals and 21 assists aren’t ideal numbers out of the position, but the former Washington Capital has helped facilitate continued production from linemates Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty while doing the little things like winning faceoffs (50.4% on face-offs last year) and going into the corners. If the top line ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.
4) Theodore Enters the Norris Conversation
Given that the Golden Knights seem to go out and add a new, shiny toy every season, it’s easy to take Shea Theodore for granted. While most eyes were on Alex Pietrangelo during a bumpy first season in Vegas, it was Shea Theodore who finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting while posting career-highs in assists (34) and plus/minus (plus-28) while averaging 22:33 of ice time.
Given Theodore’s steady developmental ascent, there’s little reason to think that he can’t continue to cement his status as one of the top d-men in the league. Entering Norris consideration may not even require much of a leap – after all, he earned two first-place votes last year and returns to a full season on a Vegas blue line that largely remains intact.
5) The New Guys: Dadonov Thrives, Patrick Struggles
For all the talk of Fleury’s departure and the trade of Ryan Reaves, Vegas’ lineup actually remains largely untouched save for Laurent Brossoit in the backup goalie spot and a new-look projected third line. Until Alex Tuch returns from injury, it appears that the third line will feature re-signed trade deadline acquisition Mattias Janmark alongside two even newer faces, Patrick and Evgeny Dadonov.
Dadonov managed 81 goals over three seasons with the Florida Panthers before struggling to fit in with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators. His penchant for creating havoc and junk goals in front of the net should play well in front of a blue line full of big shots. Patrick, on the other hand, bears the pressure of being a former No. 2 overall pick, but the 23-year-old has since demonstrated merely decent numbers while playing with some strong forward talent on the Flyers.
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6) Pete DeBoer Breaks Up the Second Line
For all that has changed across the short existence of the Golden Knights, the combination of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault hasn’t – at least for long, anyway. However, while that familiarity with one another has clearly been an asset to their play on the second line, head coach Pete DeBoer surely won’t take a sentimental approach to keep them together if lineup changes are needed.
The line of Expansion Draft day acquisitions (Karlsson and Marchessault were selected, Smith was added via trade) proved once again solid last season, albeit in sharp decline from the first line’s production. With talent like Tuch, Janmark and Dadonov capable of filling a top-six role, a reshuffle isn’t out of the question. There’s also the long-term outlook to consider, with Smith ticketed for free agency next summer.
7) Krebs Becomes an NHL Regular
There’s also the youngster Krebs to consider. The 20-year-old, who got his first brief taste of NHL action last season, has continued to look like he belongs in training camp and has even slotted in alongside Stephenson and Pacioretty in place of Stone at times. His self-belief has been on display as well, telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “If you’re good enough, they’ll make room for you.” (from “Golden Knights’ top prospect healthy, ready to push for a roster spot,” Ben Gotz, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 09/25/21).
While there’s no guarantee Krebs makes the team out of camp, the former Winnipeg Ice star looks like a good bet to join Vegas at some point this season. What he does with that opportunity is the bigger question, although he has passed every test up to this point, including a chaotic 2020-21 season during which he played four positions for four teams at four levels of hockey. With some much-needed stability, the guess here is that he sticks.
8) The Golden Knights Stand Pat at the Trade Deadline
Just as you can generally count on at least one big splash from the Golden Knights in the off-season, the club has consistently added at least one key piece at the trade deadline. There was Tomas Tatar in 2018, Stone in 2019, Lehner in 2020 and Janmark at last year’s deadline. Expect that trend to end this year.
Plenty could change between now and March 21, 2022, but it’s simply hard to see an area of need – barring injury, of course. Up front, guys like Janmark and Dadonov can more up in the lineup where needed as prospects like Krebs and Jack Dugan slot in. On the blue line, Zach Whitecloud and Nic Hague have already proven capable of plugging holes in the top-four. A Lehner injury? Okay yeah, a Lehner injury would require help.
9) Changes are Coming Next Summer
A quiet trade deadline would not necessarily mean a quiet off-season to follow. General manager Kelly McCrimmon could have some work to do next summer. Not only are Smith, Janmark and Brayden McNabb hitting unrestricted free agency, but Hague, Whitecloud, Keegan Kolesar, Nicolas Roy and newcomer Brett Howden will all need new contracts of their own. And that’s to say nothing of Pacioretty heading into a contract year.
What makes Smith’s free agency interesting is that interest on the part of Vegas isn’t guaranteed. The club already has over $70 million committed to their 2022-23 group, so any flexibility will be welcome and Smith’s 14 goals (in 53 games, I know) could potentially be found at less than $5 million. Free agency aside, flexibility could be achieved through trade also, especially if more Vegas prospects are ready for the NHL.
10) Vegas Returns to the Stanley Cup Final
Last year’s Cup prediction didn’t exactly pan out, thanks to the 59-point Montreal Canadiens. This time around, rather than forecast a usurping of the throne from the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning, I’ll predict the Golden Knights’ return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since their inaugural season.
Although there are growing questions about the age and cap flexibility of Vegas’ roster, that shouldn’t interfere much with a season where they remain a potent force. Unless Connor McDavid can launch his Edmonton Oilers into a new stratosphere or the Seattle Kraken pull a Vegas 2.0, the Golden Knights should comfortably emerge from the Pacific Division. Beyond that, another showdown with the Colorado Avalanche could loom, but I’m banking on some deja vu.
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.