We still don’t know exactly what the Vegas Golden Knights will look like come Jan. 13, once the 2020-21 NHL season kicks off. We do, however, know the divisional opposition they will battle along the way.
Through the league’s new COVID-19-driven temporary realignment and playoff qualification rules, the Golden Knights will clash exclusively with seven other teams in the West Division, bidding for one of the four postseason spots up for grabs within the group. The division features heavyweights like the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and the rising Colorado Avalanche, but Vegas has to feel good about their outlook.
The West is certainly a departure from the Pacific Division, but it doesn’t represent the same kind of drastic overhaul that the all-Canadian North Division or the mixed-conference Central Division do. Vegas is one of five Pacific converts to move to the West Division under the new realignment, with just Colorado, St. Louis and the Minnesota Wild representing new divisional foes.
So then, rivalries with the likes of the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings will resume. In fact, the Golden Knights are in position to potentially feast upon their fellow Pacific Division mainstays, most of whom are in various stages of rebuilds and are not expected to seriously contend. Of the four other Pacific teams to qualify for the Edmonton playoff bubble, three (Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver) moved to the North Division, and the other, the Arizona Coyotes, lost star forward Taylor Hall in free agency.
Going based on last season’s standings, the West offers a cavernous talent disparity. The division is anchored by the three top point-getting clubs in the Western Conference, while the rest occupied five of the six lowest point totals in the Conference. It’ll be interesting to see which of those five clubs rise up to claim a playoff spot.
The Fourth Spot
Barring any surprises, the West’s playoff outlook appears pretty straightforward. Vegas, St. Louis and Colorado are, in some form or another, the cream of the division and should still be standing at the end of the 56-game regular season. There will be one more spot up for grabs, making for a potentially interesting re-evaluation by some of those organizations on whether they want to do more to enter win-now mode.
The Kings have one of the league’s best prospect pools, but they also still have playoff-tested vets like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. The Sharks had a 2019-20 season to forget, but aren’t far removed from a trip to the Western Conference Final and still have plenty of veteran holdovers. The Wild revamped their roster after falling to Vancouver in the qualifying round, adding Nick Bonino, Cam Talbot and Marcus Johansson. The Coyotes actually advanced past the qualifying round, but haven’t replaced Hall. And Kevin Shattenkirk joined an Anaheim Ducks team that will lean on internal improvement from its young forwards this year.
What all this means for the Golden Knights is that positioning will be critical over the regular season. While these teams can be described as young and hungry, the truth is that they likely wouldn’t have had significant playoff hopes had the circumstances been different. None of the top three West Division contenders want to play each other in the first round, so a first-place finish that would, in theory, pit you against the survivor among the other five, is worth fighting for.
The Best of the West
Though nothing will likely be resolved until the playoffs come around, the top of the West Division will bear watching all season long. Colorado and Vegas sport two of the best Stanley Cup odds this season, while the Blues still loom as a threat after replacing Alex Pietrangelo with Torey Krug.
The favorable designation I gave the West (at least from Vegas’ standpoint) could turn unfavorable in a hurry if the Golden Knights run into trouble against Colorado. The new realignment isn’t a cakewalk for anyone – the Central boasts the two reigning Stanley Cup finalists and the North and East Divisions each look particularly tough. But the Avs and Knights might be the two best teams in the whole Conference, so a possible second-round (or earlier) playoff showdown seems awfully formidable.
The good news for Vegas is that a playoff spot looks very achievable in the West Division. Of course, that’s no longer enough for the Knights. Their season will ultimately be defined by how they fare against a recent Stanley Cup champion in Pietrangelo’s former Blues and by Colorado, one of the fastest-rising clubs throughout the entire league. For Vegas fans, along with much of the NHL, Jan. 13 can’t get here fast enough.
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.