Even though the season is not technically over, we were in the stretch run of the season. With only 11 games left and a return date not in sight, we thought this would be a great time to share our season awards and favorite moments. I’ll be joined by fellow Hockey Writers staff Josh Bell, Eddie Rivkin, Will Stanton, and The Athletic’s Jesse Granger to remember the season that was and dive into a potential first-round playoff matchup.
Golden Knights Team Awards
Shea Theodore – Jesse Granger
Shea Theodore wasn’t the best player on the team, but he was close. That honor goes to Mark Stone, and an argument could possibly be made for Max Pacioretty. However, Theodore was the most valuable player on the Golden Knights this season, considering his age, contract value and position. The 24-year-old was expected to improve this year, but not to the near-elite level that he did.
Theodore used his spectacular skating, puck skills and hockey sense to control play this season, and his play in the defensive end improved dramatically. And finally, when I used Dom Luszczyszyn’s model to determine the most valuable player on the team in relation to their salary, Theodore was deemed the most valuable.
Max Pacioretty – Will Stanton
Pacioretty is having a career year in his second season with the Golden Knights. Without missing a single game, he leads the team in points (66) and goals (32). In his 12th NHL season, the 31-year-old is one point shy of tying his career-high of 67. He’s been the most consistent player for Vegas and has produced in important situations as well. He has five game-winning goals and a team-high eight power-play goals. Although he suffered a lower-body injury just before the season pause, the star forward should be ready to go when they resume.
Mark Stone – Eddie Rivkin
Stone’s 21 goals and 63 points in 65 games are only a small part of why he is the Golden Knights MVP this season. Night in and night out he is the best player on the ice in all three zones and plays every game like its Game 7. Without a doubt he is the emotional leader, giving us tons of expressions, and I believe he will be the first captain in team history.
Mark Stone – Josh Bell
This was a tough one between Pacioretty and Stone. But, I’m going to give the edge to the two-way, right-winger here. Stone played at nearly a point-per-game pace this season (0.97), collecting 21 goals, 42 assists (tying a career-high), and 63 points in 65 games. He did this despite recording his lowest shooting percentage since 2013-14.
He set the highest Corsi-for percentage of his career (58%) and continued his impressive takeaway-giveaway ratio (78-38). Stone is an underrated player all around. He’s among the league’s best two-way players and is also one of the better playmakers – the best on this Golden Knights team. When he went down with a lower-body injury, it was obvious that he was missed as they could only produce one goal in their two losses without him.
Mark Stone – Lucas Main
Stone was my pick for MVP because of his all-around performance. He was second on the team in points and first in assists, but he is also their best player in his own zone. He leads all forwards in the entire league with 78 takeaways and leads his team in time on ice on the power play and penalty kill for forwards.
Brayden McNabb – Jesse Granger
He’ll never stand out on the stat sheet, and when he’s at his best you barely notice him during the game, but Brayden McNabb has been extremely solid for the Golden Knights on their top pairing for nearly every game in franchise history.
He saves more pucks off the goal line than any player on the team, and keeps the slot clear for the goalie to see shots as they’re released. I think McNabb is one of those players where you don’t realize how important he is until he’s not in, but that never happens because he’s a machine.
Nate Schmidt – Josh Bell
Is it too early to say 3-0, .940 save-percentage goaltender Robin Lehner? Alright, maybe it is. Instead, I’ll go with Nate Schmidt. The defenseman isn’t an offensive defender and that seems to go largely unnoticed in today’s NHL. That being said, he was on his way to setting a new career-high in goals and tying his best in points, finishing the campaign with seven goals, 24 assists, and 31 points.
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Where he really stands out is in his dedication and reliability. Playing nearly 22 minutes a night, Schmidt is the second-best defender on this team behind Shea Theodore. He’s not very physical, but he sacrifices his body often (91 blocks). He also only had 12 penalty minutes this season despite averaging the second-highest average time on ice.
The 4th Line – Eddie Rivkin
Without a doubt, one of the best fourth lines in the NHL, the trio of Ryan Reaves, Tomas Nosek, and William Carrier gets very little praise. They tilt the ice in favor of the Golden Knights most of the time they are out there. Their relentless forecheck and physical play lead to turnovers and scoring opportunities, but most importantly it sets the tone for the team and throws the momentum in their favor. Toss in a career-high in points from Carrier and you have the best grind line in the NHL.
Paul Stastny – Lucas Main
Stastny is a poor man’s Ryan O’Reilly. He is a top-six center, but is also relied upon in his own zone. The Quebec City native is an integral part of the Golden Knights penalty-killing unit and started almost 48% of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. He was also the team leader in faceoff percentage with 54.8% and for all of you fancy stat aficionados, he had a Corsi-for of 56.7%.
His leadership has helped develop other centers as he is currently the oldest forward on the team; William Karlsson’s faceoff percentage has gone up 4.3% from last season as he is up to almost 52% on the season, and going back to my O’Reilly comment; they were teammates in Colorado for five seasons and Stastny mentored him early in his career. He is also a true warrior that isn’t afraid to eat pucks and pick up his own teeth off the ice.
Shea Theodore – Will Stanton
Theodore has been brilliant for the Golden Knights this season. He has already set career highs in goals (13), assists (33), and points (46) while averaging a team-high 22:14 time-on-ice per game. Although his stellar play has garnered some attention this year, his everyday impact cannot be overstated. He has consistently been one of the best five-on-five defensemen in the NHL this season, and has been a key piece on the first power-play unit.
2021 Fifth Round Pick for Chandler Stephenson – Josh Bell
I almost put Stephenson as my unsung hero in addition to the best trade. Grabbing him from the Washington Capitals for just a fifth-round pick, the trade wasn’t exactly as big as acquiring Pacioretty or Stone. But it was significant. The Golden Knights faced a number of injuries after the trade and he stepped up.
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The 26-year-old made an immediate impact, scoring the first goal of the game in his first game with Vegas. His production drastically improved after the trade, collecting eight goals, 14 assists, and 22 points in 41 games. In his prior 168 games with the Capitals, he had 33 points. Able to play up and down the lineup, Stephenson became one of the most valuable players for the team, making the transaction look like an absolute steal.
2021 Fifth Round Pick for Chandler Stephenson – Jesse Granger
When I spoke with general manager Kelly McCrimmon directly after this trade was made, he gave me the impression that he knew something we didn’t. He was extremely confident in the move and mentioned that he and his staff think Stephenson can be more than he was in Washington.
Boy, was he right. Stephenson fit right into the lineup and scored more goals in half a season with Vegas than he had in an entire season prior. Stephenson was exactly what the Golden Knights needed, especially with the injury to William Karlsson in January.
2021 Fifth Round Pick for Chandler Stephenson – Will Stanton
McCrimmon made a few big-name acquisitions this season, but he hit a home-run with his trade for Stephenson in early December. He tallied only four points in 24 games for the Capitals but has found his game in Vegas, notching 22 points in 41 games for his new club. He will be a restricted free agent this offseason, but given the way he has played, expect him back in a Golden Knights uniform for the 2020-21 season.
2021 Fifth Round Pick for Chandler Stephenson – Lucas Main
Not only did McCrimmon acquire Stephenson for just a fifth-round pick, but it was also a fifth in next summer’s draft. He has fit like a glove in Las Vegas, setting career highs in every offensive category. As a restricted free agent this summer, he has deserved a pay raise with his ability to fill any role in the lineup.
I do think Alec Martinez was a great addition with his playoff experience and willingness to block shots, but two second-round picks may have been a little steep. And while Robin Lehner has played stellar in his three starts and would have been a big contributor down the stretch, we may never see him play in the steel grey and gold again so value-wise, I give this category to Stephenson.
2021 Fifth Round Pick for Chandler Stephenson – Eddie Rivkin
This was the best trade by a mile and there is no runner up. Since becoming a Golden Knight, Stephenson has proceeded to put up a career-high in goals and assists, but what is more important is his versatility. From day one he has played up and down the lineup, centering Stone and Pacioretty for a few games, centering the fourth line in other contests, and playing both power play and penalty kill. If hockey comes back and depending on how far they go, this could turn out to be the best trade in the entire NHL.
Most Memorable Moment of 2019-20
“The Save” – Jesse Granger
The photo of that moment will live on in Golden Knights lore, similarly to Karlsson’s between-the-legs goal in year one.
Most desperation saves are about getting as much of your body in front of the puck as possible and hoping it hits you. But this one was different. Fleury saw the puck at the last moment, dove back, and tracked it into his glove. It was a spectacular play, and the movie-like aesthetics make it seem even better. Add in that it’s the fan-favorite player making the play, and it’s perfect for this category.
Feb. 13th 6-5 OT Win vs St. Louis – Will Stanton
The Golden Knights had lost three of their previous four games and had not won at home in 40 days before they welcomed the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to town. In a thrilling game, Vegas battled back from deficits of 4-2 in the second period and 5-4 late in the third. Jonathan Marchessault’s OT power-play goal completed the comeback against the top team in the West. The victory started an 8-game winning streak that vaulted them to the top of the Pacific Division.
Nov. 27th 4-3 OT Win vs Nashville – Eddie Rivkin
It is the context of the win which makes this game significant. The Golden Knights were 2-6-2 in their previous 10 games and dead in the water. A herculean effort by Pacioretty led to the game-tying goal and Stastny won it at 1:52 of overtime. They were 0-4 in bonus hockey coming into the game and on this night they dug deep. But most importantly, they picked up two very important points in a time where they were struggling mightily as a team.
Hockey Fights Cancer – Lucas Main
Even though the Golden Knights dropped the game that night, this season’s Hockey Fights Cancer game was one for the memory books. It was revealed this summer that Shea Theodore was diagnosed with testicular cancer after testing positive for hCG during the 2019 World Championships. After having surgery over the summer, he made a full recovery.
Not sure what to expect this season, Theodore has been playing on another level. He has played in every game and is in the top-10 in goals, game-winning goals, and points amongst all defensemen in the league. He and his grandmother, who is also a cancer survivor, dropped the ceremonial puck that night and it was truly a moment that gave me goosebumps.
Opening Night (And Game Two) – Josh Bell
After losing to the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2019 NHL Playoffs, the Golden Knights went home angry. Especially after the controversial major penalty assessed to Cody Eakin for “cross-checking” Joe Pavelski that sparked the Sharks comeback in Game 7. So, with both teams coming into the 2019-20 season with high expectations, someone was laughing by scheduling these teams to face off twice to start the season.
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The Golden Knights set the record straight, blowing out the Sharks 4-1 and 5-1. The Golden Knights went on to lead the division this season, where the Sharks found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference. Did the Golden Knights shock the Sharks so badly it threw their entire season off? Probably not. Probably.
Ideal First Round Opponent
Calgary Flames – Jesse Granger
Vegas dominated the Flames this season, going 3-0-0 while outscoring Calgary a combined 17-5. It also helps that T-Mobile Arena has been a house of horrors for the Flames (they’ve never won in the building).
There have been discussions of a possible playoff format change (for all sports, not NHL specifically) where the higher-seeded teams choose their opponent. At The Athletic, we did a fun exercise where each beat writer acted as the “GM” and chose the opponent, and I chose Calgary for Vegas. According to the odds, Vegas would have a 71.3 percent chance of winning that series, which would be the second-highest of any first-round matchup behind only Boston over the New York Islanders (74.7 percent).
Nashville Predators – Josh Bell
The contenders for this spot look to be the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, and Vancouver Canucks. Possibly the Minnesota Wild as well, but if two of these teams don’t’ make the playoffs, I don’t think they’d make the cut. So out of the three, the Jets swept the Golden Knights this season and have arguably the best goaltender in the league this season. Avoid them at all costs. The Canucks are one of the biggest surprises of the season and are a team on the rise. The Predators, however, are likely seeing their window close. For Vegas, I think this is the best matchup.
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Vegas is an offensive team, and the Predators have surprisingly not been great defensively, despite Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm on the backend. There would be an opportunity for them to make short work of the aging Pekka Rinne (or the inexperienced Juuse Saros) and the Predators who struggle for offense behind Josi, Filip Forsberg, and Matt Duchene.
San Jose Sharks – Eddie Rivkin
This would be the first time the Golden Knights would not have a date with the Sharks in the big dance. It is unfortunate from a rivalry standpoint, but I’m glad they are the ones in contention for the Cup.
Honestly, I don’t think it matters who they match up against in the first round. If hockey does resume, they will be 100% healthy for the first time all year. The hardest thing about that will be Peter DeBoer’s lineup choices.
They are more talented throughout the lineup than any team in the Pacific Division and have the best tandem in net of any team in the NHL, whoever shows up at the Fortress (or wherever) is in big trouble.
Vancouver Canucks – Will Stanton
If the season ended today, the Golden Knights would be looking at a first-round matchup against the Winnipeg Jets. However, they are winless in two games against them this season, including a recent 4-0 defeat. The Canucks are in the playoff mix, tied with the Predators in points for the second wildcard spot and behind the Jets by two points. Vegas would rather face an inexperienced Canucks team that has missed the playoffs in four straight seasons, rather than a veteran Jets team who are especially tough at home.
Arizona Coyotes – Lucas Main
The Coyotes made a statement to the league when they acquired Taylor Hall in December. Unfortunately, they have suffered a number of injuries this season and currently sit outside of a wild card spot. I chose the Coyotes because a playoff series between these two could ignite a fun desert rivalry and they have an all-time record of 8-4 against them, including a 4-1 record at Gila River Arena.
There it is, and now it is your turn! Who do you think deserves our season awards? What was your most memorable moment this season? Who do you want to see in the first round of the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below!