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Did The Vegas Golden Knights Actually Get Better?

Last season was among the zaniest in NHL history. An expansion team came within three games of winning the Stanley Cup. A New Jersey Devil won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. The Washington Capitals didn’t lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs — and went on to lift Lord Stanley’s shiny silver salad bowl for the first time in franchise history. As the NHL’s 2018-19 campaign is set to begin, we shouldn’t expect a repeat of last season, but what can we expect? Let’s have a look.

Could Vegas somehow be better than it was in year one?

The Vegas Golden Knights entered the 2017-18 NHL season without much in the way of expectations. Their roster was the best assembled by an expansion franchise in league history, but even that didn’t seem to matter — it just meant the Knights would be relatively bad, instead of embarrassingly bad, right?

Oh what a difference the best expansion season in sports history can make.

The Knights enter this season with the same Stanley Cup odds as the defending champion Capitals (14-to-1),1 and they seem less like a glitzy desert novelty and more like a team built to make a deep playoff run. Vegas would have challenged for Western Conference pre-eminence even if they had made exactly zero roster moves during the summer. But the Knights added depth on the offensive side of the bench, signing veteran center Paul Stastny and trading for sharp-shooting left winger Max Pacioretty. Stastny makes the Knights a better possession team: His abilities at the dot (his career faceoff win percentage is 53.9) should bolster a troupe of centermen who tied for the eighth-worst faceoff win percentage in the league last season. Pacioretty makes up for the goals Vegas lost when James Neal signed with the Calgary Flames: Pacioretty has scored 30 or more goals each season in which he’s played more than 70 games.

Vegas returns four players who scored at least 55 points and at least 20 goals — and while it’s probably too soon to ordain William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault as superstars, each played as such last season.

So the team shouldn’t struggle to score. And if goalie Marc-Andre Fleury finds the same form he showed off during the playoffs last season — when he was a beast — the Knights also won’t have much trouble preventing other teams from scoring goals.

Can Canada win its first Cup since the early 1990s?

The last Canadian team to win the Cup was the Montreal Canadiens, all the way back in 1993. This season, two of the three teams with the shortest odds to win it all hail from the Great White North: the Winnipeg Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Jets return seven skaters who scored 43 or more points last season, each of whom is at least 6 feet tall. The Jets are big and fast and scary, and they’re nearly as good at protecting their own net as they are shelling the net of their opponents: Winnipeg scored the second-highest number of goals in the NHL last season and conceded the fifth-fewest. If goalie Connor Hellebuyck plays as well as he did last season, the Jets might do what seemingly everyone thought they were going to do last spring: win the Cup.

Like their Canadian neighbors to the west, the Leafs look to be devastating in the offensive zone. Last season, they notched 270 goals, tied for third in the league. And their power play, which ranked second in 2017-18, will be even better with the addition of longtime Islander John Tavares — 213 of his 621 career points have come with the man advantage. Having to choose between Tavares and Auston Matthews to center the top power play unit is a dilemma that Leafs coach Mike Babcock will no doubt be happy to have.

Canadians like hockey a lot more than Americans do, so it feels a bit cruel that they haven’t been able to celebrate a Stanley Cup title in nearly three decades. If the Jets and the Leafs can manage to pick up where they left off last season and continue to pour goals in with apparent ease, all that might finally change in 2019.

Will another new name be etched on the Cup?

Last season, the Caps ended 42 seasons of Cupless hockey in Washington, while two other teams to have never won it — Winnipeg and Vegas — reached the semifinals or beyond. This season, there are two franchises that have been knocking on the door for years that hope to end their own long Cupless streaks.

We already know why the San Jose Sharks are contenders: Their rearguard is lousy with winners of the Norris Trophy (given to the league’s top defenseman) who are in the habit of putting up massive point totals. Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, whom the Sharks traded for this summer, won’t be paired together at even strength, but they’ll hurt teams on the power play, along with Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane.

Speaking of Thornton: There are a lot of miles on those legs (and lots of debris in that beard, shorter though it may be), and he’s no longer the player he was when he was 30. But he says he feels rested and healthy as he heads into his 21st season playing in the NHL. And there are precious few playmakers you’d rather have centering a line with goalscorers like Pavelski and Kane patrolling the half boards than a rested and healthy Joe Thornton. Thornton also appears to be happy about the Karlsson trade.

If the Nashville Predators don’t strike soon, they’ll be in danger of joining San Jose’s ranks as perennial bridesmaids. Last season, the Preds finished the regular season with the most points in the league but underperformed in the playoffs.2 While Nashville doesn’t have a true offensive superstar, they’re stacked at the back: P.K. Subban, who won a Norris Trophy in 2013, and Roman Josi are among the best 10 defensemen on the planet, and Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm aren’t bad either. That group of four, along with goalie Pekka Rinne, are the reason the Preds conceded the second-fewest goals in the league last season.

Or will the postseason mainstays add to their trophy case?

Deference must be given to the Capitals: They enter as the defending champions, and their roster is filled with many of the players who’ve made the team so consistently good for the past decade. It remains to be seen how much the post-celebration hangover — especially Alexander Ovechkin’s — will affect Washington’s play early on, but the Caps should be taken seriously as a repeat threat.

Also in the mix should be two frequent contenders: the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins. Both clubs will rely on high-scoring top lines and lethal power plays, which were crucial ingredients to their relative successes last season (they each made it to the second round of the playoffs). Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby is still one of the two best players in the world,3 and all he’s ever done in Pittsburgh is win. And if Boston’s temperamental talisman Brad Marchand can stop licking — and elbowing — people’s faces and instead focus on scoring goals, he could be a candidate to win the Art Ross Trophy, given to the league’s top point-getter. That’s a big if, though: He’s been suspended six times since 2011, and nothing in his past suggests that he’s learned his lesson. Boston fans will be forced to hold their collective breath every time Marchand takes the ice and to hope that he does something like this instead of something like this.

If there’s a sleeper in the league, it might be the Los Angeles Kings, who have won two Stanley Cup titles this decade but were swept away by Vegas in the first round of the playoffs last season. They gave up the fewest goals in 2017-18 and boasted the league’s stingiest penalty kill. But while they were effective at keeping goals out of their own net, they were mediocre at putting them into the nets of their opponents: The Kings were in the middle of the pack in goals scored and power play percentage. The signing of Ilya Kovalchuk may change that. Kovalchuk is 35 years old and hasn’t played in an NHL game since 2013, but the Kings are hoping he can find some of the magic that allowed him to score 816 points in 816 career games. Whether or not the Russian still has some goals in his locker may determine if the Kings are first-round doormats or a team built for a Stanley Cup run.

And let’s not forget about the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will be out to avenge their Eastern Conference finals loss to the Capitals. They’re the only team in the NHL that can match the blueline depth of the Preds, and their forward group isn’t half-bad either: They got 186 points from just Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov last season. Then there’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is one of the best goalies in the league — his quality starts percentage of .706 in the playoffs was far greater than his career regular-season mark of .517. And if we’ve learned anything, it’s that a hot goalie is crucial to success in the postseason.

Footnotes

  1. All odds in this article are as of Oct. 1.

  2. They lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Jets in a weird series that was defined by blowouts despite going seven games.

  3. The top distinction belongs to Connor McDavid these days. Sorry, Sid.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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