A New Powerhouse, or Just a Mirage in the Desert?
Vegas defied all odds and expectations last season, falling just shy of winning it all in year one with a roster of outcasts. Were they simply a Cinderella team, or can they sustain the success they found?
Vegas outperformed even the wildest expectations in their maiden season. With a roster of outcasts and misfits, they managed to come within three wins of the biggest prize in hockey in one of the most memorable Cinderella runs in sports history. Now, all eyes will be on them as they will attempt to prove last season wasn’t a fluke.
Offensively, Vegas was closer to the middle of the pack than elite in terms of creating offense – they just buried their chances at an incredibly high rate. Expect a market correction this season. Defensively, the team was top-10 and the goaltending performed well.
What went right:
What didn’t? Expected to contend for lottery odds, the Vegas Golden Knights instead made history with the most successful first season in North American sports, falling three wins short of winning the Stanley Cup. Players hit career-highs left and right on their roster. William Karlsson finished 3rd in the league with 43 goals after a previous high of nine. Karlsson, David Perron, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, Colin Miller, Alex Tuch, Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, and Deryk Engelland all recorded career-highs in points. Marc-André Fleury would likely have been a Vezina finalist if he hadn’t missed significant time due to injury and he was nearly unbeatable in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
What Went Wrong:
After losing only three games in the first three rounds of the playoffs and looking like they could very well win it all, the Golden Knights ran into a wall when matched up against Washington. Marc-André Fleury’s save percentage dropped from an elite .947 in the first three rounds to .869 in the Finals, due in no small part to their usually stingy defense being exposed by the Capitals. Vegas allowed two more slot shots on net and over five more passes to the slot per game in the Final than the previous three rounds. Offensively, the Golden Knights were also shut down, especially off the rush, which was their primary source of offense in the opening rounds. Vegas averaged half as many rush scoring chances on net in the Final compared to rounds one through three, a massive drop-off for a team that relied heavily on its speed. In fact, the Capitals pretty much laid out the blueprint for how to stop the Golden Knights, with other teams likely to attempt to emulate it when playing Vegas next season.
Key Additions: Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, Daniel Carr, Nick Holden
Key Departures: David Perron, James Neal, Luca Sbisa
Other Key moves: Extended Marc-André Fleury, re-signed William Karlsson, William Carrier, Colin Miller, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves
As free agency opened, Vegas lost a pair of key players from its Cinderella run in James Neal and David Perron. However, they more than made up for it by signing free agent Paul Stastny and acquiring one of the top goal-scoring left wingers in the game, Max Pacioretty.
Stastny signed a three-year deal to bolster their depth down the middle. Stastny averaged more offensive zone passes per game and more scoring chances than Perron, so he should be able to bring the same playmaking element to the Knights’ lineup. Despite a down year offensively last season, only one winger has more goals than Max Pacioretty since he became an NHL regular in 2011-12, Alex Ovechkin. In addition, they brought in some forward depth in Daniel Carr, a high energy forward with good forechecking skills who ranked 5th in the NHL in offensive zone puck battles won per-20 minutes. Nick Holden joined Vegas on a two-year deal. He projects as the 6th or 7th defensemen on the depth chart. Marc-Andre Fleury was a key part of their run and they rewarded him with a three-year extension after he posted the best numbers of his career.
One of the most interesting deals of Vegas’ offseason is the one-year contract signed by its breakout center William Karlsson. His 43 goal campaign was impressive; however, his shooting percentage was abnormally high at 23.4%. In fact, only three players since the turn of the century managed to score at least 40 goals on at least 20% shooting: Milan Hejduk, Brad Boyes, and Karlsson. The one-year deal allows Vegas one more season to see exactly how good Karlsson is before making a long-term commitment.
Next season preview
What could go right?
William Karlsson will be eager to prove his breakout wasn’t a fluke as he plays out a one-year contract. Although it’s unlikely he repeats his 40+ goals performance unless he gets a massive increase in shots per game, he should still be a dangerous scorer. Both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith will return to flank him, now with a full season of chemistry built up between them. Also, when looking at his goals last year, most of them came via high percentage plays, like one-timers in the middle of the slot and odd-man rushes, so if he keeps getting these chances, he should still score at a high rate. Considering this, a 30-35 goals season is a reasonable expectation for Wild Bill.
Alex Tuch could be next in line for a true breakout season. With Neal and Perron gone, there is room for a winger in the top 6. In his rookie year, Tuch led the team in slot shots on net per-20 and he was also a strong net-front presence on the power play, with 29 inner-slot shots on the man advantage, nearly twice as many as Karlsson, who finished 2nd on the team with 15. A regular top-6 role alongside new acquisitions Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty could unlock his potential.
What could go wrong?
Unlike last year, Vegas won’t be able to fly under the radar. People are well aware of their skill now and will bring their A-game night in and night out now that they proved they are a Cup contender. To make matters worse, the Golden Knights will be without Nate Schmidt for the first 20 games of the season as he serves a suspension for a failed drug test. Schmidt was arguably their top defensemen last season, as he faced the toughest competition every game and had the best zone entry denial rate of Vegas blueliners, despite facing the most entries against on the team. Losing him for a quarter of the season is a big blow to a defensive unit short on top-tier talent.
Another big threat looming over the Knights is a regression. With so many of their players posting career-highs simultaneously, the odds are stacked against a repeat performance, although defying the odds is nothing new for this team.
The Point Consensus 2018-19 Prediction: 2nd in Pacific Division, 4th in Western Conference.