As we eat turkey and pumpkin pie, and virtually chat with our loved ones on this abbreviated Thanksgiving, let’s run down a few reasons why the Golden Knights should be thankful this holiday season.
Las Vegas has one of the NHL’s best teams
There’s really only one thing fans of any team want and the Golden Knights have done a lot of it over the years: win. The franchise has won two Pacific Division titles and appeared in two Western Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final. Not bad for three years of existence.
That doesn’t look like it’s going to change next season. The Golden Knights will enter the year with almost the same forward group that took them to the Western Conference Final last year, the same pair of goalies in Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury, and two defensemen who finished in the top six of the Norris Trophy voting in Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore.
Nearly every analytics or betting site projects the Golden Knights as one of the top three favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The road won’t be easy (is it ever?) but the Golden Knights next season will run out more star-level players than they ever have.
There’s little word on when next season will begin or what form it will take. But there’s also little doubt that Vegas won’t be right in the thick of the race for the Stanley Cup.
Theodore has reached the precipice of star status
Theodore’s postseason was his coming-out party, showing the rest of the hockey world what Golden Knights fans saw all season: This guy is good.
Theodore isn’t exactly homegrown — he was drafted by the Ducks and played 53 games with Anaheim before coming to Vegas in the expansion draft. He was a first-round pick, a star in juniors and considered a good prospect, so it’s not like the Golden Knights raised him from obscurity.
Vegas, though, is where Theodore became a near-elite defenseman in the NHL. He’s always been a strong offensive player, but there were questions about his work in the defensive zone — remember his struggles in the Stanley Cup Final? — but now Theodore is not just a fourth forward out there but has turned into a 200-foot player. And the offense? He led the team in points this postseason and quarterbacked the power play better than ever. He also finished sixth in the Norris voting after a career-best 13 goals and 46 points this season.
The adage in hockey is that to win you need a top center, a top defenseman and a top goalie. The Golden Knights have never had issues down the middle or in the net, but with Theodore’s emergence and Pietrangelo’s arrival, Vegas has two reliable options on the back end.
The front office will never stop improving this team
Whether or not you agree with the decision to trade Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt to make room for Pietrangelo, there’s no denying how badly general manager Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee want this team to win. It’s been their MO from the beginning, when they were aggressive in the expansion draft, but even past that.
The Tomas Tatar trade turned into a disaster for Vegas, but that offseason the Golden Knights, not content with keeping the same team that won the Western Conference, signed Stastny and traded for Max Pacioretty. That trade deadline they acquired Mark Stone. Robin Lehner came a year later. Then the Pietrangelo signing this offseason.
At no point have the Golden Knights stopped trying to improve and win games. Some moves have worked out. Some haven’t. But as a fan, that’s all you can ask for — a team that wins and wants to keep winning. They’ve made unpopular trades and dealt fan favorites away, but that’s a testament to a front office that is singularly focused on winning a Stanley Cup.
The goalie position is locked down for years to come
Since the expansion draft, the home net at T-Mobile Arena has belonged exclusively to Fleury. He leased it out on occasion, but there was no question who the No. 1 backstop was. With that came the uncertainty of who would take over when Fleury hung up the skates.
The February trade for Lehner not only stabilized the position for the playoffs (Lehner started 16 of the 20 games), but his October extension means he’s the No. 1 goalie for five years. He’s signed at an affordable rate ($5 million cap hit per year) and at 29 years old is the present and future.
Vegas tried to trade Fleury this offseason, according to multiple reports, but found the asking price of taking on the final two years and $7 million cap hit too high. Regardless of whether devoting $12 million in cap space to goalies is wise, Vegas will have one of the best tandems in the league. That could be beneficial if the season is condensed, with multiple back-to-backs on the schedule.
Lehner’s extension means that as long as he’s healthy, Vegas won’t have to worry about the younger goalies in the organization. Better teams than the Golden Knights have been derailed by an unreliable option in goal, and for next season and the four after that, they’ll have one of the best goalies in the league.
Young talent is here, and on the way
Theodore is 25. Alex Tuch is 24. Mark Stone, William Karlsson and Lehner all will finish the season under 30. This isn’t the youngest team in the NHL, but they have most of their core either in their prime or just shy of it.
That doesn’t even include the young guns on the way. Zach Whitecloud looks like a permanent fixture of the blue line at 23. Cody Glass will have a prominent role at 21. Peyton Krebs has an outside shot at cracking the roster at 19, and Jack Dugan (22), Jake Leschyshyn (21), Nicolas Hague (21) and Dylan Coghlan (22) are all going to battle for roster spots this year. The Golden Knights’ first-round pick Brendan Brisson just turned 19 and had an assist in each of his first two collegiate games at Michigan. They have all of their upcoming first-round picks and two second-rounders next year to continue stocking their prospect pool.
The Golden Knights are built to win now, but they’re also built for the future.