Alec Martinez knows the ups and downs of a hockey season. He’s a Golden Knights defenseman now, but when he was with the Los Angeles Kings, he rode the roller coaster from Stanley Cup champion all the way down to last place in the division.
For the most part, teams have a good idea where they stand going into the year. The 2013-14 Kings that won the Cup were expected to be good before the season. Not much was expected of last year’s Kings after a last-place finish in 2018-19.
Which is all to say, Martinez knows a good team when he sees one. And as the Golden Knights prep for their season opener against the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night, expectations are high for a Vegas team with plans on winning it all.
“Expectations like that aren’t a burden — they’re a blessing,” Martinez said. “I’m excited to see what the year brings. I’m proud to be part of this team and hopefully we can be successful.”
They came awfully close last year. The thing about making the Western Conference Final is it really scratches the itch for wanting more. The Golden Knights were three wins away from their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in three years, and arguably got better this offseason.
They’ll have a whole year of Robin Lehner and coach Pete DeBoer. Cody Glass is getting every opportunity to take the next step. Shea Theodore is knocking on the door of elite. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are coming off terrific seasons. Oh, and Vegas signed Alex Pietrangelo.
“We’re ready to go,” DeBoer said. “I think the group coming out of the bubble really feels like we have some unfinished business.”
You won’t find many reputable voices in hockey who think the Golden Knights won’t be a top-tier team in the league. The players certainly think so, though it’s not like they’ll offer any prognostications.
That’s where we come in. Below we have 21 predictions for the 2021 season — some specific, some general, including how the season ends. Feel free to come back in July and either praise or mock these picks.
1. Who leads the team in goals this season? Max Pacioretty returns to defend last year’s title. He nets 25 in 56 games (a 36-goal pace over an 82-game season)
2. What about assists? Who’s going to set Pacioretty up? That’ll be Mark Stone with 29 assists (a 43-assist pace).
3. How many players finish with 34 points (a 50-point pace)? Five. Pacioretty, Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Alex Pietrangelo.
4. Who starts more games in net? Robin Lehner will be the 1a to Marc-Andre Fleury’s 1b. Lehner starts 31 of the 56 games.
5. Does another goalie get game action? I’ll go on a limb and say no. Lehner and Fleury start every game.
6. Will Peyton Krebs play in the NHL this year? Krebs can play in six games without burning a year of his entry-level deal. He’ll get into at least one before he reports back to juniors.
7. What will Cody Glass’ season look like? This is a big one for Glass. Healthy and with more weight on him, he finishes with 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points (a 14-goal, 22-assist, 36-point pace).
8. Will Chandler Stephenson’s strong play carry over? Oh yeah. As long as he centers Pacioretty and Stone, he’ll keep putting up numbers like his career-best output from last season.
9. What about Alex Tuch? A healthy Tuch is a dangerous player. He could challenge for 20 goals in a shortened season.
10. Will there be a coaching change? Certainly not, but hey, I would have said the same thing last year …
11. Will there be fans in the building at any point? Yes. Through mid-February it’s unlikely with state regulations, but once the COVID-19 vaccine is more widely available and case numbers start dwindling, the hope is T-Mobile Arena opens its doors to fans this season. Hopefully for the playoffs.
12. Will the Golden Knights have any games canceled or rescheduled because of COVID-19? It seems like an inevitability. Even if the Golden Knights get through the season without a positive test result, an opponent failing protocols would impact Vegas’ games.
13. How good will the two top defensemen be? It’s exceedingly rare for teammates to both get serious Norris Trophy love. Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore are both great, but only Pietrangelo bags a top-five finish for the Norris.
14. Will Vegas swing another trade-deadline move? Probably! The team has made a major move every trade deadline so far. Maybe it’s not at the level of Mark Stone, but the front office loves to add impact players late in the season.
15. Is this the year the Knights have a Hart finalist? No. The team’s best finish was William Karlsson’s 10th-place run in 2018, but this isn’t the year that gets beat.
16. Will the Knights get off to a hot start? They better. Twelve of their first 14 games are against Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles and San Jose — all teams that would have missed the playoffs last year without expanding the field. That’s a lot of potential points waiting for the Golden Knights out of the gate.
17. How many wins will Vegas have? 33-16-5. That’s 71 points, a 104-point pace over 82 games.
18. Who makes the playoffs out of the West Division? Golden Knights are a virtual lock, as are the Avalanche and Blues. Last spot goes to the Wild.
19. Who wins the division? The Avalanche might be too deep for the Golden Knights to take down in a shortened season where they will meet eight times. I’ll go Colorado.
20. So Colorado will beat Vegas in the playoffs? Actually … I think goaltending becomes exponentially more predictive of a winner in a playoff series than the regular season. Vegas beats Colorado in the West Division final.
21. And just how far will the Knights go? This team pushed all its chips to the center of the table going for this year’s Stanley Cup. If they can get through the Avalanche, the Golden Knights will parade the Cup down the Strip.