With a new coach comes a new system, and that new system will have a great impact on how the Vegas Golden Knights look next season.
On June 16, the team introduced former Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy as its new man, and management has clear expectations for Pete DeBoer’s replacement. GM Kelly McCrimmon is tasking Cassidy with getting the Golden Knights back to the Stanley Cup Final—and ultimately winning it.
“I would like to bring the stuff that worked well, and the stuff that didn’t we’ll sort through,” Cassidy said in his introductory news conference. “My beliefs are you need to have accountability in the group, you need to defend well and you need to have possession of the puck.”
The Golden Knights will be looking for the coaching change to spark the same sort of immediate results the last switch behind the bench did. When Vegas went from Gerard Gallant to DeBoer in 2020, it quickly went on a tear and wound up making consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup semifinals.
But DeBoer’s defense-first system ultimately hindered what Vegas wanted to do on offense. Shot attempts were mostly generated from the blue line, and if there was danger from the forwards, it was in a limited capacity.
Cassidy’s system should open up opportunities for Vegas’ forwards. He spent the past six years coaching arguably the best top line in hockey with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
He’ll have that same type of talent at his disposal next season with Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Jack Eichel.
“We want to get into attack mode,” Cassidy said.
Some players already on the Golden Knights’ roster should benefit greatly from Cassidy’s defense-to-offense approach, while others feel like question marks as far as fit. Here’s a rundown on four players who fall into each category.
THE RIGHT FIT
• Mark Stone: When healthy, the Golden Knights’ captain is skilled enough to fit into any coaching system, but his match with Cassidy looks like a perfect one. Assuming he fully recovers from offseason back surgery, his presence could mirror Cassidy’s former captain, Bergeron, on both ends of the ice.
Stone is a two-time finalist for the Selke Award, given to the best defensive forward in hockey, but he has never won the award, in part because he’s a winger rather than a center. Bergeron won his fifth Selke this year and has been one of the best at his position for a decade.
“I had an opportunity to talk with [Stone] briefly on where he saw the team,” Cassidy said. “He’s very dialed in. When you can play a 200-foot game, be a threat on offense and be responsible on defense, those are the best hockey clubs, and Mark fits that category.”
• William Karlsson: Cassidy’s counter-attack style of offense could help Karlsson regain his old form. The original Misfit probably won’t reach the 43-goal plateau from his first year in Vegas, but he should easily eclipse last year’s disappointing 37-point (12 goals, 23 assists) campaign.
Karlsson might be a trade candidate this offseason, but if he sticks around, his well-rounded style should set him up for a rebound.
• Alex Pietrangelo: In Boston, Cassidy had one puck-moving defenseman at his disposal in Charlie McAvoy, who established himself as one of the best generators in the league. In Vegas, Cassidy has two such blue-liners in Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore.
Theodore rounded into form late in the season and should be primed for a big leap in 2022. Pietrangelo, the steady presence on the St. Louis Blues team that won the Stanley Cup over Cassidy’s Bruins in 2019, should thrive with a more manageable workload after injuries thrust him into career-high ice time last year.
• Jack Eichel: Cassidy noted that there are guys on the Golden Knights who haven’t been taught how to win and are therefore hungry for the experience. Eichel was the first player he mentioned.
The Golden Knights’ newest star looked great in stints under DeBoer after returning from neck surgery, but an argument could be made that his strengths don’t work best in a defensive system. Eichel needs space and open ice to create.
That’s something he should get under Cassidy, who spoke of allowing his best stick handlers the freedom and creativity to work in the offensive end. Eichel is the best stick handler on the roster.
WILL IT WORK?
• Chandler Stephenson: Stephenson shouldn’t struggle under Cassidy, but he might be hard-pressed to repeat the year he just put together.
He scored a career-high 64 points as the primary No. 1 center, but the bulk of that scoring came with Stone and Pacioretty out of the lineup with injuries. Cassidy will empower his stars with more ice time and likely play them together, meaning it would be unfair to expect the same level of production from Stephenson for another year.
If he can turn into a 40- or 50-point player on the third line, however, that would be a major win.
• Zach Whitecloud: Whitecloud will have the opportunity to earn a bigger role, but he’ll have to prove he’s ready for such a promotion in training camp.
He’s coming off a career-high 19-point season, but there might be some doubt about whether he’s ready for a full-time role next to Theodore or Pietrangelo. DeBoer was high on Whitecloud’s potential going forward, but it’s always tricky for a young, developing player when a new staff comes in.
• Brett Howden: It’s probably safe to assume that Howden, a restricted free agent, will re-sign with Vegas. He revitalized his career last season, scoring 20 points in 47 games before an upper-body injury in March ended his season.
Howden would likely pencil in as the fourth-line center come training camp, and he might fit with Cassidy’s preference as a middleman with a scoring touch. But if Cassidy wants to go more defensive-minded with the fourth line, Howden might not be the guy.
• Michael Amadio: Signed to a two-year extension this season, Amadio scored a career-high 11 goals in 56 games while seeing some time on the second line during Reilly Smith’s absence. But it’s uncertain whether Amadio can maintain the same consistency going forward.
He’s someone who could reasonably wind up as anything from a end-of-roster stash to a second-liner. Like Whitecloud, he’ll need to impress Cassidy in training camp to secure his place.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.