2017-18 Bench Life NHL Previews: 30. Vegas Golden Knights
Part 2 of 31 in our NHL previews where Ballantyne, Waind and I rank each NHL team 1 through 31 and give you an outlook on their season. Starting from the worst, we’ll be giving you the reasons why we ranked each team where we did. It might not be perfect, but that doesn’t stop Skip Bayless.
The start of the 2017-18 NHL season also marks the start of the first season in Golden Knights history. While there is a lot of excitement surrounding the league’s newest team, Vegas will likely find itself at the bottom of the standings once April comes around. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a team that is looking to build towards becoming a Stanley Cup contender. I wrote an article after the Expansion Draft talking about how Vegas is set up to compete sooner rather than later, but they still need a few seasons together to develop and hope that some of the young players can become game-changers in the near future.
Being the first expansion team since the NHL added Minnesota and Columbus in 2000, you tend to forget how tough it is for a team to build from the ground up. It’s likely that it will take some time for Vegas to develop any sort of chemistry, but there is some foundation in place.
Now, it’s hard to rank a team when they haven’t even played a game yet, so this is going to be based solely on their current lineup. And based on that lineup, it looks like it could be a long season for Vegas fans (if there are any, I’m still predicting that most of the fans at games will be cheering for the away team).
Either way, it’s hard to predict that this team will be anything other than bad this season. The roster has two players who have more than 100 career goals (James Neal at 238, David Perron at 159), and you could argue that both of these players have might have already played their best hockey. The defense is made up of depth players from other teams, and even though they have a lot of defensemen on the roster, none of them belong on a top pair in the NHL. The only bright spot on this team is in net, but that’s mainly because of Fleury and his 375 career regular season wins.
List of Key Additions: Cody Eakin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jason Garrison, Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, David Perron, Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore
List of Key Departures: Marc Methot, Marcus Kruger, Alexei Emelin, David Schlemko
In just a short amount of time since the Expansion Draft, Vegas has already made some trades for draft picks in order to build more towards a successful future. Clearly the plan is to build from the bottom up, something that GM George McPhee has done in the past with the Washington Capitals. Under his control, the Capitals acquired many of the core players that have made them one of the best regular season teams in the NHL today.
As far as the best person to turn Vegas into a contender, it’s hard to argue that anyone would be a better fit than McPhee. But similar to the situation he faced in Washington, the team must start from rock bottom. If Vegas puts together a poor season as expected, they may be able to find the future face of their franchise in the 2018 Draft. Swedish defender Rasmus Dahlin is the projected #1 pick right now, and could be the cornerstone player that Vegas will be able to build their team of the future around.
Team MVP: Marc-Andre Fleury
Coming off of a year in which he only appeared in 38 games and was ultimately moved to the bench in favour of Matt Murray, Fleury still showed enough game that he’s still considered a starting option. His performance during the first few rounds of the playoffs proved that the 32 year-old is more than capable. If we’re being honest, even though he had that one awful game against Ottawa, I think Pittsburgh jumped the gun on pulling him in favour of Murray.
His stats in the playoffs last season were actually pretty good, especially considering he wasn’t even expected to see the ice at all until Matt Murray went down with an injury. In 15 playoff games Fleury put together a very respectable stat line featuring a 2.56 GAA, .924 SV% along with 2 shutouts. Apparently, that’s still not enough to show some people that he can be a starter. On a per game basis Fleury was actually better in this past postseason than he was in his 2009 Cup Run where in 24 games, he had a 2.61 GAA, .908 SV% and 0 shutouts. But everyone just remembers his save at the end of Game 7.
Fleury does not belong on the bench in the NHL at this point in his career, at least not yet. I’m expecting that he’s able to steal a few games for Vegas this season. With a relatively young and inexperienced team in front of him, Fleury will be relied upon to do just that more than a few times this year.
Team’s Strength: Goaltending
When a team doesn’t have a lot of talent up front, and a defense group made up of scraps from other teams, it’s a good thing that Vegas has landed two good goalies in the Expansion Draft. Fleury brings leadership and experience to a team that lacks both. If we hadn’t already learned that goalies being captain of a team doesn’t work out (thanks to Luongo and Vancouver), then you could have picked Fleury to be captain of this team when the season kicks off next month.
Obviously Fleury will be the starter, but Vegas also picked up a pretty good backup in that Expansion Draft as well. While Calvin Pickard doesn’t have much experience, he’s proven that he’s capable of playing in some big games. While he only has 28 NHL regular season wins on his record, he’s represented Team Canada at the World Championships on two different occasions not. This summer he was very solid for the red and white, playing 7 games and posting a 5-2 record with a 1.49 GAA and .938 SV%. While he ultimately finished the tournament with a silver medal, a result that is always disappointing to Canadians, Pickard proved he can handle the pressure of big games. This should mean that Fleury can have a night off for rest and the Golden Knights still have an NHL-calibre goalie in net.
Team’s Weakness: High-end talent
When looking at the roster, there are a few names that stand out up front… but not much.
It looks like goals will be hard to come by for the Golden Knights, one of the main reasons why I ranked them so low this season. It doesn’t matter if Fleury stops everything if the forwards can’t put the puck in the net on the other end. Jonathan Marchessault is coming off a 30 goal season, but has only 38 in his career. However, after averaging only 16:55 of ice time last season, that number could rise now that he’ll be playing on the top line in Vegas. If he is able to maintain his production from last season, he’ll be a huge asset for Vegas going foward. Neal, Haula, Eakin and Perron are all viable NHLers, but they’ll be exposed when they have to carry top-six minutes this season.
Vegas had 12 picks in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, including 3 in the first 15 picks. They took Cody Glass 6th, Nick Suzuki 13th, and Erik Brannstrom 15th. While it’s unlikely Vegas will rush any of these players to the NHL this year, it seems like Cody Glass is the most NHL-ready player taken in the draft. He put up 32 goals, 62 assists for a total of 94 points in 69 games last season with the Portland Winterhawks. The reports on him say that he’s an excellent playmaker who thinks the game at a high level, allowing him to have an easier time finding his teammates on the ice.
Over the next 3 seasons, Vegas has a lot of high draft picks already, with more potentially coming their way. Here’s how it breaks down:
They’ll be without a 3rd or 7th round pick next year, but they’ve loaded up on 2nd round picks in the future. But if George McPhee decides to blow up this current roster later on this season, Vegas could look to add to their already massive collection of draft picks.
Key Player: Vadim Shipachyov
Currently projected as the 1st line centre, Shipachyov is coming off a season in which he scored 76 points in 50 games, adding another 19 points in 17 playoff games for the KHL’s St. Petersburg SKA. While we’ve never seen him in NHL competition, there is plenty of reason to believe that he’ll become one of the top players on this Vegas roster. Following in the footsteps of successes like Artemi Panarin, some believe that Shipachyov’s game can translate. At 30 years old, he’s certainly not a traditional rookie. Vegas clearly sees the potential, signing him to a 2 year/$9 million contract. But he certainly wouldn’t be the first KHL bust if this doesn’t work out.
C. Burgess: 29th
T. Waind: 31st
B. Ballantyne: 29th
It’s hard to look at that roster and see Vegas having a successful year on the ice. No depth and no real top-pair defensemen makes for a less than promising season. They have a handful of decent forwards and the blueline will be patrolled by veteran Jason Garrison and promising youngsters Nate Schmidt and Shea Theordore. They just lack the type of talent it takes to hang with the NHL’s best. The bar hasn’t been set extremely high for expansion teams. It’s likely that Vegas’ season will be similar to that of Columbus and Minnesota expansion teams of 2000-01, who ended up finishing 13th and 14th in the Western Conference respectively.
If Vegas is able to find their scoring touch, they could get a few wins this year. I still wouldn’t expect a playoff appearance, but it’s entirely possible that the Golden Knights are a competitive team this year. As an expansion team starting from the bottom, the only place Vegas can really go is up.
Check out the first part of this series here