Puck Drop Preview: 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights

2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights
SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 23: Cody Eakin #21 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal in the second period against the San Jose Sharks in Game Seven of the Western Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on April 23, 2019 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Our series continues with the 2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights.

2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights Preview

2018-19 Season

The Vegas Golden Knights second full season in the NHL was successful, but not quite as magical as their storybook first season. The team of spare parts turned superstars fell back to earth, finishing 16 points lower in the standings. Nate Schmidt missed the first 20 games of the season due to suspension. Erik Haula was sidelined for the year after a gruesome knee injury. Vegas fell from the top-five in goals scored to finish in the middle of the pack. The mid-season acquisition of Mark Stone provided an offensive spark. Marc-Andre Fleury continued to defy his age – and his critics. Despite the hiccups, Vegas rode incredible depth to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Golden Knights 2018-19 season may only be remembered for their spectacular exit from the playoffs. They took a 3-0 lead deep into the third period of Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks. An incredibly controversial blown call on Cody Eakin for interfering with Joe Pavelski gave the Sharks a 5-minute power play. San Jose scored four times, and would ultimately won Game 7 in overtime.

2019 Off-Season

Vegas had one of the busier off-seasons in the NHL. Former GM turned President of Hockey Operations George McPhee and current GM Kelly McCrimmon had a host of pending free agents to sign and tough decisions to make. Haula was the first piece to go – traded to Carolina for Nicolas Roy and a late draft pick. Potential top-pairing defenseman Colin Miller was moved to Buffalo. KHL star Nikita Gusev was dealt to the New Jersey Devils for more draft selections. Several depth players who were expansion draft selections left the team (Ryan Carpenter, Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare).

Despite the loss of several important faces, new additions and team-friendly contracts remained plentiful. The greatest success of the break was signing star centre William Karlsson to an 8-year extension at only $5.9 million average annual value. Karlsson’s contract gave Vegas salary cap breathing room and prevented a potential RFA standoff. RFA contracts have defined a lot of off-seasons around the NHL. The Golden Knights were all the more productive for avoiding a stalemate.

2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights Projected Line-up

Forwards

Jonathan Marchessault – William Karlsson – Reilly Smith
Max PaciorettyPaul Stastny – Mark Stone
Brandon Pirri – Cody Eakin – Alex Tuch
Tomas NosekCody GlassRyan Reaves

Top Six

The Golden Knights have one of the most impressive top-six forward groups in the league. Former Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty had a rough start in Vegas but hit his stride alongside Stastny and Stone in the playoffs. Ideally, Stone would join the top line to capitalize on the chemistry he built with Marchessault during the world championships. However, Vegas coach Gerard Gallant has no plans of breaking Smith from that group. Smith saw a slight decrease in production from year one to year two in Vegas (60 points to 53 points), but he is still capable of first-line production. Karlsson also saw a significant drop in points (78 to 56), but can not reasonably be expected to match his storybook first season in Vegas.

The Golden Knights top-six stands out because of incredible depth. If their goal-scoring numbers continue to trend downward, Stone could be promoted to the first line. The vacant spot on the second line could either be taken by Smith or Alex Tuch (20 goals, 32 assists). Tuch is a young player poised to have a breakout season, and top-six minutes would all but guarantee his production increases for the third straight season.

All seven of the forwards in who might play in the top-six scored at least 40 points last season. Five of those seven scored at least 50 points. In their own zone, the Golden Knights boast above-average defensive play from this forward group. The biggest challenge the team has heading into the year could be deciding who plays in which position to maximize offensive production and team chemistry.

Bottom Six

While the Golden Knights top-six group is defined by offensive skill, the bottom six is equally defined by physicality, grit, and energy. Tuch may have soft hands, but the big-bodied forward is a great linemate for Eakin and Pirri. Eakin’s offensive production last season was impressive (22 goals, 19 assists, 41 points), and he will look to build on it.

Pirri is a question mark. He spent the first six years of his career bouncing around the NHL and playing minimal games in the process. It wasn’t until 2016-17 with the New York Rangers that Pirri managed to play in at least 60 regular-season games, managing only 18 points in the process. Pirri played in just over half of that amount of games last season (31) and matched that 18 point total. His continued development as a player could make or break the success of the Golden Knights third line.

Intrigue surrounds the Golden Knights fourth line. Reaves and Nosek return flanking exciting prospect Cody Glass. The young centre’s NHL debut has been a point of excitement for Vegas fans since he joined the team. The hard-working, hard-hitting duo of Nosek and Reaves are great players to help Glass transition into NHL play.

Defence

Brayden McNabb – Nate Schmidt
Jon MerrillShea Theodore
Jimmy SchuldtDeryk Engelland

The Golden Knights enter the 2019-20 season with a very solid top-four group of defencemen. McNabb and Schmidt will see the most ice time. The first pairing will function as the shutdown, stay at home defence that Vegas needs to succeed. Schmidt will look to play a full season without a suspension forcing him to miss time. McNabb isn’t known as a scorer (16 total points in 81 games last season) but an increase in production could be in the cards as he sees more of the ice.

Merrill joins Theodore on the second pair after having a career year, managing 15 points for the first time ever. Just like McNabb, it’s possible Merrill’s numbers improve even further – especially when paired with Theodore. Theodore is the only true offensive defenceman on the team, managing an impressive 37 points (12 goals, 25 assists) last season. In addition to second pair duties, fans can expect to see Theodore in charge of the first power-play unit.

Rounding out the defence are Jimmy Schuldt and hometown favorite, Deryk Engelland. Both players were signed late in the off-season following free agent speculation. Schuldt only has one career NHL game under his belt, and his transition to full-time play should be monitored closely. Las Vegas resident Deryk Engelland became a fan favorite when he was taken by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft and began doing community outreach work. Engelland has trended downwards in recent years, but his on-ice play should be enough for a solid number six defenceman.

Goaltenders

Marc-Andre Fleury
Malcolm Subban

If the Golden Knights have a weak spot, it’s in net. Marc-Andre Fleury’s age-defying career rejuvenation has been vital to the first two seasons of success in Vegas. However, the cracks in the former Stanley Cup champion goaltender are starting to show. Fleury’s surrendering of four shorthanded goals on the same penalty kill against the Sharks was unthinkable during his first year with the Golden Knights. The veteran has battled injuries throughout his career, and can’t be relied on for more than 50 safe starts. Malcolm Subban returns as the backup after RFA speculations, though his numbers last season (2.93 GAA, .902 sv%) aren’t encouraging. Vegas will need hard work from its goaltenders in 2019-20 season.

2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights Players to Watch

Alex Tuch

Alex Tuch is set to have a breakout year in Vegas. After a substantial increase in production from year one to year two, Tuch has the potential to near 30 goals if he can stay healthy – especially if he ends up playing alongside Pacioretty and Stastny. Tuch could also see significant time on the wing of the second powerplay grouping, furthering his increase in points. Rounding out Tuch’s skill set is his large body. At 6’4″ and 222 lbs, Tuch has the size to become a physical presence on the ice as well.

Cody Glass

Cody Glass is one of the most intriguing young forwards debuting in the NHL in the 2019-20 season. In junior hockey, his ability to move the puck and forecheck with vision and skill frustrated opponents and turned Glass into a two-way threat. If he can find his game on the NHL level, he could be a massive boon for the Golden Knights on offense and defence. Glass has the potential to move up the roster if he can live up to expectations, and his hard-working game could take him there.

2019-20 Vegas Golden Knights Prediction

The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the deepest and dynamic teams in the NHL. Their stellar forward depth and impressive defensive options all but guarantee a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Although some questions remain about the longevity of Marc-Andre Fleury in net and the defensive depth, Vegas has the quality to succeed regardless. Coupled with a strong farm system and shrewd management, the Vegas Golden Knights could very easily see themselves competing in the Stanley Cup Final. With a team this strong, anything less could be considered underperforming.

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