With their first handful of practices and some special T-Mobile Arena PM scrimmages under their belt, the Vegas Golden Knights are quickly approaching the start of the 2020-21 season. The Golden Knights retained most of their 2019-20 starting lineup, seemingly leaving Head Coach Pete DeBoer very few roster battles to evaluate.
There are some new faces in this season’s camp, in the absence of a traditional Developmental Camp preceding the main NHL Training Camp. Guys like Ben Jones, Lucas Elvenes, Jack Dugan, Jake Leschyshyn, and Paul Cotter got a taste of NHL talent, sharing the ice with Golden Knights regulars. That experience will only help them once the AHL season begins, with the Henderson Silver Knights.
In addition to the young guys, some newcomers have arrived from around the NHL. F Dylan Sikura (trade w/ Chicago for B. Pirri), D Karl Dahlstrom (trade w/ Winnipeg for P. Stastny), F Tomas Jurco (FA signing), and F Danny O’Regan all donned the VGK shield for the first time. All four players have seen time at the NHL level and DeBoer has commended the depth Kelly McCrimmon has added for this camp.
”I think it’s critical that every year you give those type of players (that have come into your organization after leaving another place) a clean slate. I think Jurco has looked great in the first two days of scrimmages, I thought Sikura has flashed his skill.”
- Pete DeBoer
There are three main positional/roster battles for the Golden Knights this camp, which is partially co-signed by the coach. DeBoer has mentioned that there are battles throughout the lineup “up front at center, the 5-8 defensemen, and in net”. Below I’ll break down the three main battles, with a bonus fourth battle that probably should exist.
”First Line” Center
William Karlsson is the unofficial No. 1 center for the club, whether he’s centering Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith or Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. So far in camp, he has been skating with his old buddies Marchessault and Smith, the 2017-18 killers. They will effectively work as the second line. A line flanked by Pacioretty and Stone has to be viewed and is used as the top line.
This season’s question comes down to who the first line center will be, but make no mistake, Karlsson is the 1C on the depth chart. Cody Glass, Chandler Stephenson, Nic Roy, and to a lesser extent Peyton Krebs are the main competitors to slot between Pacioretty and Stone. Stephenson, who recently signed a four year contract extension, has gotten the first shot with the two elite wingers.
Stephenson has been an impact player since joining the club. He was acquired via trade with the Washington Capitals, where he was capped - pun intended - as a third line center playing behind Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. During his Washington tenure, Stephenson logged an average TOI of just 11:40. In Vegas he jumped four full minutes to 15:47 because of more opportunity, his versatility, and how his speed matched up with the VGK style of play.
“It’s (speed) his best asset and I feel like wherever you put him, it immediately puts the other team on its heels which creates some space for guys like Stoney (Mark Stone) to handle the puck and if you give guys like Stoney the puck with some time, they’re gonna make plays.”
- Pete DeBoer on Stephenson
While Stephenson isn’t a big point producer, at least not yet at the NHL level, he can help drive that line. In his press availability, Stone has touched on playing juniors with the former Capital and his talent level. He seemed extremely confident with Stephenson as his center. Stephenson’s biggest competition will be Glass, the first-ever draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Glass brings a first round pedigree, roughly 15 pounds of added off-season muscle, and elite playmaking ability to the table. When talking about the young centerman, DeBoer raved about the rarity of the combination of his 6-foot-2 frame and elite playmaking ability. He will be looking forward to his first season with the young man, starting him out on the third line, flanked by Alex Tuch.
“While I haven’t had a lot of time to coach him, I have seen him from the other bench in key situations and he looked really good a year ago. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, more mature than he was a year ago and so far in camp he’s looked great.”
- Pete DeBoer on Cody Glass
Ultimately Glass and Stephenson could be used interchangeably with any of the Top-Six wingers and also Tuch, who would assuredly be a Top-Six winger on just about every other team in the NHL. Nic Roy also provides some much-needed depth up the middle in the event one of the others falter or DeBoer wants a new look. If the third line struggles to get going, Karlsson could also swap with Glass to spread the wealth. The center depth chart will be fluid throughout the season.
“I really liked him in the bubble (2019-20 playoffs). I thought he’s one of those guys that can play up and down your lineup. He’s versatile.”
- Pete DeBoer on Nicolas Roy
Third Defense Pair
Last season Nick Holden and Zach Whitecloud finished the season as the third defense pair. Both defenseman inked two year extensions seemingly cementing them in as the third pair once again. It looked as if the newcomer Alex Pietrangelo would take Nate Schmidt’s vacated spots and nothing else would change. Wrong.
Training camp opened and DeBoer threw a wrench in the mix. When camp opened, Holden was paired with the dynamic, offensive Dylan Coghlan. Whitecloud was reunited with his AHL defense partner, Nic Hague. These pairs aren’t set in stone and they could mean a number of things.
1. Whitecloud and Hague are the anticipated third pair.
2. Holden and Coghlan are the anticipated third pair.
3. It’s a true competition between the pairs to see which one wins the spots.
4. It’s a true competition between all four men and there are no starters set in stone.
Each player brings a different skill set to the table. Holden is the prototypical veteran defenseman. Nothing too flashy and he’s good enough to get the job done and has some offense to his game. Whitecloud is also a defensive presence who flashes his two-way game, mainly in transition.
Hague is the big man with the big shot. He has logged power play time at the AHL level and is comfortable on both sides of the blue line. He started the 2019-20 season with the Golden Knights and was replaced by Whitecloud once the latter got his legs back following a preseason injury.
Coghlan has the highest offensive upside and is valued by the Head Coach. He’s looked good in past camps and flashed in the Rookie Games in Anaheim last year. The right-shot defenseman’s goal scoring from the blue line could be a real valuable addition to the Golden Knights’ lineup.
“He’s (Coghlan) knockin’ on the door.....he worked out with Cody Glass in the off-season and really put on a lot of good weight. He’s a world-class skater too. When you’re looking for defensemen now, with the way the game’s being played, (big, strong, skate, offensive instincts) there’s a lot there to like so he’s knocking on the door.”
- Pete DeBoer
Intriguing is one of the best words to use to describe Coghlan. His unique skill set and dynamic game certainly make for a fun player to watch. He potted 11 goals to go with his 13 assists, following up his 15-goal, 40 point 2018-19 campaign. He’s no slouch in his own end and he makes up for his average size with his above average footwork.
It’s anyone’s guess as to who gets the call on Thursday, but looking to the future is the way to go. If you’re DeBoer, why wouldn’t you use Hague and Whitecloud, two solid young players who both got some NHL experience last season? Based off how he broke down the battle following their January 10 session, I expected to see Holden-Whitecloud on opening night, despite how complimentary he was of both Hague and Coghlan who “look like NHL players”. Now, Holden finds himself on the waiver wire. Did Coghlan and Hague just make the club? Stay tuned!
Now for the most hotly debated positional battle in the Vegas Golden Knights organization. Ever since the acquisition and eventual playoff takeover of Robin Lehner, Golden Knights fans have been in a Civil War debate over who should and is the starting goalie for the team. Marc-Andre Fleury was built up as the Face of the Franchise and anything less incites a riot.
Lehner took a maintenance day on Sunday paired with the team’s day off Monday, should be good to go for the opener on Thursday. It would be hard to imagine he has lost his upper hand on Fleury, considering the 5x5 contract he signed this offseason. The 36-year-old Fleury has another two years on the books at a $7 million hit and will be used often. In this unique schedule, teams play each other often and in most cases, for multiple days/games in a row.
Prior to the playoff bubble, DeBoer used the goalies in a dead-even 50/50 split. Expect more of that with a slight edge to the younger, more effective Lehner. Fleury, for all intensive purposes, is now the number two and one of the best ones in the NHL. It is a blessing the Golden Knights SHOULD reap the benefits of. With the goalies making just over 14% of the team’s money, they’ll need to carry the load and prove just how much of an organizational strength they are.
Fourth Line Wings
It’s almost a guarantee that the Golden Knights will head into opening night with William Carrier and Ryan Reaves on the fourth line. Both men received contract extensions, with Carrier nabbing a four year deal. McCrimmon likes both players and feels they’re a big part of the team’s identity and culture. They’re both fine as fourth liners, but it’s fair to think that there might be better options at the AHL level.
Patrick Brown, Gage Quinney, and Keegan Kolesar are back in camp and once again they’re showing that they may be ready to stick at the NHL level. In addition, the newcomers Jurco and Sikura have come to town with a little more flash to their game and a legitimate chance of making the roster. This battle all comes down to DeBoer’s desire for the fourth/third lines and who fits that mold.
As quoted previously, DeBoer knows Roy can go up and down the lineup. If he wants a Jurco or Sikura to stick, he could place them alongside Glass and Tuch, by sliding Roy down to the fourth line. That gives him another more skilled option up front, squeezing out one of the two bangers. Additionally, he could look to roll four skill lines making fourth lines of Brown/Sikura - Nosek - Quinney/Jurco look attractive.
Essentially, the only guarantee about the fourth line is that there are a ton of options, depending on what DeBoer wants out of the unit. Expect the status quo from the start and a possible shake up if the Golden Knights’ Top Nine struggles to find the back of the net. Both Jurco and Sikura are NHL players and if they make it to Henderson (AHL) unclaimed on waivers, they’d be the first in-season recalls.
Anticipated Opening Night Lineup:
67 Pacioretty - 20 Stephenson - 61 Stone
81 Marchessault - 71 Karlsson - 19 Smith
10 Roy - 9 Glass - 89 Tuch*
28 Carrier - 92 Nosek - 75 Reaves
3 McNabb - 7 Pietrangelo
23 Martinez - 27 Theodore
14 Hague - 2 Whitecloud
*injury concerns (expected to play)
“I have great confidence in this group that we’re going to find our game pretty quickly here once we get going.”
- Pete DeBoer
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