The Vegas Golden Knights have been a threat since the moment they entered the league in the 2017-18 season.
They have made the playoffs in all three years of their existence and have won five playoff series’ in that time. Many will argue it should be at least six if not for the botched five-minute major crosschecking call in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks in the 2019 playoffs.
The 2020 postseason was fairly successful as the Knights marched their way to the Western Conference Final, although losing that series in five games to the Dallas Stars was no doubt a disappointing result for a team that probably felt pretty good about reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years.
That will be the expectation again this year to be sure. The Golden Knights will once again have their sights set on another deep postseason run, although they’ll look to do so with a re-jigged roster that saw a major addition but also a couple of departures that could play a factor in their fate this upcoming season.
With that in mind, let’s take a dive into the 2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights, their season preview and odds while taking a crack at some predictions on how this season could shake out in sin city.
2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 39-24-8 (1st in Pacific Division)
- Key Additions: D Alex Pietrangelo, D Carl Dahlstrom
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $0 (Currently $974,104 over the cap)
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +650
- 2021 Western Conference Odds: +350
The Golden Knights were one of the top possession clubs in hockey last season, and it led to a fair bit of offense, but they were unable to crack the top 10.
The Knights finished 13th with 3.15 goals per game on the season to go along with a power play that was in the top 10 at ninth with a 22% clip.
It’s certainly an interesting mix up front in terms of their makeup, at least entering this season.
Veteran center Paul Stastny was traded back to the Winnipeg Jets in October, opening up a spot down the middle on the team’s second line, one that could be filled by youngster Cody Glass or perhaps Chandler Stephenson.
The certainly puts into question the center-ice depth of this team. After William Karlsson on the top line, the Golden Knights have Glass, Stephenson and Tomas Nosek as the other three projected centers on this roster. We all know the best teams in this league have the center ice position taken care of, and this certainly appears to one of the thinner groups of centers in the NHL.
That said, the team is loaded on the wing. Arguably, the team’s top four forwards are wingers as Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and Riley Smith all reside on the flanks. Now, that’s one of the better groups of top-six wingers in the league to be sure. Stone and his 200-foot game almost acts as a center, so perhaps general manager Kelly McCrimmon was comfortable moving Stastny with that in mind.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) February 27, 2020
As noted, the Golden Knights were an advanced stat darling last season. At 5v5, they ranked second in terms of shots for per 60 minutes played, first in expected goals for/60, first in scoring chances/60 and first in high-danger chances for/60.
Of course, those are some elite rankings and the loss of Stastny isn’t going to see those numbers plummet.
The truth of the matter is that the team’s top-six point-getters from last season are back this time around. That includes the four wingers named above, Karlsson and budding young defenseman Shea Theodore who has cemented himself as one of the best young defensemen in the NHL, at least from an offensive perspective.
The bottom-six might have its issues, but at least they aren’t an easy group to play against with the likes of Ryan Reaves and William Carrier on the fourth line while Alex Tuch could rebound from a down, injury-filled season to provide some scoring depth on the third line.
The center ice position is a concern, but the Golden Knights are one of the more structurally sound groups at all ends of the ice, earning them bonus reps in the offensive end that the team has been able to capitalize as an above-average offense in this league.
To me, it appears this version of the Golden Knights is built to win based on keeping the puck out of their own net.
The team traded Stastny in part to open up cap space, and they also dealt defenseman Nate Schmidt and his $5.9M cap hit to open up additional space in order to sign the top defenseman on the open market in the form of former St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.
It was a hefty commitment of $61M over seven years, but the Golden Knights once again appear stout on the back end as a result.
I mean, the likes of Brayden McNabb, Alec Martinez, Theodore, Nick Holden and Zach Whitecloud might not be the best on-paper group in support of Pietrangelo, but it’s all about structure with this group and not individual play.
— NHL (@NHL) September 2, 2020
On the surface, the Knights regressed defensively last season, finishing 13th with 2.94 goals against per game a season after ranking 10th with 2.78 goals against per game.
That said, the defense was better under the hood than it was on the surface. The Knights ranked second in terms of shots against per 60 minutes at 5v5, eighth in expected goals against/60, fourth in scoring chances against/60 and ninth in terms of high-danger chances against/60.
For good measure, they tied the Carolina Hurricanes for second with just 29.3 shots against per game on the season.
That said, something that certainly did not help their overall defensive number was their penalty killing. That unit fell all the way to 27th with a 76.6% mark last season, ranking alongside the likes of bottom-feeding teams such as the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres.
So, it would appear that the Golden Knights were one of the better 5v5 defenses in hockey last season but suffered from bad penalty killing – and some subpar netminding for much of the year – and should certainly be regarded as a top-10 defense rather than one that was closer to the middle of the pack a season ago.
Here’s where the Golden Knights could stand to improve the most next season.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Knights acquired netminder Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks, a move that pushed Marc-Andre Fleury into backup duty some postseason time several months later.
The move came amidst a down season from Fleury, at least compared to how his Vegas tenure started. Fleury worked to a 2.77 GAA and .905 Sv% last season, by far the worst numbers of his three-year Vegas tenure.
Fleury dealt with the passing of his father off the ice as well, something that saw him miss time while away from the team. In that time, the starting job was Malcolm Subban’s, although he struggled mightily in his opportunity, posting a 3.18 GAA and .890 Sv% in 19 starts and 20 appearances with the Golden Knights.
Therefore, Subban was sent to Chicago in the Lehner swap, and the latter took the Knights’ starting job and ran with it. Before the season’s hiatus, Lehner started three regular-season games for the Golden Knights, working to a 1.67 GAA and .940 Sv% with a shutout in that time, going a clean 3-0-0 in the process. At that point, it was difficult to see anyone but Lehner getting to nod to start the postseason.
He didn’t disappoint in the playoffs, either, posting a 1.99 GAA and .917 Sv% in 16 starts with four shutouts in that time.
— NHL (@NHL) September 9, 2020
Among goaltenders that have played at least 80 games over the last two seasons, Lehner ranks fifth with a 2.47 GAA, but also third with a stout .925 Sv% in that time. The GAA was down due to his time with the Blackhawks, but the more important stat for a goaltender – save percentage – is where Lehner thrived over the last two campaigns.
Therefore, it would appear the Golden Knights acquired one of the best netminders in the league, and they weren’t about to let him go as they signed him to a five-year, $25M contract in October to prevent him from hitting the open market, which seems like a relative bargain compared to some of the other goaltender salaries around the league, all of which are inferior to Lehner at this point in time.
Such a circumstance has Fleury firmly as the backup – or at least 1B – option in the Vegas crease. He’ll get his reps in what should be a condensed schedule with plenty of back-to-backs likely, and he is still counting $7M against the cap over the next two seasons, so he’ll see time as well.
However, the Golden Knights will explore every opportunity to get that cap hit – or most of it – off the books over the next couple of seasons with Lehner firmly the top option between the pipes these days, and for good reason.
2020-21 Vegas Golden Knights Predictions
There is plenty working in the Golden Knights’ favor.
Of course, landing the top defenseman on the free agent market – by a landslide – is one of them. Pietrangelo is a massive get for this team and he is sure to fit in just fine in one of the most sound defensive systems in the NHL.
Another factor working in their favor is the general weakness not only within their Pacific Division but the Western Conference as a whole. Not only does the Pacific contain a trio of bottom-feeders in the likes of the Anaheim Ducks, L.A. Kings and San Jose Sharks, but even the once-powerful Central has seemingly lost some of its muscle with the Nashville Predators, Jets, Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks looking the part of bubble teams, at best. Even the Dallas Stars will miss two crucial players in Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop for the first half of the 2020-21 season after both underwent the knife recently with five-month recovery timelines for each.
To me, the Avalanche and Blues are the clear-cut top two teams in the Central with the Golden Knights the best team in the Pacific, followed by some combination of the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes, although I think regression is to be had in Vancouver.
The Oilers and Flames are the Knights’ biggest challengers, but I view this as a division Vegas could run away with.
Of all the aspects of this roster, only the center ice position is a concern to me. The loss of Stastny could hurt as it’s either the inexperienced Glass or a player in Stephenson who has spent much of his NHL tenure as a left winger as the replacements down the middle on the second line.
Pairing whoever earns that spot with Stone makes sense as Stone pretty much replicates what a center does as a 200-foot player. I don’t image that line will miss much of a beat with a sniper in Pacioretty on the other wing.
I believe the Vegas offense should in for similar production next season, all factors considered.
Where I see things improving, on the surface, is the defensive results. Here’s a blueline that could improve it’s excellent defensive metrics with Pietrangelo in two and with a full season – or a full, condensed season – of Lehner, the goals against numbers should be in for significant improvement and I view this as a top-five defense heading towards next season.
Add it up and I think we have our Pacific Division champs here again, and I’ll predict another run to the Western Conference Final with a potential clash with the Colorado Avalanche waiting on the other side. We can flip a coin from there, but this team looks very much the part of a legitimate Stanley Cup threat once again this season, and the odds are proof of that.