This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. Kevin’s back today to take a look at a position of depth, one that’s been notoriously thin in years past.
LAS VEGAS — In that magical first season, the Golden Knights went with William Karlsson, Erik Haula, Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare 1-4 as their centers.
In this season’s playoffs, assuming Jack Eichel recovers, that group will be Eichel-Karlsson-Chandler Stevenson and Nicolas Roy, potentially with Nolan Patrick, Keegan Kolesar and Jake Leschyshyn in the hole. It’s quite an improvement and impressive depth.
That’s the center depth of a Stanley Cup champion, but don’t start scoping out spots for the parade just yet.
There is no guarantee that Eichel will return this year, or that he’ll be the impact player he is when healthy. He underwent a surgery shortly after the Knights acquired him from Buffalo that no NHL player has ever undergone.
UFC fighters Chris Weidman and Aljamain Sterling both had it and recommend it, but because it worked for them does not necessarily mean it will work for Eichel.
But if Eichel comes back and resembles the player he once was, this will be a deep and potentially dominant group because it will create matchup issues aplenty. Stevenson has raised his game this year as the team’s No. 1 center to this point, and if you drop him to No. 2 or No. 3 where his matchups are better, it figures he can maintain if not improve upon his start.
If Karlsson is the Knights’ No. 3 center, I would dare say there may not be a better No. 3 center in the NHL. And Roy has done far more than a credible job centering Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault while Karlsson has been out. Like Stevenson, he’d be a matchup issue for other teams’ No. 4 centers.
Teams that win the Stanley Cup are strong down the middle. When the Pittsburgh Penguins won back to back titles in 2016 and 2017, they did it on the backs of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Nick Bonino was a quality third-line center for those Penguins with Phil Kessel on his line, and Matt Cullen was a smart, effective fourth liner.
The Lightning have won the last two Cups, with Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos. When Washington defeated the VGK in 2018 for the Cup, they had Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as their centers.
Of the teams that are considered serious Cup contenders, their centers are:
Edmonton: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Toronto: Auston Matthews and John Tavares.
Florida: Aleksander Barkov and Sam Bennett
Tampa: Point and Stamkos.
Boston: Patrice Bergeron and Charlie Coyle.
Carolina: Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal.
Colorado: Mikko Rantanen and Nazem Kadri.
New York Islanders: Mathew Barzal and J.G. Pageau.
Pittsburgh: Crosby, Malkin and Jeff Carter.
Winnipeg: Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dobois.
Dallas: Roope Hintz, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
That list is far from complete, but it’s pretty good evidence that to be a significant contender, a team needs two, if not three, quality centers.
The Knights won’t know how Eichel will be for several more months. And to fit him under the cap when he returns, it could conceivably require them to pare from that depth. Assuming he returns during the regular season, the Golden Knights will have to do something, so could they try to move Karlsson for a draft pick and go with a foursome of Eichel-Stevenson-Roy-Patrick? It wouldn’t be popular and it would come with great risk, but Karlsson is signed at $5.9 million a year through 2027.
He is a terrific two-way player and would be in demand if the Knights looked to move him. With the players they have at the position already, GM Kelly McCrimmon may decide to sacrifice Karlsson because he’s deep at center either way, he’ll get something in return to build the system and Karlsson would be the most attractive player the Knights could offer. Kolesar can also play center and wouldn’t be out of place centering a fourth line.
For a team that was perilously thin at the position for most of its existence, the Knights are suddenly amazingly deep down the middle.
That should make them a legitimate Cup threat. Pete DeBoer has shown himself to be a terrific coach and because of that, we’ve seen significant development from Roy and Kolesar already. If DeBoer can coax more out of them in the second half of the year and the playoffs, that will only aid the cause.
The foundation is there for a long playoff run. But it’s unlikely they add any more bodies down the stretch to supplement what they have because they’re so taxed cap-wise, so they’ll need to make do with who they have now.
Things have to go their way, but you can see the pieces shaping up the right way.