This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays.
Many of my friends around North America who are hockey writers have dismissed this year’s version of the Vegas Golden Knights as a Stanley Cup contender out of hand. And while I’ll go on record here saying VGK shouldn’t bother making arrangements for a parade down the Strip in the summer, I think my colleague’s assessments are off-base.
Injuries are a part of hockey — of any sport, really — but the VGK’s injury bug this year has been far worse than what could realistically be expected.
This team if fully healthy has the capability of being a Stanley Cup champion. Oh, it has holes. Goaltending has been far too inconsistent. It could use size, particularly in the bottom six. Its speed isn’t what it once was and there are teams that can skate rings around even the healthiest version of the Golden Knights.
The Knights are technically still alive in the playoff hunt, and we’ve seen over the years teams that no one expected to come close get hot at the right time and win it. Remember a healthy Jim Valvano running around the court in Albuquerque, N.M., looking for someone to hug after his North Carolina State Wolfpack won the NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1983?
The Florida Marlins finished nine games out of first in 1997, their fifth season of existence, but made the playoffs and won the World Series. The New Jersey Devils had only a .542 winning percentage in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, but went 16-4 in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup despite finishing ninth overall in the regular season.
So it could happen for the VGK this year. But will it? As the late WWE legend Gorilla Monsoon often would say to his sidekick, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, “Highly unlikely.”
Given that, I’m thinking about next year already. With that in mind, I’m going to break down which of the current roster should return for next season’s run at the Cup, which shouldn’t, and then later, look at five players they might look at acquiring who shouldn’t cost a ton. They’re going to have salary cap issues next season, too, folks, so keep that in mind.
DEFINITELY SHOULD/WILL STAY
1. Jack Eichel: He should be the franchise player starting on Day 1 of training camp next season. He has been good mostly, great at times, maddening at others. But remember he’s playing with a new team after having a neck surgery no player ever had before and he had to adjust to a new system and new teammates. The first day the Knights step onto the ice at City National Arena in September, Eichel had best be the team’s clear best player. If he’s not, that will mean big trouble for years to come.
2. Mark Stone: He has a $9.5 million contract as well as a no-movement clause, so he’ll be back. That contract may look funky in the last couple of years of it, but if the Golden Knights are going to make a run at the Cup in the near future, they need Stone playing how Stone can play and can’t trade him.
3. Alex Pietrangelo: See above. Pietrangelo has an $8.8 million contract that probably won’t wear well, and a no-movement clause. But he’s an elite player still, a great leader, and someone they’ll need if they have a hope of lifting the Cup in 2023.
4. Zach Whitecloud: He’s a bargain at $2.75 million and he gets better every year. Teams that win Stanley Cups have plenty of guys like Whitecloud on the roster.
5. Jonathan Marchessault: This is a team with no shortage of players who could be captain, but Marchessault is among them. He’s made the most out of the talent he’s had, he competes ferociously, and while he may be due for a bit of a decline, he’s a heart-and-soul guy you can’t give up unless you’re overwhelmed in a trade offer. For a team looking to win the Cup, the Knights can’t afford to move him, nor should they.
6. Chandler Stephenson: He’s not as good as he looked at the beginning of the year when he was playing lights out, but he’s a very valuable guy who can play up and down the lineup, provides needed speed, and most importantly to this particular roster, has a salary-cap friend cap hit of $2.75 million.
PROBABLY SHOULD/WILL STAY
7. Shea Theodore: His lengthy goal drought is inexplicable but when he’s healthy and on his game, he’s a borderline No. 1 guy who fits well as a solid No. 2. He could bring a lot in a trade given his youth, but his skating is something the Knights will need with a lot of the core aging and slowing down.