On the night of May 15th, 2023, after the Golden Knights eliminated the Edmonton Oilers in the second round of the 2023 NHL playoffs Jack Eichel and Leon Draisaitl walked into two very different locker rooms. Eichel was promptly drenched with celebratory champagne and puffed on Ashton Aged Maduro’s with his jubilant teammates. Draisaitl stepped into a locker room that was emotional, furious, and unsatisfied with how their season abruptly ended. In fact, it was in that moment Oilers captain Connor McDavid sternly stated that he and his teammates were on notice.
We’ve heard the story now from a few places, that he cleared all but the closest team staff out of the room and laid down the parameters for his franchise going forward. That the window for learning how to win was slamming shut, and the time for applying those lessons — and winning Stanley Cups — has officially begun. – Mark Spector on Sportsnet.ca
Now, both Pacific Division contenders are preparing for a new 82-game regular season with a mutual agreement on how that six-game series ended in mid-May. In Elliotte Friedman’s latest 32 Thoughts blog, Draisaitl noticed the difference of quality bench players on VGK’s side.
At the NHL/NHLPA media tour in Las Vegas, Jack Eichel said the difference between Edmonton and Vegas in that second-round series was depth. Leon Draisaitl conceded that, but added, “We couldn’t get to our top game…They didn’t make those little mistakes we made and that was the difference.” –Elliotte Friedman in 32 Thoughts
Reilly Smith served as an alternate in all 22 playoff games and each of the 78 regular season games he suited up last season. His time as an alternate dates back as far as the Golden Knights’ very first home game on October 10th, 2017 against Arizona (“and we beat the shit out of them”) and he’s worn the “A” more than 300 times while donning steel grey and gold.
But, with Smith set to wear a different shade of gold next season in Pittsburgh, Vegas will need a permanent replacement.
Last year, Alex Pietrangelo and Smith were the alternates for just about every game each participated in. Pietrangelo will likely continue to serve as an alternate as he plays into year four of his seven-year contract with the Golden Knights. The other spot is up for grabs.
There are a host of candidates who could potentially take over for Smith.
Wild Bill leads the list because he served as the alternate to the alternates in the only game missed by Pietrangelo or Smith in the postseason. Game 5 against the Edmonton Oilers saw Pietrangelo sidelined serving his one-game suspension for slashing Leon Draisaitl. Wearing the “A,” Karlsson posted a sweet assist to Smith for the go-ahead goal in the 2nd period and led the team with 24 shifts on that night.
As an original Misfit, Karlsson makes perfect sense to take over for Smith. He’s played more than 500 games as a Golden Knight, rarely missing a game, and is a perfect example of how Cassidy likes his forwards to play. Plus, after the “You Guys Were Greater” speech, it’s hard to argue he’s not a natural leader.
Yesterday, we went through the Golden Knights Top 6 goals of the postseason, today it’s time to pick some apples. We took a different approach when selecting six elite playoff assists. Many were picked because of their pure beauty not their impact. Others were a blended mix of spotlight skill and the game situation. So, let’s start dishing.
6. Stephenson and Howden Assist Stone’s Second Goal of Game 2 vs. Winnipeg
After a disappointing Game 1 loss to open the postseason, Vegas’ captain knew he needed to steer the ship. Mark Stone did just that in Game 2 of the opening round vs. Winnipeg. In the final period, Stone assisted on Chandler Stephenson’s tiebreaker and wrapped the game up with two goals. Brett Howden started the rush from the defensive zone and flipped it over to Stephenson on the wing, who found Stone for a perfect tap-in down low. Each forward touched the puck and it resulted in a point for the home team. Even though it’s a different sport, coach Norman Dale would’ve been proud.
They always say defense wins championships. And while the Golden Knights won nothing more than Game 1 last night, defense was the main reason they were able to take the 13th step toward ultimate glory.
There were three areas in particular where Vegas’ back end rose to the occasion in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final.
To reach this point the Golden Knights had played 17 games against three very different opponents. VGK D-men had scored just three goals in those games. In Game 1, both go-ahead goals came from a similar spot on the ice by Golden Knights’ defensemen.
First, Shea Theodore masterfully walked the blue line leaving Anthony Duclair in his wake before firing a perfect wrist shot through traffic to the top right corner. Theodore first received the puck near the wall in front of Vegas’ bench. He skated it to the center looking for a shooting lane but was blanketed by Duclair. So, he kept carrying it all the way across the rink to the opposite set of boards. That’s where he did a pirouette before a double inside-out dangle to lose his marker. The rest was history.
Against a Florida defense that likes to take away the front of the goal, the high slot is an area that is expected to be open at times for the Golden Knights. In previous years a lot of Vegas’ in-zone offense operated by seeking out this exact look, but this season, and especially this postseason, it’s been rare. On the Theodore play, you can tell the emphasis that has been placed on getting to the high slot. The play started with a shot from Theodore in that space, then as the puck was worked back up to him he instantly brought it there again, and finally when it was taken away, he used his skating and skill to work it there a third time inside of 10 seconds.
That exact area of the ice would manifest itself in another goal from a Vegas blueliner later, which eventually stood as the game-winner. Following a rush chance by Jack Eichel and Ivan Barbashev that was stopped, under pressure by multiple backcheckers, Barbashev sent a pass to Zach Whitecloud who was just entering the zone. Typically, Whitecloud favors a play where he activates down the dot-line on his forehand, but this time he held onto the puck and brought it directly into the high slot. With a Panther providing a screen on his own goalie, Whitecloud sent one back across his body where he beat Sergei Bobrovsky clean.
In Game 1, the game plan for the Golden Knights was simple, literally the age old hockey cliche.
Get it in deep.
From the very first shift of the game the Golden Knights consistently sent puck after puck after puck deep into the Dallas zone and then hounded their defensemen until they’d unwillingly give it back.
Vegas’ forecheck was buzzing from puck drop to the final shift a few minutes into overtime. It’s become the hallmark of the Golden Knights’ offensive system, and the head coach was not shy in making a declaration about it moving forward in the series.
That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do it Sunday, so you can put that in print or whatever it is these days. That’s our game and we’re not trying to hide from it. -Bruce Cassidy
Just as it won’t be news to the Stars on Sunday, Vegas’ forecheck didn’t surprise Dallas in Game 1. They knew it was coming, they knew how effective it can be, they just didn’t handle it well at all.
Part of it was execution on us and part of it was them coming at us hard early. You’ve got to give them credit, they were ready to play and they played well. -Pete DeBoer
The dominance of the forecheck was why the ice was tilted so heavily in Vegas’ favor most of the night. The Golden Knights generated 11 takeaways as they denied every exit route out of the Stars end. It looked like they came into the game knowing exactly what Dallas was going to do with the puck, and that’s because, they did.
In a series highlighted by individuals, both head coaches kept using the term “team” in the postgame press conferences directly after Game 6.
Nobody on our team is asked to carry the team on their back. That’s part of the story here is the team that plays the best usually wins. We feel our team outplayed their team. It wasn’t about this player outplayed this player or this goalie against this goalie. -Bruce Cassidy
We win as a team and we don’t win as a team and we stick together. -Jay Woodcroft
While both coaches are absolutely correct, the reason the Golden Knights won as a team was they won all of the key individual matchups in the series. From front to back to on the ice and off, Vegas dominated in all the places necessary to beat the Edmonton Oilers and now they’re headed to the Western Conference Final for the fourth time in six years.
Here are five specific matchups the Golden Knights got the better of on their way to dispatching the world’s greatest player in the second round.
Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault vs Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse
You don’t have to look further than the scoring numbers when breaking down this matchup. Eichel was 5-1 against Ceci and 4-1 against Nurse while Marchessault was 6-1 against Ceci and 4-1 against Nurse.
Beyond the scoring though, the Golden Knights’ forwards were consistently able to hold the puck in the offensive zone against Ceci and Nurse. Eichel in particular was excellent in gaining controlled entry over the course of the series which relieved pressure on the VGK defense and forced whichever forward line was against them to defend. Marchessault’s forechecking caused havoc and he scored four times from directly in front of the goal.
In a series where puck possession was always going to be paramount for the Golden Knights, Eichel and Marchessault delivered in as big a way as they could over the six games. The Oilers only had one pair that should have been able to handle these two, and they weren’t able to do it.
Annually around this time of year dozens of NHL quality players become virtually up for grabs. Their college seasons and careers have ended, and they are looking for the next chapter. Over the past, the Golden Knights have taken advantage of college free agency, finding a mainstay in their lineup, defenseman Zach Whitecloud. The former Bemidji State blueliner was heavily touted in the spring of 2018 but the 31st franchise convinced the senior to join them in the Pacific Division. As Golden Knights fans have witnessed, Whitecloud might be the front office’s best amateur acquisition. Several draft picks have either flamed out or have been moved in deals for established NHL’ers. Meanwhile, Whitecloud has 177 games under his belt as one of VGK’s everyday defensemen.
Keeping in mind that many of these available collegiate athletes went undrafted or couldn’t come to terms with the club that selected them. Some were doubted, some were deemed undersized, and some were scouted as slow or not skilled enough for the NHL. As many amateur free agents prove each year, NHL teams often get it wrong. The college free agency period, front offices across the league can erase mistakes by signing a diamond in the rough from the NCAA.
It’s no secret, we are concerned about scoring in the playoffs. Back in the offseason, the Golden Knights traded scoring for cap space which could become a problem when facing one of the league’s best 16 teams. While a college free agent signing wouldn’t be eligible to play for VGK this postseason, here are some that could give the organization some much-needed organizational depth for years to come.
Most of the focus over the past few games since the All Star break has been on the offense. It’s with good reason as a team that often goes through scoring droughts has posted 19 goals in four games with all but one coming at even strength.
The other end of the ice is where the Golden Knights have really been winning games though. Their ability to limit the opposition has helped allow the attack more time to work and it’s also fed the transition game Vegas relies on so heavily.
It’s not just the defensemen that are making this happen.
Part of the reason (our opponents) haven’t generated much is what we’ve done between the blue lines. I think it’s a combination of our forwards working really hard to get out of the other end and working back to help. It’s all gap related, if our D can have confidence to close their gap they’ll kill some of those plays knowing the forward will cover for them if they don’t get there in time. That’s just a team playing the right way and it’s best for the group if we play that way. -Bruce Cassidy
Where that has shown up most is Vegas’ ability to limit odd-man rushes. In the past four games, they’ve only allowed two true odd-man rushes, once against Minnesota and another against Anaheim. Cassidy also believes forwards reloading to help the defensemen in the neutral zone has helped their offense as well.
That’s the selling part for me. You tell the forwards, if you work back really hard and we’re on time there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get yourself a puck five seconds later with a chance to attack and I think we’ve done a good job of that. -Cassidy
There’s no denying the impact the group of six healthy defensemen have had on the game as well. With both Zach Whitecloud and Shea Theodore back in the lineup, the Golden Knights look more comfortable in every aspect of defending.
Our week of hypothetical managing rolls on. Today, it’s my (Jason) turn to play GM for a Day, and we’re going a little calmer than Ken’s plan.
I have no choice, I’m going for it now. There was an order given six seasons ago and I agreed to it. So, it’s time to deliver.
Vegas’ current roster has enough talent up and down the lineup but it hasn’t fully succeeded. However, under the right conditions, the Golden Knights can defeat almost every team on any given night. Sure, changes will be made but for the most part, I’m going to use what I already have.
TRADE – Alec Martinez traded to the Detroit Red Wings for a 2022 4th round pick.
On Tuesday I predicted the Golden Knights front office would aggressively try and unload Alec Martinez’s contract. It’s rare, but I’m in agreement with VGK’s FO. Detroit is a team that’s maturing, has cap room, and could use some veteran leadership. As the Golden Knights have done in the past with Brad Hunt, sending Martinez to Detroit would be looking out for the player as well. It’ll hurt to some capacity to lose the almost 35-year-old but Vegas opens cap space and replenishes a 4th round pick. It’s not ideal but I’d rather shed defense in order to keep my offense intact. My only fear is the Red Wings management asking for a sweetener.
Look, I’m not a miracle worker but my task is to win the Stanley Cup this year, not in 2028. With that in mind, immediately after trading Martinez I’m picking up the phone and reassuring Max Pacioretty he’s not going anywhere. It’s time for a heart-to-heart. Like Brad Pitt said to the actor playing David Justice in the movie Moneyball, “I want to milk the last ounce of baseball you got in you.” The same goes for Pacioretty. He’s on an expiring contract seeking another lucrative deal, and I need goals. I’m looking for 70+ games and 30+ goals from Pacioretty next season. In the end it could work out well for both parties.
It’ll be no secret, the pressure is on Pacioretty, Mark Stone, and yep, Jack Eichel. When a player signs a contract worth $10M annually he’s also agreeing to accept the pressure that comes along. I anticipate Eichel to play like a ten-million-dollar center this season and I expect him to get the most out of his teammates. He may not wear a C but this will be Eichel’s team. It’s just a matter of when. He wasn’t an original Misfit but The Creator’s demand of winning a Cup in six seasons applies to the top center as well. To keep the trio of Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Jack Eichel together, someone else will need to go.
TRADE – Laurent Brossoit and a 2022 7th round pick to Dallas Stars for 2023 5th round pick
Brossoit’s contract was another example of overspending on an unnecessary need. Vegas had Robin Lehner’s backup already yet overpaid for an underwhelming, established goalie. The Golden Knights didn’t get enough from Brossoit last season to continue to carry his salary. Since 2020, the Golden Knights have severely overpaid their goaltenders and last offseason the club was forced to sell off a Vezina winner for nothing. I’m going to follow suit by shipping out Brossoit, and like Vegas’ front office I’m not concerned with the return.
I’ve successfully managed to get underneath the cap without tearing apart the team. Now, it’s time to examine what I have left on the books.
Somehow almost every player I picked ended up in this picture. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
Often times when teams swap coaches they see a shift in usage among players on the roster. Some guys see dramatic upticks in their ice time while others watch their’s decrease or even diminish entirely.
Of course, we still don’t know who the next coach will be, but we do know who benefitted most from Pete DeBoer’s system and who didn’t. So, here are the four players with the most to gain and the four with the most to lose as the Golden Knights switch coaches.
Most To Gain
It’s no secret Karlsson’s best days in the NHL were under Gerard Gallant. The forecheck-reliant, free-flowing, transition-heavy style fit Karlsson’s game perfectly. Not only was he at his best offensively, but he and his line of Misfits were always the best defensive line as well. Under DeBoer, it often felt like Karlsson was overthinking the game which led to hesitancy in the offensive zone in favor of making the “right” play to keep them safe defensively. This seemed to sap his confidence which has proven to be a huge factor in Karlsson’s success. The new coach will likely improve his power play numbers as well. In his first two seasons in Vegas, Karlsson notched 15 PP goals in 164 games. The last three years, he had five in 186.
It’s not like Eichel struggled under DeBoer, he clearly didn’t, but there’s a pretty good chance a new coach will tailor his system more to Eichel’s skillset than we saw from DeBoer. Center was a demanding position defensively under DeBoer, and that simply isn’t Eichel’s strong suit. He’s likely to be matched with at least one stellar defensive winger, which under a less defensive-minded system could free up Eichel in the offensive zone. Also, there’s a good chance the new coach is less reliant on working the puck from low to high which very well may unleash more of Eichel’s creativity.