The Vegas Golden Knights were arguably the best expansion team in the history of all North American professional sports. But what are they now?
Can we compare them to other expansion teams anymore? Should we?
The Knights broke records and expectations through their entire first season of existence, going 51-24-7 in the regular season for 109 points. They set an NHL record for a winning streak by an expansion team (eight in a row) by December, and kept on going until they won the Pacific Division.
Where We Left Off
The Sharks last saw the Knights bringing the sword down on their postseason run, defeating San Jose in six games. The Knights went on the the Stanley Cup Final, where they were finally outmatched by the Washington Capitals in five games.
The Knights relied heavily on defenseman Nate Schmidt last season and through the playoffs. Schmidt saw the most time on ice of his career in all situations, averaging over 20 minutes of ice time.
The Knights won’t have Schmidt for the first quarter of the season: he was suspended for 20 games in early September after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Early in the offseason, the Knights extended 33-year-old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for three years, locking him up until the 2021-22 season. Fleury will turn 37 in November of that season.
2018 Entry Draft
The Knights had eight selections in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Vegas had no picks in the first round of the draft.
Their highest pick, at number 61, was Ivan Morozov, a right-shot forward who models his game after Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov. Morozov is playing in Russia’s junior league, Molodyozhnaya Hokkeinaya Liga, this season.
The Knights took two other forwards, four defensemen, and a goalkeeper in the draft.
At the Vegas Rookie Faceoff from September 8-11, the Knights’ prospects went 2-1. The Sharks prospects were the only team to beat the rookie Knights with a 5-4 win on September 10.
Vegas lost James Neal and David Perron to the Calgary Flames and the St. Louis Blues, respectively, in free agency. They signed free agent Paul Stastny, most recently of the Winnipeg Jets, to a three-year deal worth $19.5 million total.
General Manager George McPhee traded 2017 first-round pick Nick Suzuki, center Tomas Tatar, and a second-round pick in the 2019 draft to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the Canadiens’ captain, Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty signed a four-year extension with the Knights within hours.
The Knights committed to Shea Theodore for seven years after long negotiations that lasted into training camp. McPhee gave William Karlsson, the Knights’ leading scorer, a bridge deal worth $5.25 million.
The Knights expect to carry eight defensemen again this season. With Schmidt suspended, it seems likely that 2017 first-round pick Erik Brannstrom will be the first of Vegas’ draftees to play in the NHL.
At forward, they have more centers than they have center spots available, especially with the addition of Stastny.
In goal, Fleury will be the starter with Malcolm Subban backing him up.
What can we expect in 2019?
It’s generally expected that the Knights will fall back down to earth for their second season. But we saw what the Knights did to expectations last year.
It’s hard to quantify the Knights; they only have one season as a team and were made mostly of other teams’ bottom-six forwards and bottom-four defenders. The Knights had some really bad injury luck with their goalies last season. That seems unlikely to happen again.
Also on the unlikely list: William Karlsson scoring at the pace he did last season. His shooting percentage was a mad 23.4%, way beyond average for NHL players. When we look at his previous seasons with Columbus and Anaheim, which were below league average, it’s safe to assume he won’t be able to repeat the feat.
Will Pacioretty and Stastny be able to replace the losses of Neal and Perron in the forward lineup? Pacioretty and Neal are both wingers and have comparable offensive statistics in their careers: .70 points-per game for Neal, and .72 for Pacioretty. Stastny looks like a baseline improvement over Perron, with .78 points-per-game in the regular season compared to Perron’s .61.
The biggest hindrance for the Knights may be the loss of Nate Schmidt, but he’ll be back before the Sharks get a chance at the Knights in the regular season. How quickly he gets back into form could be key.
Realistically, the Knights would be a middle-of-the-pack team in another division, but with fewer stacked teams in the Pacific, they’ll likely take another run at the division title with only San Jose as a contender in their way. The Sharks should take them seriously, but the addition of Erik Karlsson should help handle the Knights’ speed on offense.
The Knights’ preseason record so far is an impressive 4-1. They’re taking the preseason seriously in Vegas. The Sharks will end the preseason against them on September 30. The Sharks will see the Knights four times in the regular season: first in Las Vegas before Thanksgiving, then in early January, mid-March, and finally at home at the end of March.