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2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights Preview: Go big or go home

If there’s one thing Vegas’ off-season has proven, it’s that this team is going for a Cup or bust — even if it means trading inaugural franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens and Mark Stone #61 of the Vegas Golden Knights battle for the puck as Marc-Andre Fleury #29 tends net during the first period in Game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on June 22, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights rewrote the rules for expansion teams (i.e., the ‘Vegas effect’) with exceptional success from their infancy. In just five years of existence, the Golden Knights have solidified their spot at the top of the Pacific Division and Stanley Cup brackets. If there’s one thing Vegas’ off-season has proven, it’s that this team is going for a Cup or bust — even if it means trading inaugural franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Where they left off

The Golden Knights’ records over the past three years are the stuff of NHL front office dreams. In the 20218-19 season, Vegas went 43-32-7 to earn third place in the Pacific Division, before losing in the first round of the playoffs to our very own San Jose Sharks. The next season, the team went 39-24-8, beginning a run for first in the Pacific Division.

In 2019-20, the Golden Knights lost in the Conference Final to the Stanley Cup finalist Dallas Stars. Last season, it was a return to form, with a 40-14-2 record, solidly putting them atop the West Division. They ultimately faced another loss to the Stanley Cup finalists, this time the Montreal Canadiens.

2021 Entry Draft

The Golden Knights are still building up their prospect depth, which means that every pick counts. General manager Kelly McCrimmon had four picks in the draft, and the first two picks were especially interesting.

Zach Dean was taken in the first round at 30th overall. He’s a fast, dexterous center who’s a play-maker at heart and opens up space naturally in order to advance his team’s offensive strategy. He spent the 2020-21 season with the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques, serving as an alternate captain in 23 games where he totaled 10 goals, 10 assists, 20 penalty minutes and a -4 rating.

Daniil Chayka was Vegas’ second pick at 38th overall. The Russian defender recently signed an entry-level contract, though was reassigned to the OHL’s Guelph Storm. Chayka has the potential to be a great NHL defender. He’s got incredible reach and mobility for his 6-foot-3 frame, and excels in his own zone and on the backcheck. Chayka still needs some development in cultivating an all-around defensive performance, but he’s a steal of a player waiting in the wings for Vegas.

The rest of the Golden Knights’ picks are as follows:

  • Round 1 (30th overall): Zach Dean, C
  • Round 2 (38th): Daniil Chayka, LD
  • Round 4 (102nd): Jakub Brabenee, C
  • Round 4 (128th): Jakub Demek, RW
  • Round 6 (190nd): Artur Cholach, LD
  • Round 7 (222nd): Carl Lindbom, G

Roster

The biggest off-season movement was the trading of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Now, I’ve broken this trade down from the Chicago Blackhawks side, which was more of a bid for good PR than anything else, but let’s look at it from Vegas’ point of view: Why would they trade their marquee player, who they’ve built the team’s public image around?

The unfortunate reality for goaltenders is that they’re only as good as their most recent performance, and a poor off-season trumps a Vezina-winning regular season. Fleury’s last season culminated in a 1.98 goal-against average (GAA) and .928 save percentage (SV%) over 36 regular season games. While his postseason record of 2.03 GAA and .918 SV% over 16 games is nothing to scoff at, Fleury struggled against the Montreal Canadiens in some big ways (remember that turnover next to the net that led to a goal?) and it’s clear that once Robin Lehner was put in the net to replace him, Vegas management had lost their confidence in Fleury.

The Golden Knights have to be in a cup or bust mentality, because they’ve built their entire identity on their unprecedented success, and how ‘successful’ can their success be if they never actually win the Stanley Cup? The team has marketed themselves originally as underdogs and now as history-making perennial Cup contenders. If the Golden Knights don’t win a Cup sooner rather than later, who will they be?

Remember, hockey is a business, and nothing sells a team or tickets like a Stanley Cup.

Aside from Fleury, there are a few other storylines in Vegas. The first is the addition of Nolan Patrick, who was involved in a three-way trade with the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators before landing in Sin City. After his trade, Patrick signed a two-year contract extension with a $1.2 million average annual value. The forward missed the 2019-20 season due to a head injury and debilitating migraines, and returned for a difficult time with the Flyers. Recently, Robin Lehner has come out to accuse the Flyers’ front office and medical staff of mistreatment of Patrick regarding his brain condition.

Ryan Reaves was traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for a third-round pick in 2022, a move by the Rangers that belies the Tom Wilson effect. For Vegas, Reaves elevated the physicality of the game (a style of play that overall benefited Vegas) but he also proved to be a liability at times. He was a healthy scratch during the regular season and while Reaves was a fan favorite, it’s clear that management wanted to move on from Reaves and his contract (Although it’s surprising they didn’t get more in return). Reaves played 37 games for the Knights last season, where he put up 1 goal, 4 assists and 27 PIMs.

Here what Daily Faceoff thinks opening night will look like:

Forwards

Max Pacioretty — Chandler Stephenson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Mattias Janmark — Nolan Patrick — Evgenii Dadanov
Will Carrier — Nicolas Roy — Keegan Kolesar

Defenders

Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague — Zach Whitecloud

Goaltenders

Robin Lehner
Laurent Brossoit

What can we expect in 2021-22?

The Golden Knights have said that they were competing seriously for a Cup from the very beginning, and this next year is likely to follow the same rubric the team set out for themselves. Another stellar regular season, another postseason appearance, and, if they’re lucky, they finally come out of the Conference Final on top.

The Sharks will play the Golden Knights for a preseason game on October 9 at SAP Center. The rivalry will slow down to just three games during the regular season, first on March 1, 2022 at T-Mobile Arena, then on April 10 in San Jose. Their final meeting will be April 24 in Vegas.