By W.G. Ramirez
LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights are no longer the NHL’s shiny new toy.
That honor now belongs to the expansion Seattle Kraken.
With only seven players left from the inaugural roster that reached the 2018 Stanley Cup Final and the original face of the franchise, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, now in Chicago, Vegas is ushering in a new era.
“I feel like every year is kind of a new era,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who was on the roster when the Knights joined the league for the 2017-18 season, “As soon as one guy changes on a team, I feel it’s not the same team. We have a lot of younger guys, too, this year. I think everybody feels good about where we’re at right now and our expectations.”
Expectations that Marchessault said the team is prepared to meet, as once again it’s one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Vegas has its top six forwards back, with captain Mark Stone anchoring the top line with fellow wing Max Pacioretty and center Chandler Stephenson, and Marchessault spearheading the second line with center William Karlsson and versatile wing Reilly Smith.
“I think our depth scoring is what’s going to help us in hopefully getting over that last step,” Stone said. “We’re going to have a hard group to defend on a nightly basis.”
Coach Peter DeBoer has his hands full in assessing the new talent but is confident in what he’s seen during what has been his first full training camp.
DeBoer joined the Golden Knights on Jan. 15, 2020, just before the season was halted due to the pandemic and later finished in a bubble. His second season began in January. The Golden Knights’ campaign finished with a third trip to a conference final in four years and concluded with a loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
“It’s a weird sensation,” DeBoer said. “I feel like I know the group really well. We’ve had some long playoff runs and gone through a lot of battles together, but this is really the first training camp we’ve had. It’s been nice to see the prospects. That’s one thing I haven’t been able to do because of the way things have been.”
Stone is expected to come into this season with a chip on his shoulder after finishing with no points in Vegas’ series with Montreal. The right wing, who left the Golden Knights’ first preseason game after being struck in the side of the head by a puck and receiving stiches, managed just seven shots on goal and played to a minus-two at five-on-five against the Canadiens.
“I learned a lot about simple things in the playoffs,” Stone said. “Regular season went pretty smoothly. It’s a different animal when you get to the playoffs with pressure.”
Robin Lehner teamed with Fleury last season to win the Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed. But with Fleury gone now, the net belongs to Lehner, who was brought in shortly after DeBoer in 2020. Finally, after stops in Buffalo, Long Island and Chicago, Lehner has a legitimate chance to lead a team to a Stanley Cup title as the No. 1 goaltender. He ranks second in the league in save percentage (.923) among goaltenders with 50 or more appearances since 2018-19.
Normally a crowded top nine would not bode well for top prospect Peyton Krebs, but that might not be the case. Vegas’ first-round pick in 2019 made his NHL debut last season, playing four games and recording one point. His season ended prematurely after he fractured his jaw, but he was well on track to making the playoff roster had he stayed healthy. Krebs is a natural center but played wing during his time with the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights and in his short stint with the Golden Knights. DeBoer said he plans to give Krebs a long look during the preseason.
The power play has been the Achilles’ heel for the Golden Knights since Year 1 but their struggles were particularly acute last postseason. Vegas went 0-for-17 on the power play in its final eight playoff games: two against the Colorado Avalanche and the six-game exit against the Canadiens. Four of the games in the semifinal matchup with Montreal were decided by one goal. Three of them went to overtime, and Vegas only won one of them. Vegas finished with the 22nd-best power play in the league last season. With the talent at the top, the Golden Knights feel there’s no excuse to not have a top-tier power play.