What do the Vegas Golden Knights need to do to convince you they are a legit playoff threat?
Seven of the team’s nine defensemen getting paid NHL money have expiring contracts. So do Neal, Perron and reigning NHL player of the week Jonathan Marchessault. The goal for GM George McPhee in acquiring so many expiring contracts was two-fold: First, to not bog down his salary cap with long-term deals on veteran players; and second, to have a bushel of tradeable assets around the deadline that could bring back a bevy of draft picks and prospects who would be married to the franchise until their late 20s. (Thanks, CBA free-agency rules!)
BUT IN A SHOCKING TWIST, the Golden Knights aren’t terrible at all. After 22 games, they have a 94.3 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs, second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning and St. Louis Blues.
Their success is absolutely remarkable for a first-year team, but this is still a first-year team. The future isn’t now, no matter how long Vegas spends atop the Pacific Division standings. Logically, they should offload some of these assets and sell high. But logic really has no home when an expansion team that currently has as many points as the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres combined.
I’m already convinced the Golden Knights are a well-coached team whose start — and eventual health of their starting goaltender — will keep them in the playoff hunt for a while. But I’ll be convinced of it if they stand at the trade deadline … or, even better, draw a few more cards to boost their hand.
Emily Kaplan: I have a lot of friends who are hockey fans, but just as many who aren’t. And if those friends ask me about the current NHL season, the most common curiosity is about the Golden Knights. “Wait, are they actually legit?” For the first seven weeks of the season, I have answered, “No. It’s a fun story, but they’re just lucky right now. It’s not sustainable.” I’m ready to change my answer. There’s nothing the Golden Knights need to do to prove to me that they are a legitimate playoff threat.
Of course, it helps writing this as the team is red-hot. Vegas is on a five-game winning streak and has chased three of the last four goalies it has faced (and we’re talking about good goalies too: Martin Jones and Jonathan Quick).
But part — a large part — of my newfound confidence is rooted in circumstance. The Pacific Division looks nothing like we imagined a quarter of the way into the season. The Kings have regressed since their blazing start. The Anaheim Ducks are so banged up, they’re just trying to stay afloat until Christmas to see if it might be a lost season. And of course there are the Edmonton Oilers, my pick for Western Conference favorites, who have inexplicably floundered after notching 103 points a season ago. The question here asks if the Golden Knights are a legit playoff threat, and when I look at this wide open conference, the only response I have is: Why wouldn’t they be?
Now while the Golden Knights are rolling offensively, they’ve had some inconsistency on defense. Their shooting percentage remains abnormally high and they have some daunting patches of their schedule ahead. This team is still lucky, but the fact that that luck has sustained past Thanksgiving — the typical NHL marker to differentiate the contenders from pretenders — tells me the Golden Knights are legit.
Chris Peters: I think I’m already pretty close to being convinced, but I’ll be more certain after I see how they handle the almost inevitable decline in team shooting percentage. It’s hard to see the Golden Knights shooting 11.9 percent as a team, even though scoring is up across the league. Over the previous five seasons, the only team to eclipse 11 percent shooting as a team was the 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs, who rode a 11.47 percent shooting percentage to a playoff berth in the lockout-shortened season. They only had to maintain that rate for 48 games instead of 82. The key difference between these Knights and those Leafs though is that Vegas is not getting absolutely caved in on the possession front.
Expecting the Knights to shoot the lights out for the remainder of the season is asking a lot, based on their roster. William Karlsson, in particular, is on another level with his ridiculous 13 goals on 51 shots (25.5 percent). In three previous seasons he had a shooting percentage of 7.7. Even former 40-goal man Neal is way above career norms. There’s a reasonable expectation that their scoring rates are going to drop at some point. That certainly doesn’t mean the Knights are going to be toast when it happens, especially in a Pacific Division that has a number of underachieving teams allowing the Knights to pull away a bit.
Still, I’m interested to see what this team looks like if the scoring dries up for a time. There could be other things to compensate, like perhaps a healthy goalie (if such a thing exists in Vegas). I’ve also got eyes on a particularly brutal stretch of schedule Vegas will have between Jan. 16 and Feb. 8 with only a two-game homestand to break up road trips of four and six games. There is still so much to be learned about this team and that stretch is going to tell us a lot about what they’re made of.