Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 12, the Vegas Golden Knights.
A 109-point regular season. A division crown. A first-round sweep over their biggest rival. A 12-3 playoff record to win the conference and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
No, I am not talking about the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks, or the 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins, or even the 2018 Washington Capitals. Folks, I am referring to the 2018 Vegas Golden Knights.
The Vegas Golden Knights – the most extraordinary expansion team story in sports history.
The Golden Knights won 51 games – an expansion team record.
Vegas won their first three games to begin the season before their first loss – an expansion team record.
They had three winning streaks of five games or more – an expansion team record.
The Knights won their 15th game in just their 22nd game overall – an expansion team record.
Finished with a winning record. Won their division in inaugural season. Most points in an inaugural season.
Record. Record. Record.
The list just goes on and if you listen closely, you might hear the Golden Knights setting some other record right now because that is all they seem to do. And go ahead and call them “lucky”. I dare you.
A team of self-labeled “misfits” banded together after the October 1 mass shooting on the Vegas strip and rallied a community together, having already won before the puck even dropped in their very first home game. Once the puck did drop, Vegas used blazing speed and a perfectly executed forecheck to create turnovers, game after game, and were often on top of opponents before they knew what hit them.
Credit to head coach Gerard Gallant, a misfit himself cast out by the Florida Panthers, for creating a system which catered to the strength of his players. A hard-nosed attitude who did not care which team you came from, but only the fact that you were part of his team now. All it got him was a Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year.
Credit to General Manager George McPhee for taking advantage of favorable rules for an expansion team yet took the heat when everyone said he did a poor job at the expansion draft. He essentially froze the entire league’s trade market as he “negotiated” side deals with other teams to stay away from selecting certain players and walked away with an unprecedented haul of assets and a team which made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. All it got him was GM of the year.
Credit to the players for checking their egos at the door and buying into the system. No one was above anyone else and they were all team captains.
And credit to the fans, for showing up at T-Mobile Arena and creating the most electric home atmosphere in the NHL since the fans at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The playoff scene was maddening.
The on-ice product was incredible to behold as Vegas throttled teams early, winning eight of their first nine games. What was especially shocking is the fact the Knights stormed out of the gate after losing their top goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, just four games into the season. After backup Malcolm Subban was then injured a few games later, Vegas used four different goaltenders before Fleury returned to action in December. The Knights went 16-8-1 over the 25 games Fleury was out, putting a chokehold on the Pacific Division they would never relinquish.
The top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith became one of the very best in the league, yet remarkably did not even begin the year together.
One of the things I look at in my preseason work is how the team’s Point Shares compare to how the team finished in the standings. When I began checking Vegas’ Point Shares value, I was expecting to find a similar picture as the Washington Capitals, a team who outpaced their expected on-ice value. The Knights though, they had 35 players suit up for them last season who produced a combined Point Shares value of 105.1 overall. Not far off the actual 109 they finished with in the standings.
Half the roster had career years, but the Golden Knights may not have been as “lucky” as most seemed to think. They earned their place.
After a maiden season exceeding even the wildest expectations, McPhee set out this summer with the intention of maintaining the momentum. Owner Bill Foley gave the green light to spend and fast-track the idea of building a contender over the first five seasons, implying he wanted to go for it all again.
McPhee started on July 1 when he signed free agent Paul Stastny to a 3-year, $19.5 million contract, making the veteran center the highest paid player on the roster entering the season with a $6.5 million cap hit. Defenseman Nick Holden was signed to a 2-year, $4.4 million deal, a small upgrade over Luca Sbisa who left as a free agent.
The rest of the summer was quiet, and Vegas looked to be a team primed for regression, having lost a pair of key point producers and only replacing them with Stastny. That changed on September 10 as McPhee rescued winger Max Pacioretty from a dire situation in Montreal, trading for the five-time 30-goal scorer. McPhee sent back forward Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round draft pick. Pacioretty was then signed to a 4-year, $28 million contract extension, a $7 million cap hit which will kick in next year.
Parting ways with the Knights were top-six forwards David Perron and James Neal, along with Sbisa. Perron led the Knights with 50 assists while Neal scored 25 goals, fourth-best on the team. Together, the trio contributed a Point Shares value of 13.7 overall, a hefty amount of points to make up. The additions of Pacioretty, Stastny and Holden though hold a projected value of 14.9 this season, showing the Knights may look a bit better, at least on paper.
Prior to the Pacioretty trade on September 2, Vegas learned of an important development involving top defenseman Nate Schmidt who failed a drug test for a substance in violation of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program. Schmidt was in genuine disbelief of the result, later stating it was a microscopic amount of a tainted substance which inadvertently got into his system through natural environmental contamination, an amount so small it could not have possibly resulted in any performance enhancement.
Regardless, the NHL suspended Schmidt for the first 20 games of the season. It is a difficult blow to begin the year around a confusing circumstance.
Stanley Cup: +1400 (BetOnline)
Western Conference: +700 (BetOnline)
Pacific Division: +300 (BetOnline)
Regular Season Points: 99.5 (+100, -120) (Bookmaker, BetOnline), 96.5 (-105, -125) (Bovada)
Make Playoffs: YES -320, NO +260 (BetOnline), YES -325, NO +250 (Bovada)
Current odds as of September 30, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: 17
NHL RANK: 9
NHL RANK: 7
*NOTE: Schmidt’s projected value was 7.3 Point Shares for the full season but has been adjusted to 5.5 considering the 20-game suspension. His value is part of the Knights overall defense and point total projection.
NHL RANK: 13
NHL RANK: 16
NHL RANK: T-8
(Starter – T-7, Backup – T-51)
Twelve players set career highs in points for Vegas last season and that is an incredibly high bar to maintain. The team also rallied around each other in a unique situation, a group who felt like they were not wanted by their former teams. James Neal labeled them the “Golden Misfits” and was a leader on the ice but is now gone. The players who remain are now part of a regular team and that chip on their shoulder may not be as big.
In net, 33-year old Marc-Andre Fleury had a career year with a .927 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average. He also shattered his goals-saved-above-average with a GSAA of 20.77 overall. Not bad for a goaltender with an average .913 career save percentage. Duplicating those numbers is going to be next to impossible and even a very good season around the .920 mark would be a small regression for the team’s point total.
William Karlsson will assuredly not shoot 23.4% again. In 183 prior NHL games, Karlsson shot a paltry 7.7% overall, but I believe he should still be very good and by signing just a one-year “prove it again” contract, he should remain highly motivated. Together with Marchessault and Smith, the top line should be one of the most dangerous in the league yet again.
The second line should also be fantastic with newcomers Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, and Erik Haula who looks like will move to the right side after centering the second line for most of last season. Last year’s second line with James Neal and David Perron were very good, but this year looks even scarier. Overall, the top-six projects to be the third-best unit in the entire NHL behind only Boston and Winnipeg.
The bottom-six, however, is a stark contrast and if Haula remains in the top-six then Vegas projects to own the worst bottom six in the NHL (even worse than Ottawa… gross) with only Alex Tuch projecting to be close to a league-average forward. If Tuch were to move up to the second line and Haula to center the third, it would be a much better balance and I expect we will eventually see that happen.
The defense will have their work cut out early on with the loss of Schmidt. Colin Miller is the most likely candidate to move up and fill his spot and should be interesting to watch. Miller was underrated while in Boston but was very good last year in a third pair role. I think he will be fine at the top, but it does create a sizeable hole on the third pair. Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt were both surprisingly effective last season and should split time beside Holden but having to insert their value into the lineup drops the Vegas defense from top ten in the league to 15th overall. The loss of Schmidt for 20 games also drops the Knights from tenth to twelfth in the overall standings.
My point projection of 99.8 is in line with the 99.5 number currently at Bookmaker and BetOnline. If you are looking to bet the over, be sure to check out Bovada’s number of 96.5 at just -105. Either way, Vegas is not expected to repeat their 105-point performance from a year ago.
Current Stanley Cup Futures list Vegas on average from 7th to 8th overall, with a low of 9th over at Pinnacle sportsbook, a bit higher than my 12th overall projection. Vegas is in that second to third tier of teams for me, so I feel they are overvalued heading into the season, in terms of Futures anyway.
Regarding prop bets for awards, Fleury is listed at +1800 for the Vezina. He could have been in line for a win in this category last year if he had played a full season, so he makes an interesting possibility. Fleury would need another career year and a healthy full season and those are two things just too risky to bet on. William Karlsson is listed on the rocket Richard list after finishing third in the league with 43 goals last year. As I mentioned, Karlsson is a huge candidate for regression and while he could still be a premier goal scorer, a drop to the 30-35 range should be expected. His linemate, Marchessault, is listed for the Hart at +10000. Betting on him to win the MVP would be like, well, like betting on Vegas to win the Stanley Cup last season. Okay… quite your snickering. Hey, maybe the desert can catch lightning in a bottle twice?
To be honest, the player I was most interested in is Max Pacioretty for the Rocket Richard who is not listed anywhere I looked. Pacioretty is coming off a tough year but was in a difficult team environment. He has discussed about how free he feels now being out of Montreal and has a chip on his shoulder entering this season. Prior to last year, Pacioretty had scored 30 or more goals for four straight seasons, with at with 35 in three of those. It would not be crazy to think he could pop 40 or more this season but obviously a lot would have to go right for him. Still, I would have been curious to maybe throw a small bet on him if there was a +3500 or +4000 available. We will keep an eye out for that maybe when the next round of odds come out in November if he gets off to a good start.
Until then, enjoy another season of hockey in the desert. It should be exciting, once again!
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com