Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The start to the season tonight will initially look and feel like a normal opening night does for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Players will participate in warmups, go to the locker room for one final cooling-off period, then be introduced one by one to the sound of roaring applause from the hometown faithful at T-Mobile Arena.
There will be one, massively significant difference in tonight’s festivities: Coaches and players will gather at center ice to watch a giant championship banner be raised to the rafters.
That will be the culmination of a summer’s worth of celebrating after the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup nearly four months ago.
After that, it’s back to the business of trying to do it all over again. That quest begins at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN when the Golden Knights face the Seattle Kraken.
“I said it last year in the playoffs: I’m OK with you talking about winning the Stanley Cup, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of when it’s time to put your work boots on and go to work,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We will talk (Tuesday) about Seattle and what they do well. (The banner) is going to be a nice thing to see. It’s great for everybody in the building, but our focus will be on Seattle.”
And the focus, of course, will be on repeating. That’s easier said than done.
Only two teams — the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning — have won back-to-back titles since the turn of the century. After that, you’d have to go back to the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings accomplishing the feat.
The Golden Knights went 16-6 in the playoffs and steamrolled through the Florida Panthers to win the Stanley Cup in five games. And that championship lineup mostly returns intact with the likes of captain Mark Stone, team leader Jack Eichel, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and others .
“When you win, you want to do it again. You have that drive. You play to win,” Pietrangelo said. “That’s why we come here to work in training camp, the preseason. We prepare to come into the season to win again. None of us come in here to clock in and clock out. We came here to win a Stanley Cup. It’s our goal from Day 1.”
So, what’s it going to take for Vegas to repeat? Here are four musts:
It’s no longer a question of if Adin Hill and Logan Thompson can be relied upon in the crease. They both proved that last season, with Hill leading the way for the championship run and Thompson being named an all-star.
It’s a matter of if they can be available for an 82-game season.
Hill is coming off a career-high 27 appearances, meaning his workload is about to significantly increase.
Thompson says he’s 100% healthy after missing most of the second half of last season due to a lower-body injury. But there’s still a fear the injury could be lingering.
Hill was rewarded with a two-year, $9.8 million contract extension in the offseason after getting hot in the playoffs and carrying Vegas to the championship. But he too battled injuries late in the season.
A lower-body injury forced Hill to miss the last month of play before returning for the playoffs, where he won 11 of 15 games.
If Hill or Thompson gets hurt, the cupboard is relatively bare. Laurent Brossoit and Jonathan Quick are no longer with the team, whose No. 3 goalie is prospect Jiri Patera.
The anticipation is great after what star center Eichel accomplished in his first taste of playoff hockey. There’s a strong case that he should’ve been the recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy for MVP of the playoffs, rather than his linemate Jonathan Marchessault.
Eichel led the league with 26 points in the 22-game Cup run and shed a lot of negative labels along the way. He proved he can win, and proved he can be one of, if not the best, player on a championship team.
There are more layers Eichel can add to his game.
There were glimpses in the playoffs of Eichel getting better defensively. Offense has always been his calling card, but he was relied on in late-game moments and delivered. He’s taken reps on the penalty kill during the preseason, as well, with Cassidy trying to find a replacement on the kill-unit for the departed Reilly Smith.
One way for Eichel to also take that next step is to stay healthy.
He had 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) in 67 games last season; the time he missed was due to facial and lower-body injuries.
A clean bill of health is one of Eichel’s biggest goals this season, he said. When available, he can reach 70-80 points easily. He had 82 points in 2019 through 77 games, then had 78 points in 68 games in 2020 before the season paused due to the pandemic.
The next two years were shortened because of his artificial disk replacement neck surgery.
Eichel becoming a 200-foot player who can play at all three levels — 5-on-5, power play and penalty kill — is a new version that he hasn’t displayed yet. Trying to stop that is not the easiest task.
“Nobody cares what we did last season,” Eichel said. “You’ve got to come in here and build our team again. I know it’s the same guys, but you need to gel and click and find that same chemistry we had in this room last year, because I think it’s one of the big things that allowed us to be successful.”
Don’t underestimate depth
It’s difficult to find a team in recent memory that was as deep as the Golden Knights were last season, having the ability to roll four forward lines and get constant production from all three defense pairings.
Cassidy prefers to keep it that way because he doesn’t want to play the top forwards 20 minutes a night if he doesn’t have to.
That’s why the fourth line of Nicolas Roy, Keegan Kolesar and William Carrier is so valuable. They’re not a scoring line, but the three have shown value in what they do best — winning puck battles and finishing checks. Cassidy isn’t afraid to start games with the fourth line as a way to set the tone physically.
“When we play our best hockey, we’re three big guys that like to protect pucks and bring pucks to the net,” Roy said.
Defensively, the Golden Knights’ blue line depth will be tested early.
Zach Whitecloud is week-to-week after undergoing surgery for an upper-body injury Sept. 25, opening the door for one of Ben Hutton, Brayden Pachal and Kaedan Korczak to get an opportunity. The likeliest choice is Hutton, 30, who has 468 NHL games under his belt.
Same chip on their shoulder
Just because the Golden Knights found a way to survive without captain Mark Stone last season, doesn’t mean they want to do it again.
Stone had two back surgeries nine months apart, the second of which sidelined him starting in early January last season and kept him out until the start of the playoffs.
The Golden Knights went 1-5-2 in the next eight games after Stone was ruled out, but found their stride following the all-star break with a 22-4-5 mark.
Stone is one of the best two-way forwards in the league and when healthy, a contender for the Selke Trophy, given to the best defensive forward in the NHL. If the playoffs proved anything — he had 24 points in the postseason, including a hat trick in Game 5 against Florida — his availability is key.
“We want to have that same chip on our shoulder. A lot of people say we can’t do it again. We have to use that as fuel to try and get back to where we want to be,” Stone said. “We’ve got a long 82-game season to be one of the 16 teams to compete for it. That’s where it starts.”