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NHL playoffs: Golden Knights advance on backs of their original stars

The Golden Knights began as a group of discarded players and have been adding star power for years. But the castoffs came through when the team needed them most.

The Vegas Golden Knights' inaugural season was an unmitigated success that resulted in a Stanley Cup Final run in 2018, but there's not too much of that team's DNA left in the current squad.

Now in their sixth season, the Golden Knights have been making concerted efforts to keep adding star power to their original band of expansion-draft misfits. In 2019, they added two-way force and current captain Mark Stone in a trade.

The next year they signed Alex Pietrangelo to a $61.6-million deal to serve as their top defenseman. In 2021, the big-ticket acquisition was Jack Eichel, who was brought aboard despite questions about his health.

Amongst those high-profile moves came a number of others that transformed Vegas from a group of scrappy underachievers to a consistent Western Conference powerhouse. Of the players who appeared for the Golden Knights in 2017-18 just seven remain: Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, William Carrier, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, and Zach Whitecloud.

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Once the team's top stars, this group has largely slotted into less prominent roles.

Karlsson has gone from 43-goal scorer to responsible third-line centre and Smith is often found on his flank. Theodore and McNabb comprise the team's second blue-line pair as imports Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez occupy the top spots. Carrier and Whitecloud play limited roles.

Marchessault remains a top-line winger, but he was the team's third leading scorer during the regular season and likely would've been fourth if Stone stayed healthy.

William Karlsson #71, Reilly Smith #19, Jonathan Marchessault #81 and Shea Theodore #27 were all part of the Golden Knights team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise's inaugural season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
William Karlsson #71, Reilly Smith #19, Jonathan Marchessault #81 and Shea Theodore #27 were all part of the Golden Knights team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise's inaugural season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Despite the fact the original Golden Knights have been marginalized slightly as the years have worn on, they came to play when Vegas needed them the most on Sunday night. In a 5-2 win that eliminated the Edmonton Oilers, every single goal was scored by a franchise staple.

Marchessault, Smith, and Karlsson earned every tally, and 45.5% of Vegas's shots on the night. In the first 10 games of the playoffs, the group had accounted for just seven goals.

This trio can't be expected to drive the Golden Knights' offense like that on a nightly basis. The team still needs Eichel to be Eichel and Stone to produce. Chandler Stephenson remains an unsung hero, as well.

But a performance like Sunday's is a reminder that this team is like a nesting doll. Inside the star-studded core that this front office has been importing for the last few years resides another group that has led a team to the Stanley Cup Final — an achievement that's eluded some of the game's biggest stars, like the two they just sent home in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

In an NHL with a hard salary cap, most teams have to make compromises when it comes to acquiring as much star power as possible or loading up on quality depth. The Golden Knights have been hungry for stars for years, but their pursuit hasn't cost them some of the players who first made this team special.

Marchessault, Karlsson, Smith, and even Theodore don't have to be stars for Vegas to be successful, but the fact they can take take the occasional star turn helps make the Golden Knights a force to be reckoned with.