In a tumultuous off-season for the National Hockey League in which a return to play was not guaranteed, fans can finally say the three words everyone has been waiting for: hockey is back.
The New Format
When the NHL announced it would go ahead with a 56-game 2021 season, many were confused on how they would do it. In order to accommodate for Canada and their stringent COVID-19 protocols, the NHL realigned the divisions. For this season, the NHL went away with the Pacific, Central, Metro, and Atlantic divisions, and in their place are the North, West, East, and Central. Within the Golden Knights new Western Division are three newcomers: St. Louis, Colorado, and Minnesota. Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, and San Jose remain from the former Pacific Division. The top four teams from each division make the Stanley Cup playoffs. Teams this year do not play any games outside of their division and play each division team a grand total of eight times. The Golden Knights sit just behind Colorado in the early power rankings for the West Division, but with the uncertainty ahead of this season, that could change.
Within the new rule set, teams have the ability to carry six additional players in addition to the 23-man roster on a “taxi squad”. This not only provides the team with extra players that are allowed to practice with the team, but it also gives them players that can be placed in if a member of the main roster contracts COVID-19 or gets injured. The players added to the Golden Knight’s taxi squad include Nick Holden, Nicolas Hague, Gage Quinney, Tomas Jurco, Dylan Coghlan, and Oscar Dansk.
New Looks and New Scenes
The Golden Knights enter the season with two new jerseys in their arsenal. The alternate jersey is primarily gold with black helmets and white and gold gloves. The Reverse Retro Jerseys were also revealed a short time later. These feature the alternate logo, along with a red primary color.
It was also announced during training camp that the Golden Knights will participate in their first ever outdoor game. On Feb. 20, the Golden Knights will travel to Lake Tahoe to face off against the Colorado Avalanche.
Trades and signings
This season’s free agency came in a very weird time. Due to COVID-19 shutting down the league from the middle of March through July, the NHL did not have the means to go through with its original plan to raise the salary cap. That plus the uncertainty of if a season would be played this year at all forced many top free agents to sign shorter term deals. The Golden Knights, however, were able to lock up two marquee free agents. Before he hit the open market, the Golden Knights locked goaltender Robin Lehner into a five-year, $25 million deal. Lehner looks poised to become the franchise’s new backstop in net, placing fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury into the backup role for this season.
When free agency opened on Oct. 8, the VGK landed the biggest fish in free agency. Former St. Louis Blues captain and star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo signed a seven-year, $61.6 million dollar deal to come to Vegas. Pietrangelo had been pursued by multiple different teams, including his former team, but chose Vegas as his home for the next seven years. These signings did not come without a price, however. In order to clear room, the Golden Knights said goodbye to both Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt, much to the chagrin of fans. Three days before Christmas, the Golden Knights also said goodbye to defenseman Deryk Engelland, who announced his retirement from the NHL.
A Training Camp to Remember
In any other year, training camp for hockey teams lasts about a month. Within that month come battles for positions, intersquad scrimmages, and preseason games. All of which serve to prepare the veterans for the real thing and for the front office and coaching staff to evaluate young talent. Thanks to COVID-19 however, training camp looked a bit different. For starters, training camp was condensed down into two weeks, beginning on Jan. 4 and ending Jan. 12. Camp this year for the Knights did not lack in competition. The ever-present struggle in net between Fleury and Lehner was on display throughout camp. Head coach Peter DeBoer did say that he would rotate goaltenders for the beginning of the season but would not commit to that idea for the entire season. A battle for the final defensemen spot on the roster took place too, which appears to have been won by Zach Whitecloud.
A New Voice in the Locker Room
For the past three seasons, the Golden Knights have not named a team captain. To be fair, it has worked out fairly well for them. They have been to the Stanley Cup Finals once and the Conference Finals twice in three seasons. However, the team felt a change was in order. On Jan. 13, the team named Mark Stone as the captain of the team.
“He embodies everything we want in a captain,” General Manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "You see the passion and commitment he has to being the best he can be. We had made the decision in each of our three preceding years to go with alternate captains only. This time around, we felt we had the obvious guy, and this was the time to name a captain."
The Vegas Golden Knights open the season as one of the favored teams to win it all. This will prove to be one of the strangest seasons in NHL history. Currently, the team does not plan to allow fans into the stadium until Governor Sisolak has given the okay. Still, for the team itself, they are looking to be quite the force. Losing Nate Schmidt hurts, but replacing him with Pietrangelo provides the team with two lethal defense pairings. The forward group looks as formidable as ever, albeit slightly weaker down the center with the departure of Paul Stastny.
Opening night for the VGK is on Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. They begin the season with a two game series at home against the Anaheim Ducks. They open the season with a 20-man roster - 13 forwards, five defensemen, and two goaltenders.
How do you think the VGK will fair this season? Leave your thoughts and takes in the comment section below.