Golden Knights’ Hot Start Driven By Chemistry, Balance & Eichel
That’s right, the Vegas Golden Knights are officially off to their best start in franchise history. With an 8-1 record to kick off their expansion season and a 10-2-1 start to begin last season, their 13-2 record in 2022-23 is a new level, one that has them on top of the NHL, emphatically stating that they’ve left their forgettable 2021-22 campaign in the dust. Thursday’s wild 7-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres gave the Golden Knights their 13th win in 15 games, whereas it took the club until game 23 to notch win no. 13 last season. So, what’s different this time around?
Health, for one. With the injury bug mostly sparing Vegas to this point, head coach Bruce Cassidy has been able to play his players where they are suitably slotted. Not only has that kept the team’s best players on the ice, but it’s allowed a level of continuity that has helped breed familiarity (more on that shortly).
But it would be an insult to Cassidy and his players to suggest that the key to success has merely boiled down to staying healthy. With a new voice behind the bench and an opportunity – to this point, anyway – to showcase their potential at (mostly) full strength, the Golden Knights are demonstrating that they can operate at an elite level in many facets of the game. Here are some of the critical areas that have contributed to their dominant start:
The Jack Eichel Risk Paying Off
We addressed this last week on the one-year anniversary of the Jack Eichel trade, but it bears mentioning again: Jack Eichel is delivering on the massive gamble made by general manager Kelly McCrimmon in acquiring him. Last season was always going to require patience after unprecedented neck surgery, but there was also some immediate concern as the team struggled around him, while the Buffalo Sabres seemed better off without him.
While the Sabres remain happy with their end of the deal, there’s certainly no buyer’s remorse in Vegas. Thursday night’s emphatic three-goal, four-point performance in front of a hostile KeyBank Center crowd in Buffalo put an exclamation point on Eichel’s impressive start to the season.
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Even as the team continues to control his minutes (Eichel ranks seventh on the team and third among forwards in ice time, averaging 18:11 per game), the 26-year-old leads the Golden Knights in scoring with nine goals and 19 points in 15 games, while riding a seven-game point streak. On a talented roster that’s showcasing what it’s capable of, Eichel is the team’s best player.
Golden Knights Chemistry
Equally important to Eichel’s stellar play is how well he’s meshed with others. Even in light of last season’s constant roster flux, the core is already back in step and looks like a well-oiled machine. This is a group built on speed driving an aggressive attack, and it has made the Golden Knights an absolute nightmare to defend.
Take Tuesday night’s 4-3 overtime road win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example. With the game tied 1-1 late in the first period, Chandler Stephenson engineered a dynamic 3-on-2 rush by the top line, leading to a tic-tac-toe passing play between Eichel and Mark Stone that utterly overwhelmed the Maple Leafs’ blueliners and goaltender Erik Källgren. Later on, a silky smooth short-handed breakout by Reilly Smith and William Karlsson knotted the game at 3-3 and highlighted the familiarity between the Vegas originals.
As much as people like to talk about the ever-changing Golden Knights personnel in a bid for big names, it’s the group’s consistency and tenure together that has enabled them to thrive while so many other teams continue to adapt to one another. Stephenson, Eichel, and Stone have clicked early, but the reunited second line of Smith, Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault is, of course, a well-established trio.
That chemistry extends to the back end, too. Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez are veterans who know their roles well, making it easy to play together. Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore have been around since day one and have spent plenty of time playing alongside one another. Meanwhile, Nicolas Hague’s holdout presented an early challenge, but he and Zach Whitecloud developed together and haven’t had trouble catching up.
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Vegas’ Balanced Scoring
Despite Eichel’s blazing start, there are probably better Hart Trophy candidates emerging because the Golden Knights have simply been too good to rely on the contributions of one player, not to mention that you could easily make the argument that Logan Thompson has been the team’s MVP.
Vegas’ scoring prowess has run deep this season (from ‘Golden Knights’ depth scoring is fueling their best start in team history,’ The Athletic, 11/08/22). They are the only club with nine double-digit scorers, and that includes front-line stars like Eichel and Stephenson but also includes Nicolas Roy, a testament to the 25-year-old’s exceptional play-making skills, primarily on the fourth line.
For much of the season, Roy (four goals, six assists) has been flanked by William Carrier and Keegan Kolesar on what is arguably the best fourth line in hockey. Physical and focused on their shutdown duties against the opposition’s top forwards, this trio isn’t afraid to take the puck up ice for their own scoring chances. We saw that on Tuesday night in Toronto, as Roy jumped on a juicy rebound off of an aggressive Carrier drive to the net to open the scoring.
On Thursday, Cassidy mixed things up, opting to move Roy up and return Paul Cotter to the lineup in order to address what has been a flat third line. While the forward corps may have lost something defensively in the switch, it worked out great from an offensive standpoint. The unit of Roy, Cotter, and Phil Kessel was responsible for two second-period goals, producing a goal apiece from Cotter and Kessel and a pair of assists by Roy.
Early success is great, but fifteen games into the season, teams are looking for sustainable success. The most encouraging thing about Vegas’ start is how sustainable it seems to be. No, the Golden Knights probably won’t maintain a roughly 142-point pace through to April, nor can they reasonably expect to remain largely injury-free, but Eichel isn’t playing beyond his pre-surgery form, and the chemistry and balance should continue to boost the team. The Golden Knights might just be here to stay.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.