One-hundred and nine days ago, the NHL world came to a crashing halt and the great unknown began. With absolutely no real factual information, the NHL and all major sports were left wondering if their seasons would resume and crown champions. Pseudo pundits came out of the woodwork espousing all sorts of theories, most of which turned out to be incorrect.
To their credit, the NHL has always maintained a slow steady consistent pace of information, and with the cooperation of the NHL Players’ Association, creating a plan to restart the season and award the Stanley Cup.
Today marks three weeks since the implementation of Phase 2 – small informal group workouts without coaches or staff. While there have been bumps (Tampa Bay / Auston Mathews in Arizona) the plan is moving forward with some teams increasing to 12 players at a time. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Phase 3, formal training camps, will begin on July 10. My best guess is that the Stanley Cup playoffs will begin by the end of July.
So, with more than a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel, and fingers crossed that we are going to FINALLY watch hockey again, why not take my turn as a Pseudo Pundit?
The only difference is my predictions are based on facts, and there is a reasonable chance of it actually coming to fruition. Without further adieu, here are the three major reasons the Vegas Golden Knights will win the Stanley Cup.
1. 100% Healthy for the First Time
Now before all of you keyboard warriors start typing in ALL CAPS, “hey stupid, every team is going to be healthy,” let me thank you for sharing, I had no idea!
The issue isn’t that every team is going to be healthy, the issue here is that the Golden Knights will have three key players back to 100 percent health – Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Alex Tuch. Making up two-thirds of the top line, Pacioretty leads the Golden Knights with 66 points followed by Stone with 63. Having them healthy secures a top-six group as good as any in the NHL.
While the importance of having Pacioretty and Stone healthy is obvious, you would be wise not to overlook Tuch. Struggling through an injury-plagued season with three trips to the injured list, having a healthy Tuch on the third line, likely with Chandler Stephenson and Nic Roy, gives the Golden Knights legitimate secondary scoring threat, something that, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, can never be underestimated.
2. A Full Training Camp with Pete Deboer
When play was halted on March 12, the Golden Knights were playing their best hockey of the year. Since the arrival of Pete DeBoer on Jan. 15, the Golden Knights were 15-5-2. Of more significance for this article than just wins and losses, is the fact the DeBoer and his staff had to implement his system changes on the fly, midseason, with an absolute minimum number of actual practices.
With the stoppage, in addition to a fully healthy expanded roster of 28 skaters, DeBoer and staff will have the better part of three weeks to not only fine-tune the systems already in place but add all the subtle nuances that have made Deboers prior teams in New Jersey and San Jose Stanley Cup contenders. Assuming the Golden Knights knock all the rust off in training camp and the two exhibition games, they should be primed and ready for a deep playoff run.
3. Marc Andre Fleury & Robin Lehner
Unlike any other sport, in the NHL, one player can carry their team to the Stanley Cup. That player most often is a hot goalie. With the trade deadline acquisition of Robin Lehner from Chicago, the Golden Knights have arguably the best goalie tandem in the playoffs, both with unique motivations driving them.
With Lehner, the Golden Knights acquired a recent Vezina candidate (2018-19) who is playing not only for his own continued validation but also for the long term contract and security that has eluded him since he left Buffalo.
Acquired strictly as a rental, Lehner posted a 3-0-0 record with a .940 save percentage in a small sample size. What Lehner does lack is playoff experience. If he is able to translate his recent regular-season successes to a successful playoff run with the Golden Knights, he will most assuredly earn the long-term contract he has more than deserved for a couple of years,
All you have to do is look at the career statistics for everything you need to know about Marc-Andre Fleury. If I typed them all here, you would be reading until commissioner Gary Bettman hands him the Stanley Cup sometime in October.
What is different about this season is that there have been whispers throughout that age and workload have caught up to him. That this was going to be the beginning of the end of a storied career. I couldn’t agree less with that opinion. Rather I truly believe that his struggles this year are attributed to the passing of his father on Nov. 27. Fleury took leave of absence from the Knights and missed 12 calendar days and five games before returning with a victory over Chicago on Dec. 10. Read that again please – 12 calendar days and five games after losing the man who called him after every single game of his career.
With three and a half months off to be with his family and (I’ll bet more properly) grieve the loss of his father, the expectations will be high for Fleury to return to form and backstop the Golden Knights to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
The Big Parade!
In this the craziest year of most of our lifetimes, and the most unusual year in sports, is it that much of a stretch to think that a third-year franchise could hoist the Stanley Cup? I don’t think so, and if the three major factors in this article come to fruition, there will be the most incredible nighttime parade in the history of sports right down the fabled Las Vegas Strip.