Vegas’ fourth season is going to be unique, playing the same teams eight times throughout this 56-game slate.
For one season, the Pacific Division has been wiped from your memory, never to be heard from until we hopefully get back to regularity.
With that comes the Vegas Golden Knights now part of the new West Division — in accordance with the North (shoutout to Canada), the Central and East.
Half of the conglomerate stays intact; the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks will be Vegas’ familiar foes, while the Oilers, Canucks and Flames stay north of the border.
Replacing the Canadian contingent come from the original Central, and they’re going to provide a competitive divisional jolt for the Golden Knights not seen to this point. The top four teams advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs; the Golden Knights plan to be one of them, and two of those Central teams are more than likely to join the fray. That third one might be challenging for the No. 4 spot.
Alex Pietrangelo is about to face his former team eight times, including in a potential playoff series. Narrative, my old friend, you have returned and I have missed you.
Pietrangelo, the former captain of the Blues who was the leader of the St. Louis team that won the Stanley Cup two years ago, signed a seven-year deal with the Golden Knights on Oct. 12 after playing the first 12 seasons of his NHL career with St. Louis.
There might not be any fans in St. Louis to greet Pietrangelo with a warm welcome he deserves, but at least the jitters in facing his former team won’t last long.
The Blues’ title defense ended with a thud last season, losing in the first round in six games to the Canucks. Yet despite losing Pietrangelo, St. Louis aims to be strong yet again. The Blues signed defenseman Torey Krug to a seven-year, $45.5 million contract. Krug joins a blue line that expects to still be stout with Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn and Justin Faulk.
Offensively, St. Louis is a steady force. Ryan O’Reilly will reportedly be the next captain, according to The Athletic, and rightfully so. The Conn Smythe winner from 2019 is the focal point of an offense stacked with balance, featuring David Perron (60 points), Brayden Schenn (58), Jaden Schwartz (57) and Robert Thomas (42).
Goaltending remains a strength with Jordan Binnington, but the backup netminder is a question with Jake Allen now in Montreal. Ville Husso projects to back up Binnington, but keep an eye on the third goalie in the rotation if Husso doesn’t perform well.
The Avs prepare for the season, nustled in their beds, hoping to erase visions of Joel Kiviranta scoring in their heads.
It was supposed to be Colorado and Vegas in the Western Conference Final, but bubble hockey is a funny thing. Instead, the Avalanche and Golden Knights will get acquainted plenty during this season and, again, might meet in the playoffs.
Colorado is on the heels of consecutive Game 7 exits in the second round. The third time could be the charm should the Avs stay healthy and not resort to Michael Hutchinson (now in Toronto) for must-win playoff games.
But as long as Nathan MacKinnon is plays at an MVP-level, Colorado will hang around. MacKinnon was a Hart Trophy finalist last season after a 93-point campaign in 69 games; his third consecutive 90-point season. MacKinnon’s dominance was evident with his two linemates — Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog — dealing with injuries prior to the pause. They got healthy at the right time; had it stayed that way and the pause didn’t happen, who knows how dangerous Colorado would’ve been.
The Avs acquired Brandon Saad from Chicago to add another scoring depth; an area they addressed greatly last season. Andre Burakovsky made a push for most underrated pickup last season; Nazem Kadri added a pesty presence with a soft scoring touch; Joonas Donskoi was a 30-point scorer. Even Valeri Nichushkin had a renaissance as a fourth-line scorer. That’s not even mentioning Cale Makar’s ascension to one of the best young defensemen in the league after a 50-point, Calder Trophy-winning season.
Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer created one of, if not the best goalie tandem in the league last year. No disrespect to Hutchinson, but throwing a third goalie into the fire was not ideal. It’s hard to imagine them not being in the Cup Final last year had one of those two been available. For that reason, if we’re matching goaltending stride for stride, t’s not farfetched to say Colorado poses the biggest threat to the Golden Knights’ chances at the Stanley Cup.
Long gone are the days of the Wild being boring. There’s a chance the corner has been turned. The emerging stardom of Kevin Fiala has helped with that, but Minnesota’s chances of making a sneaky playoff push might rest on 23-year-old rookie Kirill Kaprizov.
The Wild’s fifth-round pick in 2015 will join Minnesota after playing three seasons with CSKA Moscow in the KHL. Kaprizov ended his KHL tenure with consecutive 30-goal seasons, a welcomed addition for a Wild team whose two highest goal scorers (Fiala and Zach Parise) combined for 48 goals.
Minnesota general manager Bill Guerin has stayed busy; signing Jonas Brodin to a seven-year deal, acquiring Nick Bjugstad and trading for Marcus Johansson while sending Eric Staal to Buffalo. And, oh yeah, moving on from Devan Dubnyk and signing Cam Talbot to be their starting goaltender. Did I mention Nick Bonino, too?
Guerin has revamped this roster, and the hope is that Dean Evason can build off that 8-4-0 stretch after replacing the fired Bruce Boudreau before the pause.
The Wild might not be the best of this bunch, but they will give the Golden Knights fits until futher notice. Lest we forget Vegas is 2-6-0 all-time against Minnesota, There’s just some bad juju when it comes to the Golden Knights facing the Wild; now that they’re getting acquainted eight times this year, Vegas could use some incensing or sanctifying to erase such misfortunes.