Expectations are high for Golden Knights entering Year 2

Updated September 13, 2018 - 5:18 pm

Any team that rolls out Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on defense, as San Jose can following Thursday’s blockbuster trade, almost certainly becomes the favorite in the Pacific Division.

But the news from Northern California doesn’t diminish expectations for the Golden Knights.

“Our players expect to make the playoffs,” coach Gerard Gallant said at the opening of training camp, hours before the deal was officially announced.

The Knights enter year two brimming with confidence following a remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season.

They’re no longer the plucky expansion team heading into the first training camp practice at 10 a.m. Friday at City National Arena.

“Sure, everybody looks at our team and says, ‘This team is expected to make the playoffs this year.’ It doesn’t bother me one bit,” Gallant said. “We know we’re a pretty solid hockey team if we play well. Let’s go back to work. We had had success last year because we were one of the hardest working teams in the league, and that’s what we need to do to win this year.”

The Knights rewrote the NHL record book in their expansion season, but general manager George McPhee didn’t rest this offseason.

He acquired left wing Max Pacioretty in a trade with Montreal on Sunday and signed free-agent center Paul Stastny in July to replace departed second-line wings James Neal and David Perron.

Free agent Nick Holden also was signed to plug a hole on defense.

“It’s been like that since day one here,” winger Reilly Smith said. “They’ve definitely given us all the opportunities and tools to do our job and to put us in the best possible situation to win. No one’s shocked around here, and I think that’s why people like playing here so much.”

Unlike a year ago, when McPhee called the roster a “blank canvas,” the Knights enter training camp with most of their lineup set.

The first line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Smith returns intact, while Pacioretty and Stastny are expected to skate on a revamped second line with either Erik Haula or Alex Tuch.

The lone question marks are on the third line and defense, where Nate Schmidt is suspended for the first 20 games and restricted free agent Shea Theodore is unsigned.

Gallant said rookies such as Erik Brannstrom, Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud could challenge for roster spots on defense.

“Let’s face it. We’ve got 23 spots for our hockey club. Is every job available? No. But is there some jobs available? Yes,” Gallant said. “If some guys come here and play outstanding hockey — if some of the kids come in or some of the free-agent guys we signed — if they really impressed you and do a good job, sometimes different moves happen before the season starts.”

The Knights overwhelmed teams early last season with their speed and tenacious forecheck, but that element of surprise is long gone.

The effects of the “Vegas Flu” also have worn off.

“Teams know that we have a good team and we play a fast game,” Marchessault said. “We know it’s going to be harder, but it’s something we can handle as a team. We have the tools for that.

“We’re good everywhere. We need to keep going, and whatever you did in the year before or two or three years before, it doesn’t really matter. It always starts over. This year is a new year, and I think everybody’s ready.”

The Knights are no longer “misfits” and instead motivated by the memory of their five-game loss to Washington in the Stanley Cup Final.

Gallant said his team gained valuable experience during that run, which will help them manage the high expectations coming into this season.

“I hope I’m going to see the same thing this year, and I’d be disappointed if I don’t,” Gallant said. “I’m hoping like hell that we play the same way.”

More Golden Knights: Follow all of our Golden Knights coverage online at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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