The Golden Knights couldn’t completely hide their bitterness during Thursday’s exit interviews after a controversial ending to their second season, but there was also hope.
The Knights players looked around their locker room, saw who is sticking around and began to envision the exciting possibilities for Year 3.
“We’ll be right up there again,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “We’re going to be in the playoffs again, we’re going to be a great team again and I think the future definitely seems bright for us.”
Ten of the Knights’ top 11 scorers are already under contract and all could return if restricted free agent center William Karlsson agrees to a new deal with the team. If he does, the Knights would return 83 percent of the goals (201 of 246) and points (534 of 641) from the league’s 13th-ranked offense before making another move.
“We have an awesome team,” right wing Mark Stone said. “We feel like we’re a contender. But we’re not satisfied. We can’t be satisfied until we win. So we want to improve our team. We want to make sure we’re getting better throughout the offseason. It’s unfortunate it’s a longer offseason than we wanted but we have to use it as fuel.”
Stone is one of the primary ways the Knights could improve on 2018-19’s 43-32-7 record (93 points) and third-place finish in the Pacific Division. The 26-year-old will spend the entire year with the team after being acquired at the Feb. 25 trade deadline and his addition to the team’s lineup was transformative.
Stone’s playmaking, power-play prowess and defense (he is one of three Selke Trophy finalists for best defensive forward) helped the Knights go 11-6-2 after his arrival, an 104-point pace. He is also still the postseason’s leading scorer as of Friday morning with 12 points.
”I’m really confident, I’m really excited about where this group can go,” Stone said. “There’s still room to grow, which is positive. We already have a good team. We just want to make it a great team.”
Other ways the team can improve include young players like Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore taking another step forward after encouraging sophomore seasons with the Knights. The team also will hope center Paul Stastny, who missed 30 games because of a lower-body injury, and forward Erik Haula, who suffered a season-ending right knee injury in November, can get through next year healthier.
The Knights could get a boost from their prospect pool as well as restricted free agents Nikita Gusev, a former Russian Kontinental Hockey League MVP, and Jimmy Schuldt, one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award for best college player, will likely be on the team next season. Younger prospects like center Cody Glass and defenseman Nicolas Hague could become a factor as well.
“We’re in a pretty good place,” general manager George McPhee said. “A lot of positions are filled. If there is a way to upgrade or improve we will, but we’re in a pretty good place with this team. When we’re healthy, it’s a pretty darn good team.”
McPhee declined to specify where he would like to improve the team, but most of the top roles are filled. Now it’s just a matter of filling out the roster with the limited amount of cap space the Knights will be working with.
The team is projected to spend $82.375 million against an expected $83 million limit, according to CapFriendly.com. The Knights will be able to exceed the cap by defenseman David Clarkson’s $5.25 million hit once he is placed on long-term injured reserve.
“I think everybody knows in here there’s a lot of players signed under contracts,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We’ve got a good hockey team.
“We’re not an expansion team like we thought we were going to be, building for the future. We’re a team right on the cusp every year and so far we’ve played two years and had real good teams. I expect the same next year.”
Golden Knights top returning players
*Mark Stone: RW: 73 points (with Knights and Ottawa Senators)
*Jonathan Marchessault: 59 points
*Reilly Smith: 53 points
*Nate Schmidt: 30 points, plus-22
*Shea Theodore: 37 points, minus-4
*Brayden McNabb: 16 points, plus-11
*Marc-Andre Fleury: .913 save percentage, 2.67 goals-against average