It took only three days for a common message to emerge from the Golden Knights’ players, general manager and coach.
This team likes its forward group. A lot.
“I’ve never been on a team with depth like this,” said left wing Max Pacioretty, about to play his 14th NHL season.
The Knights return almost their entire blue line from last season but spent the offseason making tweaks up front. Out went right wing Ryan Reaves and centers Cody Glass and Tomas Nosek. In came right wing Evgenii Dadonov, a two-time 28-goal scorer, and centers Nolan Patrick and Brett Howden.
The Knights think the additions, coupled with the development of some of their younger players, could help them become one of the league’s hardest teams to defend. The depth has them thinking that their fifth season could be the one in which they achieve their ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
“We’ve added a lot of depth up front,” captain Mark Stone said. “I think our depth scoring is going to help us hopefully get over that last step.”
The Knights always have liked to attack in waves and roll through their four lines. They’re perhaps set up better to do that than in their first four seasons.
General manager Kelly McCrimmon said Wednesday that this group of forwards is the team’s best ever, even though the Knights finished third in goals last season. The group will get even better when right wing Alex Tuch returns from offseason shoulder surgery. McCrimmon said in late July that Tuch was expected to miss six months, putting his return around late January.
“I don’t know how (our lines are) going to roll out, but we’ve got competition for jobs, for spots in the lineup, and competition is always great from a coaching perspective,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “We’ve got some really tough decisions to make if we can stay healthy.”
The top six remain intact, but the other forwards also have impressed in the first two days of practice.
Dadonov, whose 94 goals in the past four seasons are tied for 43rd in the NHL, is starting on the third line with center Nolan Patrick and left wing Mattias Janmark. Patrick was the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, and Janmark is one of three players in Knights history with a playoff hat trick.
The fourth line consists of mainstay left wing William Carrier, center Nicolas Roy and right wing Keegan Kolesar. Roy and Kolesar spent time on the third line last season in their first full NHL seasons.
But they aren’t guaranteed lineup spots, with Howden, who played 42 games for the New York Rangers last season, waiting for an opportunity on the “fifth” line in camp with top prospect Peyton Krebs. Right wings Jack Dugan and Lucas Elvenes, and centers Patrick Brown and Gage Quinney are among the other forwards who could push for playing time.
“We have a deep team,” Kolesar said. “You might not be worried about trying to make the squad, but you’re trying to make the lineup, stay in the lineup, move up in your role.”
The Knights plan to use their depth to their advantage by presenting teams with matchup problems and wearing them down at five-on-five. It also should come in handy on special teams.
Dadonov, in particular, could help a power play that ranked 22nd last season and collapsed in the playoffs. Roy, Janmark and Howden could have larger roles on the top-ranked penalty kill to save the legs of Stone, right wing Reilly Smith and centers Chandler Stephenson and William Karlsson.
“What we saw last year was, I felt, we overplayed some of our top guys, especially in penalty-killing situations,” DeBoer said. “I’m a big believer we’ve got to have at least a couple penalty killers in the depth of the lineup, so then you’re not overtaxing the top guys. You can save them a little bit for offensive situations.”