The Golden Knights opened training camp Thursday, and a few things were immediately evident about the coming season:
1. Coach Pete DeBoer won’t have to answer as many questions about who will be in goal on a particular night.
2. There is a great chance the Pacific Division is so bad that the Knights will resemble the ’27 Yankees and could start a third line of Ruth, Gehrig and Lazzeri and still win in a skate-over.
3. The expectations to lift a Stanley Cup are as robust as ever.
“Good to see you in person,” DeBoer told assembled media. “You look better in masks.”
Look at Brad Pitt. A day into camp, and he’s batting 1.000 for one-liners.
Old and new faces
It felt normal again. City National Arena was packed with fans for the team’s initial workout, conjuring memories of those pre-pandemic turnouts. The dude waving his giant flag was there. So was the one who periodically breaks into loud cheers … by himself.
It was also different. There was no Marc-Andre Fleury in net, the Vezina Trophy winner now making windmill saves in Chicago. A slimmed-down Robin Lehner is firmly planted as the starter in Las Vegas. There was no Ryan Reaves joking with teammates, although you can still find his signature 7Five beer inside adjacent MacKenzie River Pizza. But only in cans.
“We’re all tapped out,” one employee said.
Everyone is a comedian.
New faces. Old faces. Faces moved to different teams. None of it alters the narrative that DeBoer’s team is again among those favored to win the Cup. None of it changes the fact that this franchise has fallen short in four seasons of existence.
Which is a totally preposterous statement given how difficult it is to win the whole thing.
But this isn’t your average NHL team. Never has been. Never acted like it.
“I think we know what the expectations are, and there is obvious pressure that comes with it,” DeBoer said. “But I think our group has shown that it doesn’t overwhelm them. We welcome the pressure and want to be one of those teams that is expected to compete for the Stanley Cup every year. Our guys are excited about hopefully taking another step.”
Which means to finish.
And score playoff goals while they’re at it.
The Knights have lost in the conference finals two straight years, and it’s not as if they were bounced by superior opponents. Hardly. Quite the opposite for most of their playoff experiences.
Examples: They lost to (apologies to DeBoer, then coach of the Sharks) a worse San Jose team in 2019. They lost to a worse Dallas team in 2020. They lost to a worse Montreal team in June. Heck, they almost lost to a worse Vancouver team in a conference semifinal bubble series.
The last time the Knights were eliminated by a more talented team was the first time. Washington was better in that 2018 Stanley Cup Final to conclude a magical expansion season.
After a while, the whole running-into-a-hot-playoff-goalie reasoning becomes more excuse than allowable explanation for losing.
The usual challenge
Management thinks there is more firepower now, more ability to create offense from the bottom six, a fourth line that has a better chance to find the net than simply checking others into another area code.
Reaves, now with the Rangers, was quite good at the latter and yet not much else.
“We didn’t win it last year, so they are going to make changes,” Lehner said. “We have a really good team with high expectations. All the guys feel good about going into the season. We’re very motivated.”
Added newcomer Nolan Patrick: “This organization has done everything but win the Cup.”
Such is the challenge.
Isn’t it always?
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.