Can the Golden Knights repeat as Stanley Cup champions? What opponents (and the stats) say

Can the Golden Knights repeat as Stanley Cup champions? What opponents (and the stats) say

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Sixteen wins. That’s all a team needs to hoist the Stanley Cup.

For some clubs, achieving the feat takes decades. For the Vegas Golden Knights, it took six years.

Vegas secured the first Cup victory in franchise history last spring by downing the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars en route to overwhelming the Florida Panthers in a five-game Final that Vegas controlled from the start.

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At times, the Golden Knights made earning those 16 wins look easy. But will Vegas’ playoff run appear as effortless as it attempts to repeat as Cup champion?

Only eight teams in NHL history have won the Cup in consecutive years. Just two (the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning) have accomplished that in this millennium.

This has been a different season for the Golden Knights. Whereas last year Vegas entered the playoffs after a powerhouse regular season (as the Western Conference’s top seed), this time around the Golden Knights battled their way to a late berth and barely approached the 100-point mark. Vegas has toggled between dominant and docile. Its identity hasn’t always been clear — except when it comes to pushing the envelope.

Vegas did just that, chasing after prized skaters at the trade deadline and landing Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl for exactly this time of year. What sort of impact will they have on the Golden Knights’ chances to go back-to-back? What do the numbers say about Vegas now compared with last season? And what do players and executives around the league have to say about this year’s squad — and the challenge before them of winning a second Cup?

What the analytics say about Vegas’ chances

The numbers might not lie, exactly. But they don’t always tell the whole truth, either.

That’s the case here when comparing this season’s Golden Knights to the team that hoisted the Stanley Cup last June. On paper, Vegas appears nearly identical to that championship squad.

Let’s break it down:

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The 2022-23 Golden Knights averaged 3.26 goals per game (14th), 2.74 goals against per game (12th), had the 18th-ranked power play (20%), 19th-best penalty kill (77%), were ninth in goal differential (+42), seventh in scoring chances per game (15.1) and eighth in expected goals differential (53.8%), with a collective save percentage of .911 (seventh). Vegas finished the season with 111 points and was first in the Pacific Division.

Most of Vegas’ figures in 2023-24 stack up similarly — with a couple of outliers. This season’s team averaged 3.24 goals per game (13th), 2.98 goals against per game (22nd), had the 19th-ranked power play (20%) and the 15th-best penalty kill (80%). Those numbers generally trend close year-over-year.

Notable differences this season were in goal differential (+21, 12th overall), expected goals (52.1%, 13th) and scoring chances per game (15.6, 14th). Vegas’ goaltending struggled more this season than last as well — the Golden Knights had a collective save percentage of .902 (10th overall), were 20th in goals saved above expectations and 11th in goals against.

That data suggests Vegas should have fared better this season than being the eighth seed in the Western Conference. But this season has revealed two distinct versions of the Golden Knights: one starting the season, and one finishing it.

Vegas opened 2023-24 with an 11-0-1 record and by mid-December had lost consecutive games in regulation just once. The Golden Knights didn’t truly dip until going 1-5-0 from around Christmas into their Winter Classic dud against Seattle on Jan. 1. It was a poor omen for Vegas, though. The Golden Knights never recaptured the dominance they displayed to start the season.

After an otherworldly run during the 2023 playoffs, Adin Hill’s performance came back to earth during the 2023-24 season. Zak Krill/NHLI via Getty Images

Things got worse after the All-Star break.

Since mid-February, Vegas is averaging 3.44 goals against per game (23rd), allowing 30.5 shots per game (19th) and their goal differential has tanked (-2 overall). Those defensive issues have spotlighted the goaltending problems, particularly from Adin Hill, who has gone 5-8-0, with an .877 save percentage and 3.73 goals-against average.

Vegas is prone to trading opportunities off the rush, ranking 19th in rush scoring chances per game, while giving up the 10th most in the league. The Golden Knights were also 18th in cycle scoring chances, meaning Vegas could be exposed in the playoffs by a team that scores consistently off the rush or has a structure taking away the Golden Knights’ rush attack.

If it weren’t for Vegas’ strong start, the overall numbers would be trending further from where the Golden Knights perched a year ago in most categories. Injuries have once again played a role in Vegas’ season, but its trade deadline additions — specifically Hanifin on the blue line and Anthony Mantha up front — have helped soothe some of what’s ailed it at 5-on-5 and special teams.

The Golden Knights went 11-5-1 since the March 8 deadline passed, and that’s been mostly without their other highly prized acquisition, Hertl, who just debuted in April following February knee surgery.

Logan Thompson has also rebounded in that post-deadline stretch, going 7-2-0 with a .924 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average. That bodes well for him as Vegas’ potential starter going into the first round over Hill, who had a memorable playoff run last year as the Golden Knights’ unexpected No. 1 in net.

The real question now is: Which Vegas will we see in the postseason? The elite-looking squad that could dominate in all three phases? Or the more vulnerable group that’s susceptible to long stretches of mediocre performance?

Let the real games begin.


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What the league says about Vegas — and the difficulty of going back-to-back

Perhaps the place to start when it comes to the Golden Knights’ bid for a consecutive title is the difficulty that comes with winning back-to-back championships. The most recent team to do it was the Lightning in 2020 and 2021.

“It was very challenging for I’d say both,” said Seattle Kraken forward Yanni Gourde, who was part of those Lightning teams. “The first was in the bubble, and the bubble was very challenging mentally. It was a lot that first year. The second year, you’re back to regular hockey in the playoffs with the crowd and traveling and all that stuff. They each felt very different in their own way.”

Kraken defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who won back-to-back Cups with the Pens in 2016 and 2017, voiced a similar sentiment in terms of a team’s mentality. He said winning a Stanley Cup comes with a natural sense of accomplishment, which can work one of two ways for a team.

It can serve as the motivation to win a second in a row. Or it can work against a team because some players might be satisfied with their first championship and fail to push as hard to go for another.

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Another point Dumoulin raised was how teams that have won a Stanley Cup typically receive more attention and come with fewer questions.

Before a team wins a Stanley Cup, it faces questions about if it is good enough to win it all. Once the team wins, though, it is no longer a secret. It’s now about how does the team continue to win while knowing everyone is trying to figure out ways to not only beat it, but have the answers over a seven-game series if it gets to that point.

“I think it’s like that in the regular season too, putting yourself in a position to win, [trying to get] home-ice advantage, especially with a team like Vegas,” Dumoulin said. “They’re always good at home just like we were in Pittsburgh. … It gets kind of harder and harder to even play in the regular season that following year too, because you have a target on your back. That’s definitely a factor.”

Winning the second Stanley Cup can be more difficult than the first, according to Brian Dumoulin, who accomplished the feat with the Penguins. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Practically every conversation around the Golden Knights’ title defense starts with how they returned 20 players from last year’s championship team. It’s a group that ranges from reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Marchessault to All-Stars such as Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo to key depth players such as defensive pairing Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud.

Last year saw the Golden Knights win the Pacific Division and the Western Conference to gain home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. This season, however, they enter the playoffs as a No. 8 seed.

That’s not to say lower seeds cannot pull off upsets. It happened twice in the opening round of last year’s playoffs when the wild-card Florida Panthers upset the top-seeded Boston Bruins, and the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche were ousted by the Seattle Kraken.

“I think the biggest thing is how many good teams there are,” Dumoulin said. “Obviously, with the salary cap not going up, teams are spending to the cap. It’s almost every team that has a good quality team and the difference in that first-round game, it’s no easy matchup. It’s going to be a battle no matter who they play.”

Dumoulin’s point about the number of teams that could challenge for the Stanley Cup because they are spending to the cap has merit. Cap Friendly’s data shows the Nashville Predators are the only Western Conference team in a playoff spot with more than $1 million in projected cap space. The next-closest team is the Winnipeg Jets, with less than $500,000 in cap space.

The Golden Knights are among those teams that had no cap space entering the postseason.

Even with their cap limitations, the Golden Knights were extremely active entering the trade deadline. Shifting captain Mark Stone to long-term injured reserve was one of the moves that allowed them to free up the necessary space to get Hanifin, Hertl and Mantha.

Part of what has allowed Vegas to have success over the past few years is its ability to assimilate new players. The Golden Knights have done it with Eichel, Pietrangelo, Stone and Ivan Barbashev, among others, over the last few years.

But how difficult is it to welcome new faces to a team that’s already good? Especially when that team is trying to win a second straight Stanley Cup?

Gourde said it starts with how ingrained a team’s culture is within the dressing room. He said that often served as a blueprint to help players mesh with their new teammates.

“When we had a new guy who walked in, he knew what was expected,” Gourde said. “He knew what was needed out of each and every one of us. It was kind of the unwritten rule that this was the standard, that this was the culture and that’s what it was. Each guy that jumped into our lineup in those years was willing to do that and were also willing to go above and beyond to win games.”

Yanni Gourde was a key part of back-to-back championships with the Lightning in 2020 and 2021. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Dumoulin said he was interested to see what the Golden Knights would look like once they have their full complement of players. He recalled the last time the Kraken played the Golden Knights in late March. The Golden Knights won 3-1 — and that was without Hertl, Pietrangelo and Stone.

Vegas won last season by relying on its depth. It’s what allowed the Golden Knights to navigate their injuries this season. And Gourde is among those who believe that depth could once again prove vital in the postseason.

“Their fourth line — the way they played,” Gourde said of the Knights’ depth advantage. “The way they switched momentum in games. I thought they pushed teams out, and if your fourth line does that, it gives a lot of success to the other lines that come in. All of sudden, they’re facing a third line that’s been in their zone for a minute because they just grinded a shift through that fourth line who was just all over. That’s the game within the game. It’s those details of setting the next line up.”

Gourde would know. And if the Knights can keep leveraging that depth advantage, they could be playing hockey well into June again this year.