Early on in the throes of the NHL season pause, Golden Knights winger Max Pacioretty made the prediction if the playoffs were ever to start; winning this particular Stanley Cup would be among the most difficult ever. Well, Max, we're getting closer and closer to finding out if your statement bears out.
"I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them. Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we're going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air. With that being said, whatever teams that have been banged up are healing up right now. They're getting their bodies ready and you better believe everyone around the league is trying to get every advantage possible in terms of recovery and getting in whatever shape they can. Most teams go into the playoffs beat up, but that won't be the case this year," said Pacioretty. "Guys are going to be healthy and teams are going to be able to show their true forms with pretty much every player on the roster. For me, I look at it as this will be one of the most special playoffs since I can remember. Teams aren't going to have any excuses. It's going to be your full team ready to rock and ready to go."
Pacioretty made these comments back in April before a lot of the mysteries which have since been revealed were even considerations and certainly prior to the Phase 3, Phase 4 and CBA documents which were released to players and ownership this week. The road map is close to complete and now the questions turn to whether the NHL and the players can carry this event off and, if so, which team is best equipped to handle the rigors of a compressed play-in event and Stanley Cup tournament.
Training camps are scheduled to begin Monday across the continent for the 24 teams still eligible for the postseason. In no particular order, here are some thoughts and questions with a heavy dose of VGK content in the mix.
1. Bravo Bettman and Fehr: Labor peace in the NHL has been far from an automatic over the last four decades but Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr were able to not only put together a Return to Play plan, they were able to craft a new economic agreement which should steer the NHL through its most difficult financial times in memory. Bettman determined from the beginning he would need the players to buy in to whatever plan the league wanted to use. So he brought them in from the beginning of the process forming a Return to Play committee which included players. The NHLPA, for its part, understood the importance of getting the game back on the ice as soon as possible for the economic health of the game now and moving forward.
The collaborative process resulted in no public infighting and a united front. The NHL looks like the league making the best decisions and instituting the safest and best plan among the major sports in North America.
2. Wall-to-wall hockey: The start of the NHL's tournament, including exhibition games, play-in games, round robin games and eventually a 16-team Stanley Cup tournament has to be highly anticipated by hockey fans around the world. It's also an opportunity for the league to grab new fans.
Stanley Cup playoff hockey is the best offering in all of sports with its combination of speed, emotion and unbridled will. From August 1 to potentially October 2, the hockey on television, with six games a day available early on in the process, will be an incredible spectacle. For 24 teams the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup begins without the strains and hindrances picked up along the way through an 82-game regular season. My grandfather used to drink his rum and Coke with almost no soda in the mix. "No use drinking a bunch of pop to get tight," was the reasoning of the late Jim Lawless. Well think of this as a Jim Lawless Special - a straight up Stanley Cup with no fluff or filling.
How will VGK split goalie starts: ESPN.com ran a panel piece this week selecting the starting goalies for all 24 teams. All four of the panelists selected Marc-Andre Fleury as the starter for Vegas.
While that's a likely scenario, VGK coach Pete DeBoer has two elite options in Fleury and Robin Lehner. DeBoer made it clear after his arrival in Vegas the decision making in the goalie department begins and ends in his office. DeBoer will take input from others but he's filling out the lineup card. The coach has four games to get a look at both his goalies prior to the beginning of the opening round of the playoffs. He could pick a goalie going in and use all four starts to get that netminder ready, he could split the starts or he could go three starts for one goalie and one game for the other.
DeBoer's decision in the crease will be paramount for the Golden Knights. There's an expression about the only tough choice one has in life comes when both options are strong. DeBoer's options are excellent and this won't be an easy decision.
What will VGK lines look like: We'll begin to get a look at this on Monday when training camp begins. DeBoer will have all his players but for Cody Glass at his disposal. The coaching staff has had a long stretch to think this over and ponder combinations.
Who will benefit from time off (injured): Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch were all injured when the pause begin in mid-March. The rest of the roster was likely playing with a laundry list of bumps and bruises as well. Vegas has one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NHL and being healthy is a massive edge for an elite lineup.
Who will benefit from time off (non-injured): Shea Theodore wasn't injured at the time of the break but one has to wonder how much he had left in the tank after spending last off-season fighting cancer. Theodore now has the benefit of a true off-season and the ability to improve his strength and conditioning which he missed last summer. Theodore is one of the best skating defenseman in the NHL and his game at both ends of the ice is rapidly growing. Keep an eye on Theodore once play resumes.
Nicolas Roy and Zach Whitecloud are two other players to watch under this premise. Both became NHL regulars prior to the pause and learned how effective they can be at the game's highest level. They don't return as rookies but as contributing players with growing confidence. Roy has a quiet confidence but has no intention of being a quiet player. He wants to be dominant every shift. Whitecloud is big and can move. Having a player with his hockey sense and ability on a third pairing is an advantage. Whitecloud can give Vegas an edge deep in the lineup.
Pause for thought: Vegas won 11 of 13 from Feb. 13 through March 9 heading into the pause. They scored at least three goals in 10 of the 11 victories and won seven straight from Feb. 13-28.
Pete's Point Percentage: The Golden Knights record under DeBoer was 15-5-2 for a total of 32 points which ranked fourth in the NHL over that time. The Golden Knights had a points percentage of 72.7 playing for DeBoer which also ranked fourth in the NHL behind Boston (77.3%), Philadelphia (75.0%) and Colorado (75.0%).