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31 in 31

Inside look at Vegas Golden Knights

Addition of Stastny after trip to Stanley Cup Final fuels optimism

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Vegas Golden Knights don't want to fizzle after their spectacular inaugural season.

"A lot of people are going to be like, 'That was like a firework,'" center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. "You know, it exploded, and now it's over. So that's going to be the biggest challenge."

 

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The 2017-18 Golden Knights were the greatest expansion team of all time, shattering records for first-year NHL teams, finishing fifth in the NHL standings with 109 points and making the Stanley Cup Final. They were 13-3 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (including Game 1 of the Final) before losing four straight to the Washington Capitals.

General manager George McPhee didn't try to manage expectations afterward. Instead of saying their debut would be hard to match, he said they wanted to be better, which means one thing.

"If we won the Cup, that would be better," center William Karlsson said. "So that's what we're aiming for."

Not that they think it will be easy. Coach Gerard Gallant said this season will be tougher.

"Because of what we've done," Gallant said. "Teams are going to know we're not an expansion team. They're going to be ready for us."

The Golden Knights parted ways with second-line forwards David Perron and James Neal as unrestricted free agents, plus defenseman Luca Sbisa. Perron led Vegas in assists last season with 50 and signed a four-year contract with the St. Louis Blues on July 1. Neal scored 25 goals and signed a five-year contract with the Calgary Flames on July 2.

But Vegas signed center Paul Stastny to a three-year contract July 1. Stastny is a smart, two-way player who had 53 points (16 goals, 37 assists) for the Blues and Winnipeg Jets last season. He got an up-close look at the Golden Knights when the Jets lost to them in five games in the Western Conference Final. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Video: 31 in 31: Vegas Golden Knights 2018-19 season preview

"I like playing on teams that are aggressive and play on their toes and teams that aren't afraid to make mistakes," Stastny said. "That was big. Just looking at the players that they have, a lot of speed, a lot of goal-scorers, and that to me, I feel I fit well with that."

Forward Tomas Tatar is expected to play a bigger role than he did after he was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for first-, second- and third-round picks on Feb. 26, scoring four goals in 20 regular-season games and one in eight playoff games. Tatar has scored 20-29 goals each of the past four seasons.

Defenseman Nick Holden, who signed two-year contract as a UFA on July 1, will replace Sbisa.

The rest of the roster remains intact.

A determining factor will be how many players build upon breakout seasons. Twelve returning players set NHL career highs for points last season, including the top line of Karlsson (78), Jonathan Marchessault (75) and Reilly Smith (60), second-line forward Erik Haula (55), and each of the top four defensemen: Colin Miller (41), Nate Schmidt (36), Shea Theodore (29) and Deryk Engelland (23). Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage were personal bests.

Schmidt is suspended for the first 20 games of the regular season, without pay, for violating the terms of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.

Video: Can Vegas repeat its inaugural season success?

Karlsson should be particularly confident and motivated. He scored 43 goals last season, third in the NHL and 34 more than he ever had before in an NHL season, then signed a one-year, $5.25 million contract as a restricted free agent. He needs another big year to earn a lucrative long-term contract.

"I think we can play even better," McPhee said. "There was an opportunity for a lot of guys to play regularly and play higher in the lineup, and a lot of them developed. The development in the playoffs can make you a much better player than you've ever been, and so we expect the guys to come back next September and that group should be better."

No matter what anyone else says.

"Last year people said we would (stink); then we were good," Karlsson said. "Then they said we wouldn't sustain it; then we made the playoffs. People said that playoffs were another thing and we would get wrecked, and we made it to the Final."

NHL.com staff writers Tom Gulitti and Mike Zeisberger contributed to this report.

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