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Training Camp

Golden Knights face questions in first camp

Coaching of Gallant, play of Shipachyov, leadership group among storylines as Vegas prepares for inaugural season

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

General manager George McPhee did his homework ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights' inaugural season, interviewing GMs of past NHL expansion teams. One thing he learned was that homework would take him only so far.

Doug Risebrough, who led the Minnesota Wild into the League in 2000, emphasized that there would be uncertainty and advised McPhee to embrace it.

"You can't prepare for everything," Risebrough told him. "It's OK."

So after a year of scouting, mock drafting, expansion drafting, amateur drafting, signing and trading, McPhee and his staff have accepted that there is much they still don't know about their team entering the start of training camp.

Video: Discussing under the radar contenders and Vegas

Marc-Andre Fleury is the starting goaltender, Calvin Pickard the backup. But other than that? We'll see. Veterans report Thursday. Their first practice is Friday. The first of seven preseason games will be at the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, ATTSN-RM).

"We're trying to make decisions, other than goaltending, on everyone," McPhee said. "You really don't get to know players as well as you'd like to until they're playing for you.

"We're going to learn that some players were better than we anticipated. Maybe some aren't as good as we anticipated. But they are going to determine who makes the team and where they play in the lineup.

"And that's a good thing. It's a blank canvas. We'd love to paint a masterpiece, and it starts this month. We believe that we acquired really good players in the expansion draft, and now it's up to them to show us."

Here are five questions entering camp:

 

1. How will coach Gerard Gallant set the tone? 

Owner Bill Foley is big on culture. He wants to give Las Vegas an identity beyond The Strip. He named the team the Golden Knights because he wants his people to embody the spirit of knights, never giving up, never giving in, always advancing, never retreating.

Don't expect a big speech from Gallant on the first day of camp. That's not his style. But don't expect him to give up or give in because the Golden Knights are an expansion team either.

"There are long-term plans, but my job is to try to win every night, and that's what I'm going to try to do," Gallant said. "I'm going to put our systems in. I'm going to talk to our players about respect and leadership, the way we want to play our game.

"We don't want to be outworked. … Coaches all say that, but that's what I want. I want our players to come to the rink every night and know that they can make a mistake and they're still going to play. If it happens too many times, then you talk to them. But you can't be scared to go out there and make mistakes."

Never retreat, right?

"I need 20 players that are playing that night to play the 200-foot game," Gallant said. "I want them to be honest players and working hard and competing hard."

 

2. Can Vadim Shipachyov excel as a No. 1 center in the NHL?

"Nobody knows," McPhee said.

The Golden Knights signed Shipachyov, 30, to a two-year, $9 million contract as a free agent May 4. He had 76 points (26 goals, 50 points) in 50 games for St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League last season, ranking third in the league in scoring, and had 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) in 17 playoff games on a run to the Gagarin Cup.

"He's just scrimmaging with the other vets, but you can see the intelligence, the skill and the ability," McPhee said. "He seems to be a very well-adjusted, mature player."

Video: Alex Tanguay on the value of Vadim Shipachyov

But Shipachyov never has played a game in North America, let alone the NHL. He will have to adjust on and off the ice. As the season goes on, he will have to handle the 82-game grind too. He never played more than 55 games in a regular season in the KHL.

The Golden Knights should have scoring on the wing with Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal, David Perron and Reilly Smith, but someone will have to get them the puck. The No. 1 center needs to be a difference-maker.

"You look at our roster, there's a lot of good players," Gallant said. "Are there any superstars there? Our goaltender Fleury has had an outstanding career. There's some real good players. But there's no [Connor] McDavid, Sidney Crosby, those types of players."

 

3. How will the lines look and who will win spots up front?

Gallant has spent less time worrying about line combinations than you might think. He was an assistant for Canada at the 2017 IIHF World Championship, and it was like coaching an expansion team in the sense that the players came from other NHL teams and had to gel.

It will be interesting to see what Gallant does on Day One, but the lines will be a work in progress through the preseason and into the regular season. Gallant will try different things and let chemistry develop.

Some players might slot differently than they did elsewhere. Speedy Erik Haula, who played third- and fourth-line center with the Minnesota Wild last season, will have a chance to show he can play higher in the lineup, for example. The Golden Knights loaded up on centers and will have to shift some, like Oscar Lindberg, to wing.

Neal is recovering from a hand injury, opening a spot at the start of the season. Other injuries could crop up. Competition especially could be fierce for the final forward spot or two among the likes of Brendan Leipsic, Teemu Pulkkinen and Alex Tuch, because the Golden Knights likely will keep 13 forwards instead of 14 on the 23-man roster.

"It's hard to say until we see it all," McPhee said.

 

4. Who will be the seven or eight defensemen on the roster?

Now it gets really interesting.

Not only do the Golden Knights lack a Crosby or McDavid, they lack someone to counter a Crosby or McDavid. They don't have a bona fide No. 1 defenseman, let alone a Norris Trophy candidate.

What they do have are 11 NHL defensemen, nine of them left-handed shots. They are prepared to keep eight defensemen on the roster. Gallant will have to determine where they slot, and McPhee probably will have to make moves.

"It's a difficult position to play in this League," McPhee said. "We took the maximum number of players we could take here in an effort to find six to eight players who can turn into terrific defensemen for us. They can count, and they understand that there are a lot of defensemen here. Again, they're going to decide who stays and who doesn't."

The Golden Knights have high hopes for Nate Schmidt and expect him to be ready for camp, but he is coming off a sprained ankle sustained during offseason training.

Shea Theodore, 22, could end up anywhere from the top pair to the American Hockey League. The Golden Knights want to reward him with a roster spot if he earns it but could send him down to start, even though they love his long-term potential, simply because he does not have to pass through waivers.

 

5. Who takes the lead?

McPhee said the Golden Knights might be better off with a leadership group than a captain, because they don't want to name a captain unless he is going to be someone who will lead them for a long time. Fleury will be the face of the franchise and a leader, but he cannot be the captain as a goaltender.

Several veterans have one or two seasons left on their contracts. Some, like Neal and Perron, could play a leading role and depart before the NHL Trade Deadline as McPhee continues to stockpile assets for the future, trying to build a Stanley Cup contender through drafting and developing.

Who will take control in the short term?

Video: Jamie and Kevin on Fleury and the Vegas goalies

"There are probably five or six veteran players that we'll lean on for some direction," McPhee said. "But again, it's going to take us a month or so. We're going to need the entire training camp to determine what that group looks like.

"We've had to make important decisions and many of them for a year now, and having to make important decisions continues. We have difficult decisions to make here in the next two to four weeks. So we're going to have to really examine what we have and analyze and hope that we continue to make good decisions."

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