LAS VEGAS — Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer had to scramble in his first season with Vegas after being brought in as a midseason replacement for the fired Gerard Gallant.
The year only got more challenging from there because of the pandemic, and the coronavirus-related disruptions will continue into the upcoming season, with DeBoer not even getting a full training camp with the team. Still, DeBoer believes his team can embrace a sense of normalcy during what is sure to be an abnormal season.
“Having been through the playoff bubble training camp, this is actually gonna feel normal for our guys, unfortunately,” DeBoer said recently. “We’ve been through almost the same situation. I don’t think the guys are gonna be uncomfortable by the situation. I know our guys are hungry and ready to go.”
The Golden Knights, among the favourites to win the 2021 Stanley Cup, will have more lead time than they did before the 2020 playoffs, where they advanced to the Western Conference final before losing to the Dallas Stars in five games.
When DeBoer replaced Gallant last January, many were quick to point out the immediate success he had in previous coaching stints in New Jersey and San Jose, leading both to the Stanley Cup Final in his inaugural seasons.
The difference between the 2008 Devils and 2015 Sharks and last season’s Golden Knights was that DeBoer had a training camp and full season to mould those teams into conference champions.
Even with the limitations last season, DeBoer led the Golden Knights to a 15-5-2 finish in the regular season and the Pacific Division title.
“Definitely an advantage than jumping in, in the middle of the season, in the middle of a 10-game road trip like I did,” said DeBoer, who started his first training camp with Vegas on Monday. “Looking forward to the time and the practice, I’m also looking forward to the fact that we did have the playoff bubble experience, so we’re not starting from scratch. For me it’s getting the good pieces of our game, and there were a lot of them that we had in the playoffs, and getting those back quickly and then fixing some of the things that led to us being eliminated.”
Training camp will provide an intriguing goaltending competition between Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. Lehner supplanted Fleury last August, starting 16 of 20 games in the post-season . The team has embraced the idea of carrying a $12 million salary tab in order to have a fresh netminder between the pipes.
Centre Paul Stastny was dealt to Winnipeg to shave salary. Other departures during the off-season included Nate Schmidt, Nick Cousins, Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill.
Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon and team President George McPhee believe Alex Pietrangelo could be the answer on the blue line.
Pietrangelo finished fifth in scoring on the St. Louis Blues the past two seasons, including 52 points last year, the second-best effort of his career. The veteran joins a defensive corps that includes Shea Theodore, who finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting last season, two-time Stanley Cup champion Alec Martinez, and Brayden McNabb, who has been with the team since its inception.
The NHL’s realignment shifted Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis into the West Division, and Vegas is 11-15-1 all-time against the trio. Perspective: The Golden Knights are a combined 26-10-3 against Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver — all of which will play in the North Division this season. Pietrangelo, who spent 10 seasons with the Blues, faces St. Louis for the first time Jan. 26 at T-Mobile Arena.
The Knights open the season on Jan. 14 hosting the Ducks. They travel to play archrival San Jose on Feb. 1 and meet the Sharks again two days later. The location of those games has not been announced due to current COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County, California.
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W.G. Ramirez, The Associated Press