LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — It was a long exhibition season for the Golden Knights — seven games. They probably needed every minute.
For the third time in their six-season history, the Knights have a new coach. This time, it’s Bruce Cassidy. And the obvious question is how is he different from Gerard Gallant, the team’s first coach, or his successor, Pete DeBoer?
The most significant change probably will be in the team’s defensive zone. Cassidy employs a zone system to protect his goal; most often, NHL defensive zone coverage consists of 3-on-3 play down low, with two forwards staying higher to cover the points.
“It’s not a huge difference, but it’s enough that we have to keep talking about it,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said after the Knights closed their preseason by beating the Arizona Coyotes 5-1 on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Pietrangelo said players made progress and look ready to open the regular season Tuesday on the road against the Los Angeles Kings. The home opener is Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks. As the preseason wound to a close, “I felt we had a better percentage of the game playing the way we wanted to,” he said.
Center Nicolas Roy, who’s been assigned to lead the fourth line, a unit of checkers and grinders that still must contribute offensively, agreed. He said the team has been able to build successfully during the preseason. “A little change on everything, power play, PK (penalty kill), our defensive zone,” he said describing the adjustments for players. “
How efficiently players grasp Cassidy’s scheme and overall health appear to be the Knights’ two major concerns. The franchise wants a Stanley Cup, and not reaching the playoffs last season — despite an overwhelming number of injuries to key players — cost DeBoer his job.
Before that, Gallant was fired, perhaps because he relied a bit too much on older, experienced players. But reasons for his dismissal never were made entirely clear.
Each coach was pretty successful. DeBoer was 98-50-12 (.650), Gallant 118-75-20 (.601). Winning more than 60% of the time in the NHL is pretty doggone good.
Cassidy is 292-155-53 in eight seasons, including two with Washington. He was 245-208-46 with Boston for a .676 winning percentage. But he didn’t win a Cup in Beantown. So what else might be different, because neither Gallant nor DeBoer has coached teams to a Cup victory.
Cassidy is said to be no nonsense, a coach who holds players accountable. How he differs in that sense to either of the previous coaches is a matter of conjecture. He did call out Roy’s line, including wings Keegan Kolesar and Paul Cotter, after a 3-2 win over Arizona in the next-to-last preseason game.
“Right now, our fourth line is not anywhere close to where it needs to be,” he said.
On Saturday night, he said Roy’s line was “excellent,” the team’s best.
But the biggest difference from last season might be health. Having Mark Stone, the team’s captain and emotional leader, at full strength and a complete season from offensive whiz Jack Eichel will be advantages.
Stone, bothered most of the past season by a bad back, had a lumbar discectomy in May. He played the final three exhibition games and appears ready to go. Eichel, the high-scoring centerman the franchise so desperately wanted, had neck surgery and returned to play in 34 games, scoring 14 goals.
There’s also the issue of goaltending. Starter Robin Lehner is out for the season; you guessed it, an injury. Surgery on his hip.
In some ways, it looks like a team loaded with question marks, which never is a good sign. But Cassidy thought his players’ understanding improved as training camp went along. “We got better at them,” he said of his defensive principles. “You could see it offensively, too. We’re scoring more goals.”
Pietrangelo prefers to look more at the Knights before the injuries ravaged the roster, the team that was picked among the Cup favorites entering last season. Being healthy alone, he figures, could mean a return to the playoffs, another shot at the Cup.
“Just to have the group back together,” he said of approaching the opener. “We talked about it last year. Guys were in and out, guys were missing stretches … It’s nice to have that group, that energy back and have our depth through the lineup the way we want it to be.”