The Vegas Golden Knights have made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, much to the shock of the hockey world. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been a significant ingredient to that success, and is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs at this point. But what about the players in front of him?
Who has been the most valuable Golden Knight that is not named Marc-Andre Fleury?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I’m going with Jonathan Marchessault. It’s not just that he leads the Golden Knights in goals (eight) and is second in assists (10) producing at a quite impressive 1.2 points-per-game pace — though that’s my leading argument. Marchessault has also come into his own in terms of bravado, flexing a confidence that exemplifies these Golden Misfits. Consider that after the Game 1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Marchessault stood by his locker and coolly said: “Next game, no excuses. Everybody needs to come and be ready to play our best game of the playoffs. We’re going to show what kind of team we are.”
So what did Marchessault do? He scored twice and had eight shots on goal in a 3-1 road win that spurred this four-game winning streak to close out the Jets. It’s fun to watch Marchessault flourish, as a guy who used to drive a Hyundai to NHL training camps and now has a ridiculously cool Lamborghini dropped at his home on game days to drive to the arena. Really, the entire top line — William Karlsson, Marchessault and Reilly Smith — have been terrific these playoffs, combining for 15 points, seven goals (half of the Golden Knights’ goals in the series against Winnipeg).
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: So many of these players deserve credit for what’s happening, but those of us in the media have written a lot about the lack of a true No. 1 defenseman on this roster. It feels like Nate Schmidt has become that player, at least for now, and it’s been truly remarkable to watch his transformation. He is very much the embodiment of how this team plays and how they succeed given his speed, tenacity and high quality of play throughout the postseason.
Schmidt is averaging 24:53 of ice time per game this postseason, more than two minutes higher than his next closest teammate, in a team-high 462 shifts. He plays in all situations and is getting very tough assignments. According to Natural Stat Trick, Schmidt’s most frequent on-ice opponents in the three series at five-on-five have been Joe Pavelski, Anze Kopitar and Mark Scheifele. The Knights have not necessarily dominated those players head-to-head, but Schmidt has been part of making sure those guys don’t beat them. He may have only six points so far this postseason, but he allows the Golden Knights to play the way they do.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Chris and Emily certainly have two worthy candidates, but let me add a third: William “Wild Bill” Karlsson, the team’s leading scorer from the regular season with 43 goals, who has carried that effort over into the postseason. He’s second to Marchessault in goals (six) and in Corsi for percentage (53.7), but has a better even-strength goal differential (plus-12, best on the Knights). He scored the game-winner in Game 3 against the Kings, and scored the overtime game-winner in their clutch Game 3 win at San Jose.
Sure, he’s being overshadowed by his linemate’s exploits, but Karlsson does some heavy lifting to allow Marchessault and Reilly Smith to do their thing, like taking nearly every faceoff for that unstoppable line. There might be worthier candidates for the “runner-up to Flower” award, but Karlsson still has some big moments left in him.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: I’m also going with William Karlsson here. While he’s been outscored by his linemate Marchessault, Karlsson has kept up his own scoring pace while feeding the success of his linemates. He’s assisted on 37.5 percent of Marchessault’s goals and 50 percent of Reilly Smith’s goals, opening up scoring chances even when he’s not shooting. And he still shoots; Karlsson is third on the Golden Knights with 44 shots, cashing in on six of them.
Karlsson is also a big part of the Golden Knights’ netural zone defense. Vegas is far and away the leader in takeaways in the playoffs, and a big part of that is their aggression in the neutral zone. Karlsson is tied with Schmidt as the leader in takeaways during the postseason, driving the play back for Vegas. He’s been trusted with significant penalty kill and power play time, and has maintained his strong play.