Thursday, April 6, 2023 | 2 a.m.
With the postseason looming, the Vegas Golden Knights’ lineup is far from solidified. That can be both good and bad.
There are less than two weeks until the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway and Vegas still has plenty to play for in the regular season.
There’s the matter of trying to clinch the Pacific Division and the top seed in the Western Conference, which would guarantee the Golden Knights home-ice advantage until the Stanley Cup Final.
“There’s a lot on the line still,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You want to win the next thing you can win, which is the division, but it’s not going to make or break your playoff hopes if you don’t end up to where you aspire to. I think it’d be more on us going on a streak the wrong way and losing your game is the concern.”
But with the days winding down before the Golden Knights’ first-round series, the lineup is still in flux and will likely be that way until the final moments.
The lineup questions are partially due to players coming back from injury. It’s also because of inconsistent performances, which has forced Cassidy to shake up the lineup.
Now seems like the time to check in on the status of the Golden Knights’ forward group and get a sense of what is certain, and what is still to be determined.
Keep in mind that this is subject to change. Mark Stone has begun light skating as part of his rehab process from back surgery. William Carrier hasn’t been ruled out this season, but he’s not close to skating yet.
Here’s the situation as of now.
First line: Ivan Barbashev, Jack Eichel, Jonathan Marchessault
The biggest question of the top line has been answered: Barbashev is the perfect complement to Eichel and Marchessault.
Through Monday, Barbashev has 13 points while averaging nearly 18 minutes a game in ice time. All eight of his assists since being acquired Feb. 27 from St. Louis have come at even strength, showing he’s a worthy playmaker to his linemates.
One reason why General Manager Kelly McCrimmon was pleased to get Barbashev was his willingness to be a presence in front of the net, and that has opened up the ice for Eichel and Marchessault.
“He’s one of those guys that makes all the little plays out there,” Marchessault said of Barbashev. “He has that veteran presence on the ice and he plays hard, as well. We knew that was the kind of guy we needed.”
Marchessault is closing in on his second consecutive 30-goal season and third overall, while Eichel has a chance to finish with 70 points despite missing 12 games in December and January due to a lower-body injury. It’s the line that’s driving everything offensively right now.
“It’s going to be competitive as we get to the end of the stretch here,” Eichel said. “But we’ve done a lot of good things to this point.”
Second line: Pavel Dorofeyev, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith
Other candidates: Nicolas Roy, Michael Amadio
Smith returned to the lineup this week after missing nearly two weeks with a lower-body injury. Before going down, Smith was arguably Vegas’ best offensive player with 12 points in 12 games.
His return will be a boost for Karlsson, who is playing some of his best hockey of the season with 13 points since March 1, and has been a shutdown player in the defensive zone.
But who plays with the original Misfits on the left side?
Amadio is in the middle of a career-best season with 14 goals and has continued to show reliability in the offensive zone. He’s not the flashiest scorer, but Amadio has shown in stretches to have an impact at the right time. He had three goals in six games through Monday.
On the flip side, it’s been difficult for Cassidy to take Dorofeyev out of the lineup. The 22-year-old rookie, who was recalled March 12 from Henderson of the AHL due to an injury to Keegan Kolesar, has been a great fit with Karlsson and Smith with nine points — including seven goals — in 11 games.
“He’s earned the right to play,” Cassidy said of Dorofeyev. “It’s a good problem to have. Pav, out there, has been a real good fit.”
It goes beyond Dorofeyev’s willingness to score. Cassidy has liked his game dating back to training camp because of how he’s improved defensively.
“He’s bought into how we want to play in our own zone,” Cassidy said. “He’s been a good fit from where we lack on the power play. I think he’s complemented Karly and Smitty well.”
Dorofeyev was a healthy scratch against Minnesota on Saturday after two rough showings against Edmonton and San Jose, but hitting the proverbial rookie wall shouldn’t deter him. While he came back Monday in Minnesota thanks to Chandler Stephenson being out with an illness, it’s becoming more difficult to keep him out.
Third line: Amadio, Stephenson, Phil Kessel
Other candidates: Roy
Is it a stretch to say Kessel could be the Golden Knights’ X factor in the playoffs?
Since the All-Star break, Kessel has produced timely scoring, been committed to winning puck battles and has vastly improved on the defensive side of the ice.
Kessel and Stephenson have shown to be a good combo at 5-on-5. The pair may not produce as much scoring as some would like — Kessel had two goals through 15 games in March, while Stephenson has three since Feb. 7 — but it’s a duo that’s played well.
Carrier completed that line when he was healthy, but he’s still out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, opening the door for a number of players to fill that role.
With the addition of Teddy Blueger, acquired in a trade last month, that could call for Roy to move up the lineup. He played with Karlsson on Saturday and has shown to be effective on the wing. Cassidy has not shied from playing two centers on the same line, either.
Fourth line: Brett Howden, Blueger, Kolesar
Other candidates: Roy, Paul Cotter
This is where it gets interesting.
With all the healthy bodies, someone has to come out of the lineup. Who that is will largely depend on how the second and third lines pan out.
When the Golden Knights acquired Blueger from Pittsburgh on March 1, he came with the reputation of being a stellar defensive forward. His offense has also shined with six points in 16 games after putting up 10 points in 45 games with the Penguins.
“It’s worked out. He’s come in and ready to play,” Cassidy said. “It’s helped us a lot.”
Having defensive-minded forwards like Blueger will be vital come playoff time, especially on a fourth line that Cassidy likes to deploy in key situations whenever applicable.
This is contingent on Dorofeyev staying in the lineup, but Howden’s versatility — along with how well he’s played since returning in January after missing two months with a lower-body injury — provides intrigue. Cotter, who has been a constant in the lineup in his rookie season, can also make a case for playing time.
Danny Webster can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Danny on Twitter at twitter.com/DannyWebster21.