Friday, Sept. 22, 2023 | 5:17 p.m.
There will be whispers about Mark Stone’s health until convinced otherwise. That’s not news to the Golden Knights’ captain.
Undergoing one back surgery is excruciating. Two in less than a year, the second one 43 games into a season that was on pace to be the best of his career? Whispers might be putting it mildly.
With questions of his career in doubt, Stone answered them emphatically three months after his second back procedure, putting up 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in the playoffs to help the Golden Knights capture the Stanley Cup. Not to mention the fractured wrist he suffered in the Cup-clinching game, then scoring a hat trick in the 9-3 win.
Stone assures the wrist wasn’t as big of a deal as it was portrayed. As far as his back goes, it’s been a while since Stone has felt this good.
“I’m really excited with where I’m at,” Stone said. “It’s probably the best I’ve felt in three, four years.”
If it sounds familiar to what Stone said prior to the start of last season, it is. He went 43 games, playing all of them, and was at his best 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists). All the momentum ended when Stone played 3:57 on Jan. 12 against Florida, left the game, then had back surgery two weeks later.
The day before Game 1 against Winnipeg in the first round, Stone fought back tears describing the work he did to get back to 100%. The Golden Knights trailed a playoff series only once; the 5-1 loss to the Jets in Game 1. Stone returned to form in Game 2 with two goals, and Vegas was off and running after that.
Stone said going through the playoffs was encouraging physically. He did “a bunch” of scans over the summer, and a fair amount of physical therapy to see how his body held up.
Stone said he remains in constant contact with his surgeon, Dr. Chad Prusmack — the same doctor who performed Jack Eichel’s artificial disk replacement surgery — and other therapists to stay on the right track.
“Last year, we made it through 43 games, and it really wasn’t that excruciating of a schedule,” Stone said. “To see where I’m at, I feel great.”
Load management has been a strong talking point, especially in the NBA, with teams trying finding games to rest star players so that they’re healthy come playoff time.
It’s difficult to do that in the NHL’s 82-game season because of salary cap reasons, which is why it’s hardly done.
There’s no plan, as of now, for a rest plan for Stone during the season, coach Bruce Cassidy said. The competitor that Stone is wouldn’t want that.
As long as Stone is honest with where he’s at, Cassidy said, there shouldn’t be any problems.
“I’m trying to get him the same amount of work as everybody right now, but I’ve checked in with Mark probably more than I’ve checked with (Chandler Stephenson) or Jack, for example,” Cassidy said. “Like, ‘hey, how’re you feeling? Talk to me about things, if soreness is creeping back in.’ We’re two days in, so that part is so far, so good.”
Cassidy added he doesn’t plan to overtax Stone with preseason games. The Golden Knights open the exhibition slate Sunday in San Jose (5 p.m., Vegas 34).
Stone’s linemates won’t change from how last season ended. He’s skating at second-line right wing with Stephenson at center, and Brett Howden at left wing.
Stone and Stephenson have been on the same line since 2019, whereas Howden was a positive complementary piece in the playoffs. All three worked well together; Stephenson had 20 postseason points, while Howden earned a two-year extension this summer with 10 points in the 22 playoff games.
“He’s our guy, right? Not only on the ice, but in the locker room,” Howden said. “Once he came back for the playoffs, you feel his presence in the room. I think it just adds a level of confidence to everyone in the room.”
A healthy Stone increases the chances of the Golden Knights trying to repeat. At his best, he’s still one of the best two-way forwards in the world. He’ll still be a favorite for the Selke Trophy given to the best defensive forward in the world.
As the emotional leader who gets more excited for his teammates scoring goals or making a big play than himself, it’s that element Vegas missed and was happy to get back when Stone returned.
“Obviously, you need the group, but it’s a bonus when he feels at his best,” Stephenson said. “Even when he’s not feeling his best, as a captain and his competitive nature, he always wants to win and he’ll do anything. That’s just him in a nutshell.”
The Golden Knights would love to have that emotion for 82 games. Injuries being so commonplace make that a pipe dream.
If Stone feels as great as he says, good luck convincing him his team can’t win again.
“We have to have that same mindset of nothing’s given. Everything’s going to have to be earned,” Stone said. “No one’s going to let us get to the playoffs. If we play the way we want to play and get to the playoffs, no one’s going to let us win the Cup again. A lot of work ahead.”