The Golden Knights entered training camp believing they had the most forward depth in their five-year history. It just took them nearly two months to prove it.
The Knights spent the early part of the season battered and bruised, with a variety of absences up front because of injuries and the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. They reached further into their depth than they expected. But their initial impression might not have been far off.
The lineup against the Calgary Flames on Sunday was the closest the Knights have come to matching the forward lines they started training camp with. The result was an impressive 3-2 win at home over a first-place opponent.
The team is excited for what that could mean.
“It’s pretty scary what our lineup is going to look like when everybody’s back,” defenseman Dylan Coghlan said.
The forward group has been tested in ways it never could have imagined. Top-six players Max Pacioretty and William Karlsson each broke a foot. Captain Mark Stone missed 12 games with an injury. Left wing Jonathan Marchessault sat out five games in the COVID-19 protocol.
Healthy players had to take on expanded roles as a result. Five Silver Knights skaters — left wings Sven Baertschi, Paul Cotter and Ben Jones, center Jake Leschyshyn and right wing Jonas Rondbjerg — were called up. Forwards Michael Amadio and Adam Brooks were claimed on waivers so the Knights could have experienced players in the lineup.
Getting players back has changed everything. Centers Jack Eichel and Nolan Patrick are the only two forwards still on injured reserve after Karlsson returned against Calgary. It was the first time the top six played together since the season opener. Instead of promoting players out of necessity, the Knights could slot them into their proper roles and lengthen their lineup.
Center Nicolas Roy, for example, moved to the third line Sunday after filling in for Karlsson. He thrived back in the bottom six, scoring a goal, recording an assist and defending for the final 2:03 of a six-on-five without allowing a goal.
“That depth for us is critical, and that’s what we’ve been looking for,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “When you have depth, you can create mismatches like we did the other night where Nic Roy’s line can be the difference in the game.”
Roy’s performance Sunday gives the Knights hope that they can continue to get the depth scoring that powered them into a tie for the NHL’s best record last season and fueled their runs to back-to-back semifinals.
The Knights have been getting production from their fourth line, too. Left wing William Carrier and Amadio have looked good since being paired three games ago despite playing with three different centers. Carrier has a goal and an assist in that span, and Amadio has a goal and two assists.
Carrier, Amadio and center Keegan Kolesar combined for five of the 28 shots on goal against the Flames.
“We’ve been saying it for years, the bottom six wins it for you in the playoffs,” Carrier said. “A lot of times you see the fourth line just chipping and whacking, so we’re trying to bring more offense.”
It’s an encouraging sign for the Knights that their depth scoring is rounding into form after a bumpy start to the season. It’s still unknown how long it can last, though.
Eichel’s eventual return — he is expected to be ready to play three to five months after his November neck surgery — hangs over everything because it means fitting a $10 million cap hit on the roster. That could lead to the Knights losing some of the depth advantage they’ve waited so long to gain.
The possibility is still in the distance, and other injuries and circumstances could arise to change things. For now, the Knights are just enjoying having a healthy, deep roster.
“As you go through different playoff experiences, you realize that a lot of times it’s the depth guys who end up being the difference in the games,” DeBoer said. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
Who: Golden Knights vs. Stars
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
Radio: KKGK (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Knights -145; total 5½