Although the 2019-20 NHL season is hopefully not history yet, there was one huge and unexpected surprise for the Vegas Golden Knights this year.
In a season that was full of promise for a team built to win right now, the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t always live up to expectations.
After beginning the year in impressive fashion by sweeping loathed rivals the San Jose Sharks in a home-and-home series, the Golden Knights went 8-5-1 in October before going a disappointing 5-6-3 the following month.
They lurched from one extreme to the other and just couldn’t find that magic ingredient consistency, with a mixed bag of results and performances leading to the shocking firing of Head Coach Gerard Gallant.
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In another dramatic twist, the Knights hired Peter DeBoer, the former Bench Boss of the Sharks, as Gallant’s replacement and Vegas did begin to find a groove under the veteran coach.
They really began to unlock their potential and were sitting pretty atop the Pacific Division prior to the NHL going on lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis.
However, if the worse comes to the worse and hockey doesn’t return this year, and let’s hope that isn’t the case, then there is one small crumb of comfort for the Golden Knights.
And that’s the unexpected emergence of Chandler Stephenson.
The Swiss-Army Knife type player wasn’t even in the thoughts of the front office prior to the start of the regular season, instead gearing up to try and help the Washington Capitals capture a second Stanley Cup in three years.
However, in need of more forward depth, General Manager Kelly McCrimmon sent a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft to the Capitals for Stephenson on Dec. 2, 2019.
Used as a role player with the Caps, the 25-year-old arrived in Sin City having put up three goals and one assist for four points in 24 games with a +5 rating.
Given the abundance of firepower at the Capitals’ disposal, coupled with their depth, Stephenson wasn’t really relied on to provide an offensive punch.
But, given the Golden Knights’ lack of secondary scoring during the early throes of the year, they would need their new shiny toy to chip in with offense.
And, boy, did Stephenson deliver.
Used both as a second-line forward and a bottom-six depth player, Stephenson seemed revitalized by a change of scenery.
He elevated his game to a whole different level and played a huge role in the Golden Knights really finding their stride under Head Coach Peter DeBoer post All-Star Break.
It was a fascinating transformation to watch unfold and the versatile forward really added a different dimension to Vegas’ offense.
After registering just four points for the Capitals, Stephenson exploded offensively for the Golden Knights by putting up eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in just 41 games.
He earned a +19 rating during that span while posting an impressive CF% of 54.5 and an equally impressive 50.8 oZS%.
Not only that but Stephenson established himself as a key cog on this roster, logging an average of 15:47 minutes of total ice time per night while recording 20 blocked shots, 32 hits and 24 Takeaways.
Plus, Stephenson had a 2.7 Points Share while he carved out career-highs in goals (eight), assists (14) and points (22) in just 41 games for Vegas, which is just incredible.
He was used on both the power play and on the penalty kill, registering two points on both the PP and the PK which were both career-highs.
And then there is the hallmark of any high-end player which is the ability to come up clutch in key moments.
Man, Stephenson certainly did that for the Golden Knights in 2019-20.
Using his lightning speed, Stephenson boasts the ability to be able to manufacture his own breakaways, and that skill in part led to three game-winning goals for the Knights, setting yet another career-high in a year full of them for the forward.
I mean, who can forget Stephenson’s absolute clutch moment against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 4?
After winning the puck back before setting up Reilly Smith to send the game to overtime, Stephenson saved his best heroics for last.
With the Blues in the Vegas zone in overtime, Stephenson highlighted his high hockey IQ by reading the play to strip the puck from Robert Thomas before charging down ice and displaying silly mitts to beat Jake Allen with the game-winner.
It was a stunning moment, also seen as a turning point in the Golden Knights’ season, and it was just one example of Stephenson coming up clutch for his new team.
Although we have no idea what is going to happen due to COVID-19, it will be a crying shame if hockey doesn’t return this year because it would have been intriguing to see the role Stephenson would have taken on for the Golden Knights in the postseason.
A Stanley Cup winner with Washington in 2017-18, Stephenson would have been primed to add another championship to his resume with Vegas this year.
Now, if hockey doesn’t return, there could be some question marks over Stephenson’s future given that he is a pending RFA in the summer.
Carrying a cap hit of $1,050,000, Stephenson is arbitration-eligible in the off-season but, given his emergence as a versatile forward that can play up and down the lineup while providing an offensive punch, it is likely that the Golden Knights will do what they can to thrash out a new deal as quickly as they can.
Even if the cap remains at $81.5 million for 2020-21, which is expected due to COVID-19, the Knights should have enough cap space in order to sign Stephenson to a new deal, who won’t command a massive jump in salary.
After all, Chandler Stephenson morphed from a bit-part role player in Washington into a legitimate offensive weapon for the Vegas Golden Knights and he will definitely go down as the biggest surprise of 2020, no matter what happens the rest of the way.