One of the most endearing qualities about the Vegas Golden Knights has been the franchise’s ability to find value in players that couldn’t find their niche with other teams. This has been the case since that first cohort put together by then-GM George McPhee, now the team’s president of hockey operations, and continued on by current GM Kelly McCrimmon.
From the maiden roster that made instant hits out of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to more recent finds such as Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar, the Golden Knights just find fits for their crew all over the place.
Which brings me to Chandler Stephenson, who has missed the past few games with an undisclosed injury but was a game-time decision for Game 5 against Montreal.
Originally drafted and developed by the Washington Capitals, Stephenson was a third-round pick back in 2012. He helped the Caps beat the Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup title in 2018, but did so in a bottom-six role. Stephenson played one more season with Washington after that, where his most consistent linemates were Nic Dowd and Devante Smith-Pelly. He was then traded to Vegas for a fifth-round pick.
Then Stephenson signed a four-year pact with Vegas and beginning last year, his most frequent linemates were Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. So he essentially went from the fourth line in Washington to the first line in Vegas. Pretty impressive.
Stephenson once again found himself between Stone and Pacioretty this season and perhaps unsurprisingly, he has put up the best offensive numbers of his career while wearing a Golden Knights jersey. In fact, Stephenson’s 35 points in 51 games this season was basically double of what he put up in Washington in the Caps’ Cup year, when he played 67 games.
So what gives, did the Capitals just mess up and Vegas took advantage? I don’t think it’s that clear-cut. After all, it’s not like Washington has fallen off the map since Stephenson left. But the fact of the matter is the Capitals have been ruled down the middle by Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov for years now and with Lars Eller as the third-line pivot, there wasn’t exactly any room for promotion for Stephenson as a center. It was hard for him to define himself in Washington, so it made sense for him to move on.
As it turns out, Vegas was a great fit. Stephenson has excellent speed and the Golden Knights were built on swiftness. Now, Vegas isn’t all burners and Stone has always been dinged for his skating, but the star two-way winger is so smart and talented in every other aspect of the game that it doesn’t hold him back. But adding Stephenson to Stone’s line really opens things up and the fact Stephenson was used to a checking role in Washington meant he was able to play responsibly in Vegas in an elevated role.
Of course, playing on the top line also means more minutes and it is interesting to see how Stephenson has thrived in an extended role. In his final season with the Capitals, he was playing 12 minutes a game. In his first season with the Knights, he was up to 16 minutes and this year he climbed to 18 minutes – logging more average ice time than Pacioretty, one of the team’s top scoring threats. Part of that is because Stephenson spent time on the Golden Knights penalty-kill and power play whereas Pacioretty was only on the power play – but it’s still impressive. And the fact Stephenson kills penalties just adds to his toolbox.
Vegas isn’t the only franchise to find hidden gems and Washington isn’t the only team to see a player thrive in another organization, but the Stephenson case is fascinating to me. It’s a good lesson in understanding that fit can mean everything for a player, especially one who is still finding his way in the NHL. Stephenson certainly looks to have found his place and the Golden Knights are richer for it.