When William Karlsson met with the media in September after the Golden Knights were eliminated from the playoffs, the center was asked what was different from the first season when they reached the Stanley Cup Final.
“The first year we didn’t have expectations,” Karlsson said, “and now we do.”
The Knights are no longer the lovable misfits who played with a chip on their shoulder after being plucked from other teams in the expansion draft. They are a collection of high-priced talent built to compete for a championship.
With that comes the weight of expectations, which felled the Knights in each of the past two postseasons. But they enter Year Four ready to embrace the challenge of being the favorite.
“I think at the end of the day you want this pressure. That means you’re a good team,” Karlsson said during training camp. “We just have to focus on, like we said the first year, too, game by game. I know that’s a boring answer, but that’s really how you have to see it. We want to win every game, and I think it’s fair that we have that pressure.”
In truth, most of the expectations heaped on the Knights are of their own doing.
After their magical inaugural season, they traded for left wing Max Pacioretty in 2018 and signed him to a contract that made him the co-highest-paid player on the team at the time.
They acquired right wing Mark Stone in 2019 and locked him up with an eight-year, $76 million contract extension. Goaltender Robin Lehner was brought aboard last season and extended for five years at $5 million per season.
And this offseason, they landed the biggest prize in free agency with a seven-year, $61.6 million deal for defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
I think at the end of the day you want this pressure. That means you’re a good team
The sportsbooks took notice, and the Knights are the +550 favorites at William Hill to win the Stanley Cup and the 6-1 co-favorite at the Westgate.
“We’ve had really high expectations going into Year Two, Year Three and again into Year Four,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “I don’t call that pressure. I call that part of trying to be a real good team. I think our guys are real comfortable with that. They have the same expectations that we do.”
The Knights haven’t handled those high expectations well in the past. They struggled to begin the 2018-19 season and had the No. 3 seed from the Pacific Division before blowing a 3-1 series lead against San Jose in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
Last season, the Knights underachieved and were out of a playoff spot in January, which cost coach Gerard Gallant his job. They eventually righted the ship and won their second division title in three seasons.
But they nearly blew a 3-1 series lead to Vancouver in the second round and let a scoring slump get in their heads during a five-game loss to Dallas in the Western Conference Final.
Those are lessons the Knights believe will help this season.
“You look around this club, you look at the talent around the room, the chemistry in the locker room, I see it as an opportunity,” defenseman Alec Martinez said. “Expectations like that certainly aren’t a burden. They’re a blessing. I’m excited to see what the year brings.”