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How the Golden Knights can improve next season

The Golden Knights won’t be taking part in the annual frenzy when NHL free agency opens July 13.

There won’t be any splashy additions to a group that missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season. The Knights’ salary-cap situation means they’ll be more focused on preserving what they have.

The draft Thursday and Friday won’t provide immediately help either since the team’s first pick is No. 48. The Knights will need to get more out of their existing talent to win the Stanley Cup their sixth season.

New coach Bruce Cassidy could help, particularly when it comes to the club’s defense and disappointing special teams. Here are three other ways the Knights can improve internally next season:

1. Actualize Eichel

The Knights didn’t get to see the real Jack Eichel after his Feb. 16 debut.

He was playing hockey for the first time in more than 11 months after a novel neck surgery for an NHL skater with minimal practice time with his new teammates. Oh, and Eichel fractured his thumb March 17 against Florida, president of hockey operations George McPhee said on The Bob McCown podcast.

His 14 goals and 11 assists in 34 games are fine in that context. But he’s capable of providing more.

Eichel bettered the 1.75 points per 60 minutes at five-on-five he had with the Knights four of his last five seasons in Buffalo. His 4.83 points per 60 minutes on the power play were the second-lowest of his seven-year career.

A stable offseason and full training camp should put him in position to improve those totals and show he’s the No. 1 center the Knights traded for.

“It’s nice to be somewhere, have some stability and be part of an organization like this,” Eichel said May 3.

2. Help out the goaltenders

The Knights didn’t have enough consistency in net last season. Some of that is on their goaltenders, some of it is on the skaters in front of them.

The team dropped from second in team save percentage in 2021 to 20th this past year. Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit had down years while battling injuries, while rookie Logan Thompson was a pleasant surprise.

All three goaltenders were put in difficult situations at times. The injury-plagued Knights often had to push for offense and left themselves exposed to odd-man rushes. They gave up the 14th-most high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes in the NHL at five-on-five, and the third-most on the penalty kill.

The Knights need Cassidy’s schemes to curtail that next season. Lehner showed he could be successful behind a tight-checking system when he was a 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist with the New York Islanders.

“You can’t win if you’re not good defensively,” Cassidy said. “I think we’re a goaltender friendly style of play in terms of how we’re structured defensively.”

3. Develop young talent

The Knights’ farm system isn’t flush with talent but the cupboard isn’t bare, either. There are players who could provide cheap depth if they continue to take steps forwards.

Center Jake Leschyshyn and right wing Jonas Rondbjerg are two obvious candidates after playing 41 and 30 games last season, respectively. They are each 23-years-old with room to improve as bottom-six forwards.

“Getting experience was huge for me,” Leschyshyn said. “When I was playing that bottom-six role and just trying to get offensive-zone time, I felt comfortable in that position. I think that’s something I’ll have to play if I want to be an important part of the team next year.”

Other options up front include prospects Ivan Morozov and Brendan Brisson. Morozov, 22, has already played professionally for years in Russia and could compete for time soon. Brisson, 20, has plenty of offensive promise but is still rounding out his game.

The Knights have plenty of blue liners in Henderson as well. Prospect Kaedan Korczak made his NHL debut last season, and draft picks like Layton Ahac, Daniil Chayka, Lukas Cormier and Peter DiLiberatore should start in the American Hockey League.

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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