LAS VEGAS — Mark Stone felt the weight of great expectations the moment the deal was consummated.
The newest member of the Vegas Golden Knights says he was keenly aware there was pressure to perform immediately, and that acclimating to his new surroundings wouldn’t be a defence for failure.
“For sure (there’s pressure), especially getting traded at the deadline, it’s tougher sometimes. You’ve only got 20 games to kind of figure it out, so coming in here I knew I had to play well right away,” Stone said Thursday morning from the team’s spectacular practice facility in nearby Summerlin.
He was set to play the 11th game of his new normal — a giant role with the surging Golden Knights — at T-Mobile Arena near The Strip against the team from back home, the Winnipeg Jets.
Heading into the game, Stone had scored four goals, four assists and was a plus-4 since a massive trade Feb. 25 from the Ottawa Senators, playing alongside two relative newcomers, centre Paul Stastny and left-winger Max Pacioretty.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job helping this team win some games. Any time your team’s having this much success, the transition’s quite easy. The team’s playing well, guys are stepping up in key situations and, as far as the city itself, it’s been unbelievable,” said Stone. “Everything’s been made really easy for me, especially my teammates, they’ve just let me be myself, which is all you can ask for.”
‘You’ve only got 20 games to kind of figure it out, so coming in here I knew I had to play well right away’ – Mark Stone
A fixture with the Sens for six-plus seasons, the Winnipegger who was set to become an unrestricted free agent was finally freed from the mayhem in Ottawa at the trade deadline.
Vegas acquired the perennial 20-goal, 60-point defensively tidy, physical forward but paid a steep price. General manager George McPhee traded defenceman Erik Brannstrom, 19, considered an elite prospect, along with forward Oscar Lindberg and a second-round pick in 2020.
Just 10 days after the trade, Stone inked an eight-year, US$76-million contract extension, worth an average annual value of US$9.5 million, paying him through the 2026-27 campaign.
Stone, 26, will be the highest-paid player on the team when the deal kicks in next season.
The former Western Hockey League sniper, who played for Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon with the Wheat Kings in Brandon, said going to arbitration last summer with Ottawa and agreeing to a one-year deal likely sealed his fate there. By mid-January, he knew he was as good as gone and started to lose focus because of all the rumours circulating.
Within a week of the deadline, it appeared the Jets were in the running to obtain his services. But a deal never materialized and, in his mind, Sin City had always looked to be the frontrunner.
“This was one of the places at the top of my list. Obviously, I can’t pick and choose where I want to go as far as trade but yeah, when I was told when they had a trade in place for me to come to Vegas, I couldn’t have been happier,” he said. “The willingness for me to engage in the contract negotiation helped me become a Vegas Golden Knight, which is one of the prime destinations in the league right now, so for me it was a very easy decision.”
‘Everything’s been made really easy for me, especially my teammates, they’ve just let me be myself, which is all you can ask for’
If a pair of Winnipeggers — Cody Eakin and Ryan Reaves — wasn’t enough, adding Stone for three of a kind gives Vegas a wicked hand heading into the playoffs.
His impact through 10 games is an obvious tell the 2017-18 Stanley Cup finalists are all in one year later.
Since the Golden Knights acquired his services, the 26-year-old from the Manitoba capital has been everything the Pacific Division squad had hoped for — a physical, two-way performer on the right side of their second forward trio.
The Golden Knights lost six of seven games prior to the trade. Since he’s come to town, Vegas has collected nine victories in 10 outings.
A clear correlation or just dumb luck? Let’s hear what an always-animated Golden Knights defenceman has to say on the matter.
“It’s way more fun when he’s a teammate than playing against you. I remember when I was coming into the league, guys were saying, ‘Man, you gotta watch out for this 61, he’s unbelievable with the puck, he’s really patient and when he’s on the forecheck you gotta make sure you know where he is on the ice,'” said Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt. “I’m so happy I don’t have to know where he is on the ice now. He’s on my team. He’s moving in the same direction as I am.
“Stoney’s a guy we just didn’t have last year. He’s a difference-maker every time he’s on the ice. We’re just a lot deeper than it was a year ago.”
‘The willingness for me to engage in the contract negotiation helped me become a Vegas Golden Knight, which is one of the prime destinations in the league right now, so for me it was a very easy decision’
The Golden Knights already had an elite unit up front with William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, a line that gave the Jets fits in the last year’s Western Conference final. Now, they can throw out that trio and double down with the Stastny combination.
Stone firmly maintains the line has only scratched the surface after three weeks together.
“We’ve been playing really well together. I think there’s still a few things we need to improve on as far as chemistry, still trying to figure each other out a little bit. But most games we feel we’re putting in a pretty good effort,” he said.
While Stone had remained close with McCrimmon, the only other person he was acquainted with in the Vegas organization was Eakin, a 27-year-old centre. The two played summer hockey together, and their families had cabins at Lake of the Woods, Ont.
Eakin said even he’s been surprised by his old buddy’s consistency and grit.
“I’m surprised by the tenacity he has, whether it’s just finishing a check. I remember his first game against Dallas (a day after the trade), he hammered (blue-liner John) Klingberg, really finished his check hard. A guy with that size, he imposes his will on a team it makes a difference,” said Eakin.
“Maybe that surprised me a little bit. But the talent, the skill, the abilities to finish and make plays, I had a pretty good idea of what he was all about before.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).