Inside Chandler Stephenson's rise to stardom with the Golden Knights

HENDERSON, Nev. -- All it takes is walking a few paces to discover the dressing room at the Vegas Golden Knights' training facility is designed to attract attention.

Everything about this cavernous space is sleek. From the team's alternate logo etched in black within the steel gray wooden dressing room stalls, down to the contemporary carpet tile patterns that are largely black, steel gray and white along with slivers of red and gold that match the full array of the Golden Knights' color scheme.

Nothing about this room is subtle, which makes Chandler Stephenson's presence even more ironic. Then again, subtlety is the prism through which Stephenson operates. Consider all the names that are on the Golden Knights' roster. It's likely Stephenson's might not be among the first, second or even third to get mentioned.

At 6 feet, he's one of the shortest players on the NHL's fourth-tallest roster, and his salary-cap hit isn't even in the top 10 on the team. Now, guess who led all Golden Knights forwards in the regular season in 5-on-5 and power-play minutes while being second in short-handed minutes?

It's the same person who led the Golden Knights in assists, was second in points and currently leads them in postseason goals. He also has more goals (six) through nine playoff games this year than he had in his previous 66 postseason contests combined (five) -- and that's with a Stanley Cup on his résumé.

"He has no ceiling. His ability to do what he does, his skill set, the way he handles the puck, the way he reads the play, he's a star," Golden Knights forward Brett Howden said of Stephenson. "He's a star in this league. He was given the opportunity here to play with confidence, make mistakes, have that be all right and to push past that, and it just adds to his confidence."

Again, subtlety. How Stephenson operates is why his play has become one of the more fascinating stories in these Stanley Cup playoffs. Further evaluating that impact is complicated by the realization that there are other ways of quantifying his contributions.

Teammate Jack Eichel rattles off all the details that make Stephenson such a strong player, to the point Eichel shares how he told his dad one day, "This Stephenson is a player." Mark Stone speaks about Stephenson, who is one of his close friends and also his linemate, on a level that is both grand and granular. Howden, who sits next to Stephenson at the practice facility, can do more than just rave about Stephenson's game. He's also forthcoming about how Stephenson has become his mentor.

"I think the thing that a lot of people don't understand is he creates a lot of space for his linemates by skating to the middle of the ice," Stone said. "He gets deep, gets the defense on their heels and that's what he's done a really good job with here. You put him in the middle of the ice at center and he backs people off with his speed. He's also able to handle the puck at that speed, which is something not a lot of people can do."

Some wondered if the 64 points that Stephenson scored in the 2021-22 season might have been an anomaly for a forward who entered that campaign with 90 career points in five seasons. He silenced those concerns with 65 points this season and made his first NHL All-Star Game appearance.

Stephenson is, much like Nevada itself, "battle born," as one of the state's nicknames attests.

"I think it's just I got a really good opportunity when I came here," Stephenson said. "It was just sort of this, 'Let's see what you got' and they just let me play. I already had three years with Washington. I knew what to expect, knew how the games were played, how fast it was, physical and all that stuff. But when I came here, I felt like myself and that I could just play."

TO FULLY UNDERSTAND Stephenson's place in Vegas, one must consider the circumstances that led to him coming to the Golden Knights in the first place.

In the 2010s, the Washington Capitals were at a perpetual convergence point. Armed with a pair of franchise cornerstones in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals had to compete with the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, all of whom won multiple championships in the span.

Trying to keep up meant hitting in the draft, then developing those homegrown talents into significant contributors. Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, Filip Forsberg, Philipp Grubauer, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Zach Sanford, Vitek Vanecek, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson all were drafted by the Capitals over a five-year window.

Stephenson was also part of that group. He was a third-round pick in 2012 who projected as a potential middle-six forward at a time when the Capitals were drafting and developing players like a factory trying to meet a deadline.

Those promising prospects became NHL contributors, with a number of them -- including Stephenson -- playing a role in the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup following the 2017-18 season. Led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, the Caps had 15 homegrown players on the team that won the first title in franchise history.

Having those players, however, came with a cost. Whether those players were seeking an increase in their role, salary or both, the Capitals could not afford to keep everyone. Stephenson fit into both categories -- the Caps wanted to get his $1.05 million cap hit off the books and he was in a limited role on a team that already had Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Lars Eller down the middle.

So the Capitals parted with a future All-Star, sending Stephenson to the Golden Knights during the 2019-20 season for a 2021 fifth-round pick.

"The team we had in Washington was loaded," Stephenson said. "It was tough to slot into some of those spots. Just as it went on, it was tough for me to just play there toward the end because you're not really just playing. You're thinking more about trying to stay in the lineup, get up in the lineup, you're overthinking things."

Stephenson said when he came to Vegas, there were no expectations, meaning he could just play his game.

The results were instant. He went from having four points in 24 games with the Capitals to eight goals and 22 points in 41 games with the Golden Knights while receiving nearly four minutes more ice time per game.

How he followed that up in the pandemic-truncated 2020-21 season might have previewed what was to come. Stephenson scored a career-high 14 goals and a career-high 35 points in 51 games while averaging 18:05 in ice time, the most of his career. The next season (2021-22) saw Stephenson top those marks with career highs in goals (21), assists (43), points (64), games played (79) and ice time (19:18).

"I remember when I came here last year and you only play Vegas a few times a year and when you are on the East Coast, you don't watch them a ton," Eichel said. "I was taken aback by how good he was. Just getting on the ice with him in practice and seeing how fluid his skating is and seeing how effortless his skill is, his hockey IQ and his strength."

Stephenson is one of those complete, two-way centers executives want on their roster -- and with good reason. Depth might be the Golden Knights' strongest asset. They have 12 players who scored more than 10 goals in the regular season, and one of them -- Paul Cotter -- has yet to even play a game in the postseason.

Vegas has the sort of depth down the middle that allows it to have Eichel anchoring the top line, Stephenson driving the second line, William Karlsson on the third line and Nicolas Roy on the fourth. That's four centers who each finished with more than 14 goals in the regular season and can be trusted to play in a number of scenarios.

Stephenson is one of several players who have blossomed after coming to Vegas and become an integral part of the franchise's success.

"You ask a lot of guys around the league, and it's nice when you get to play with a guy for an extended period of time," Stone said. "That's not just 10 games, 20 games. That's years. You see it with [Patrice] Bergeron and [Brad] Marchand in Boston. [Reilly] Smith, Karlsson and [Jonathan] Marchessault here. They're not playing together now, but they've played together for four or five years and they've had success. ... That's how you develop that high-end chemistry that allows you to know where a guy is going to be."

NEED ANOTHER WAY to measure Stephenson's impact? Go ask Howden. He will describe how Stephenson is one of Golden Knights' quieter personalities but is capable of delivering a good one-liner when the time is right.

Howden will also share how their relationship has gone from that of teammates to something far more meaningful than just wearing the same sweater. It started when Howden was traded by the New York Rangers to the Golden Knights before the start of the 2021-22 campaign.

"I was pretty nervous, and having him to look up to and for him to help me out made me feel comfortable," Howden said. "He's been great to me."

Would it be fair to say Stephenson has mentored Howden?

"Yeah, for sure he has," Howden said. "I think as I got more comfortable and he helped me get out of my shell a little bit, I was just able to be myself. Whether it was him sitting next to me when I was fresh and new here last year, I'm more of a quiet guy and I'm shy. I think he kind of helped me get me out of my shell. ... He's really helped me come a long way."

Stephenson speaks with a level of context and depth that can leave the person he's speaking with wanting to hear more. Howden knows this, and he said it's why he has leaned on Stephenson for advice about what comes with being a first-time father trying to juggle a career as a pro hockey player.

Exactly how does Stephenson manage that himself? How does he balance having the success he has sought for years while also handling what comes with being a father?

"Having a little guy now, that's kind of everything," Stephenson said. "In a way, that's the only thing that matters."

Stephenson and his wife, Tasha, became first-time parents last May. They were going through possible names, and in the last three months of Tasha's pregnancy, they came up with the name Ford, which Stephenson liked.

"Just seeing him and his personality, he just looked like a Ford," Stephenson said. Does that mean he looks like a Mustang?

"He's an F-150!" Stephenson said with a giant grin. "He's now the reason why I do it. He's the reason I play games. He's the reason why I am excited to have a long career. Having him around now, that's kind of everything. Hockey is second. Family is No. 1 for me."