On a roll in Vegas: Mark Stone shining on the big stage for the Golden Knights

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Stone walked through the small glass hallway that connects the secure spaces in McCarran International Airport with the baggage claim. Like other passengers, he was greeted by a hand-held sign with his name emblazoned on it. Unlike other passengers, his sign was being held in the furry mitts of a large Gila monster named Chance, standing in front of a phalanx of showgirls and drummers illuminated by neon lights.

Welcome to Las Vegas, Mark Stone.

"I wasn't expecting that at all. But they do everything big here," he recalled thinking.

Stone, 26, laughed to himself as he strolled through the chanting chorus line and pounding percussion to embrace Kelly McCrimmon, his former junior hockey coach with the Brandon Wheat Kings and now the assistant general manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, who acquired the winger from the Ottawa Senators in a February trade-deadline blockbuster and immediately signed him to an eight-year contract extension worth $76 million (and with a full no-movement clause) before he was due to hit free agency this summer.

"He's a really complete player that makes others better," said McCrimmon. "Great hockey sense. Great vision. Makes really smart plays. Competitive and loves to win."

Maybe too competitive at times, if you ask Max Pacioretty.

"We really didn't like each other," said the Knights winger, who had countless battles against Stone during his time with the Montreal Canadiens. "He was a guy I really didn't like playing against. And we let each other know that. A lot."

It's always amazing in the NHL how quickly hated rivals can bury the proverbial hatchet when they end up as teammates. Every enforcer has a story about the uncomfortable conversations with the opponents they threw fists against -- who were suddenly sitting in the stall next to them. They have it out, clear the air and move on. The same tradition applies to scorers such as Pacioretty and the players tasked with stopping them, including Stone.

"We had a lot of heated rivalries. The first thing we talked about was sweeping that under the rug and building some chemistry," he said. "I guess it's a compliment when you play against someone and you really don't like him."

Stone is easy to loathe. Who among us likes getting their stuff stolen so frequently?

Nate Schmidt believes that Mark Stone's defensive game should be hanging in a gallery.

"It's a serious art, honestly," said the Vegas defenseman.

In the past five seasons, no player in the NHL has more takeaways than Stone, with 503 in his past 361 games, or 1.39 takeaways per game. Ryan O'Reilly, now with the St. Louis Blues, is second, a country mile behind Stone at 362 in that span.

Stone has the mechanics of defensive hockey down, from his stick work to his positioning. Fundamentally, there are few better. But what separates Stone from other defensive forwards is the vision thing. Pavel Datsyuk had it. Sidney Crosby has it. So does Patrice Bergeron. Playing against Stone is like competing against a defender with both 20/20 vision and second sight.

"Man, the way he sees the game. The way he puts himself in position to pick pucks off and goes the other way ... it's a nightmare, to be honest," Schmidt said.

In those 361 games, Stone has taken only 185 faceoffs. That's because he's a winger, not a center, which is the reason he has never truly gotten the recognition he deserves as one of the NHL's best defensive players.

The Selke Trophy, handed out annually to the league's best defensive forward, has been won by a center for the past 14 seasons. Granted, there were some dynastic winners who contributed to that streak -- Bergeron won it four times, Datsyuk three -- but the fact remains that wingers don't receive the same support as centers for the award. The last one to win was Jere Lehtinen of the Dallas Stars in 2003. Last year, no winger received a first-place vote.

Stone finished 22nd in the voting last season, down from sixth in the previous year. He's never finished in the top five. Again, this is a player with more than 500 takeaways in his past 361 games.

"Defensively, he's unbelievable. You see the numbers and all that. You see him every day, and he's a great all-around player for us," said Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. "I thought he was a good playmaker, a good scorer, all of that stuff. But the way he plays the 200-foot game is a lot more than I thought."

Offensively, he might be even better than advertised, too.

Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks on Sunday was a first for Mark Stone.

He has been a model of consistency in the NHL. He has scored 20 goals in each season since 2014-15, with that total rising to 33 in what would have been his contract year before the big extension with Vegas. But until his amazing five-point effort in their 6-3 win, Stone had never tallied a hat trick -- in the playoffs or the regular season. He became only the eighth player since 1993 to have a hat trick and multiple assists in a playoff game.

"It's my first one, so ... it's awesome. But ultimately a 6-3 win in this building is better than anything I ever experienced," said Stone, who led the playoffs with six goals and eight points through three games.

Stone's line with Paul Stastny and Pacioretty -- all of them acquired since last summer by the Knights -- has been one of the NHL's best trios since Stone was acquired. In 13 total games, they have 14 goals and have given up seven, with an expected goals-for percentage of 63.64. They collect 56.3 percent of the shot attempts at even strength, well above the team averages.

Last season's top line in Vegas used their speed to dominate. In that sense, the Stone line is its antithesis.

"We're not the fastest-of-foot line," said Stastny, with a wide, gap-toothed smile after Game 3, "but we have good sticks, we have good anticipation and we know how to read each other."

That was never more evident than on Stone's second goal: Stastny pickpocketed Brent Burns, and Stone collected a rebound for a goal from right in front of the net.

"We want to be a two-way line. When we focus on the D side of things, it helps us contribute offensively, if we take care of our end first," Pacioretty said. "[Stone has a] really good stick and plays really strong in his own end, and allows me to go the other way on offense. He's been a pleasure to play with. He adds an element to a line that not many guys can bring -- being so good with the turnovers and creating so many chances off loose pucks."

And scoring on those chances helps, too. Like, three times in one game, for example.

"It's cool. But the ultimate goal in this league is to win hockey games," Stone said. "I came here to play playoff hockey. I'm excited to play in the postseason, to compete for the Stanley Cup."

It's an opportunity Stone was one Game 7 victory away from having in Ottawa in 2017; he even scored a goal in their conference finals finale loss to the Penguins. But he knew that getting that opportunity in Ottawa wasn't going to happen again. "I think I had an understanding that it wasn't going to work out in Ottawa, and these guys were top of my list," he said of Vegas.

For years with the Senators, Mark Stone was respected, but not renowned. He was the hipster pick of the analytics community, the perennial "dude, no one knows how incredible this guy is" player. His public stock rose during trade-rumor season as a coveted commodity. When he walked through that tunnel of drummers and showgirls into an eight-year contract with the Golden Knights, he began walking down a path to potential stardom.

Not that this new attention is going to chisel Stone into something different than he's been.

"No, it can't. Obviously, I'm excited to be part of this organization for the next eight and a half years. I want to be part of something special here in Vegas," he said. "I just want to be myself. Play my game. I'm not coming in here to try and be 'the guy.' I wanted to come in here and help these guys win."

Which, in the eyes of Schmidt, is much better than having him as an opponent.

"Not my worry anymore," Schmidt said of facing Stone. "Not. My. Problem."