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Now’s The Time For Lineup Experimentation For DeBoer

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights have 15 games left on their regular season schedule. With a new coach behind the bench and a playoff spot looking promising, the time to experiment is now.

In the latest of line/pair shuffling, Nic Roy is moving up the lineup to play with William Karlsson and Max Pacioretty. That’s just one of many combinations we’ve seen just over the last five games. Gage Quinney and Patrick Brown made their Golden Knights debuts, Brandon Pirri made his first appearance since November 10th, newly acquired Nick Cousins and Alec Martinez have bounced around the lineup, and William Carrier and Tomas Nosek have seen a bevy of different linemates.

It’s all for a reason.

I’m getting used to the group, I’m not married to anything, and I don’t want to get into the playoffs and start experimenting. So, we want to see what we have right now. -Pete DeBoer

DeBoer didn’t take long to make some major changes to the lineup after taking the job back in mid-January. He switched Nic Hague for Zach Whitecloud. He’s essentially relegated Deryk Engelland to the bench for good, and he made the big move putting Karlsson between Stone and Pacioretty before Stone went out with the injury.

I’m still getting to know the group and we are trying combinations. I’m trying not to get married to things until I see. There’s some experimentation, especially with new guys. -DeBoer

Since the bye week, DeBoer has used 17 different line combinations and 10 different d-pairs.

There have really only been three constants over that span of 15 games. The first line of Marchessault, Stastny, and Smith, the 1st pair of McNabb and Schmidt, and the aforementioned Pacioretty, Karlsson, Stone line. Everything else has been a rotating cast.

Chandler Stephenson has been used in all three positions and on seven different lines. Nosek has also played all three spots while on four different lines. Merrill, Holden, Martinez, and Theodore have each played with at least three partners and Martinez has played both sides.

The power play units have been jumbled up a bit and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them thrown into a blender with the Golden Knights having scored on just three of their last 19.

DeBoer is likely to be without Stone for a good portion of March while he’s expected to get Alex Tuch back in a week or so. So, expect a bunch more lineup changes between now and the end of the season.

But once the playoffs roll around, the experimentation will be over and at that point we’ll get as clear a picture as we’ve ever gotten on exactly how DeBoer feels about this roster.

Carp: Whitecloud Makes His Presence Felt On Blue Line

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2019-20 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**

I remember when the Golden Knights signed Zach Whitecloud out of college two years ago. He was an NCAA free agent, having played at Bemidji State, Brad Hunt’s alma mater.

I met him for the first time in Buffalo where he had joined the team after signing. My thoughts at the time were: “O.K., no big deal. Seems to be a nice kid. Maybe down the road he helps their defensive depth. And it didn’t cost the team anything but money.”

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

He actually got to play in an NHL game in 2018, against Edmonton late in the season. The Knights were on their way to the playoffs. They had clinched the Pacific Division. Gerard Gallant was looking to rest some guys with the postseason set to begin the following week. What harm could it do to give Whitecloud a taste of the big time?

Boy, have things changed since then.

Whitecloud has become a mainstay on the blue line. He’s playing well. Gallant is no longer his coach. Peter DeBoer is now calling the shots.

Back in 2018, the team’s D-corps consisted of Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb, Colin Miller, Jon Merrill, Luca Sbisa, Hunt and Jason Garrison. Today, Schmidt, Theodore and McNabb are still regulars, Engelland and Merrill can’t crack DeBoer’s lineup, Hunt’s in Minnesota, Miller’s in Buffalo, Sbisa’s in Winnipeg and Garrison plays in Sweden.

He also has beaten out fellow rookies Nic Hague, Dylan Coghlan, Jimmy Schuldt, and Jake Bischoff for a spot on the Knights’ roster.

Whitecloud has been in the VGK lineup since Feb. 1 and it looks like he’s not going anywhere. He picked up his first NHL point in Friday’s 4-2 win over the Sabres and he appears to be comfortable competing at this level.

You can chalk it up to one of those slick George McPhee moves where he got one over on his GM colleagues around the league. A small investment appears to be paying big dividends.

It’s all about keeping it simple, paying attention to detail and doing my job every night. Work hard in practice and learn from my mistakes. -Whitecloud

DeBoer has him with Nick Holden as the third D-pair and having a veteran like Holden certain helps. Whitecloud has also played with the recently acquired Alec Martinez, another veteran.

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Trade Deadline Boost

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

For the third time in three seasons the Golden Knights made upgrades to their team. For the third straight year, the team went on to have immediate success with their new additions. The common message you get among the players are deadline deals can give a club a boost down the stretch.

It means the guys upstairs believe in us. When they add more strength to really go for it and see us as a real contender. That’s the way I see it. We’re going for it.-William Karlsson

Since last Monday’s trade deadline, the Golden Knights are 2-0-0, and have gotten contributions from all three acquisitions. So the question is, how much of a boost has the organization gotten historically after each deadline?

Post Deadline Success: 2017-18

  • Record: 10-7-3, 23 Points
  • Points%: .575
  • Goals Scored: 56
  • Goals Scored Per Game: 2.8
  • Goals Allowed: 58
  • Goals Allowed Per Game: 2.9
  • Points from New Players: 8 (4 Goals, 4 Assists)
  • Record vs Playoff Teams: 6-4-3

In 2017-18, the Golden Knights struggled right after the deadline, however they had won five of the six games before the deadline. Ryan Reaves had trouble fitting in immediately, but was possibly trying to do too much to fit in with his new teammates. Tomas Tatar pitched in with three goals down the stretch. Overall, the team was trending up heading into the postseason.

Post Deadline Success: 2018-19

  • Record 10-6-2, 22 Points
  • Points%: .611
  • Goals Scored: 64
  • Goals Scored Per Game: 3.5
  • Goals Allowed: 49
  • Goals Allowed Per Game: 2.7
  • Points from New Players: 11 (5 Goals, 6 Assists)
  • Record vs Playoff Teams: 5-4

Things were a bit different in season two. Vegas came out roaring after their deadline deal for Mark Stone. The former Senator added immediate offense and gave the team that two-way, high-level forward they needed. However, the team seemed to coast into the playoffs, something The Creator discussed on our SinBin podcast last summer.

Once we got Stone we immediately won 10 of 11, until they decided to take their foot of the gas. We end up with 93 points and we didn’t have home ice. -The Creator, 9/28/19

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Hall Of Fame Goalie Weighs In On Golden Knights Trade Deadline “Shock”

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Grant Fuhr is one of the greatest goalies to ever play in the NHL. He’s a five-time Stanley Cup Champion and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2003. Fuhr played for 19 years between 1981 and 2000, starting more than 850 games and winning more than 400.

To put it politely, there’s nothing in the game of hockey that Grant Fuhr hasn’t seen. That being said, even he was surprised by the Golden Knights’ decision to add Robin Lehner at the deadline. Still an NHL connoisseur (he says he watches multiple games a week), Fuhr said he never saw the trade coming and had to do a bit of a double-take when he first heard it, but as much as he was surprised, he thought about how it must have felt for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Oh it’ll be a shock to the system. There’s no doubt about that. If you don’t see it coming, it will definitely catch you off guard. -Fuhr

Over Fuhr’s time in Edmonton, he said the GM was constantly bringing in goalies to try and compete with him, but he knew as long as he was healthy no one was beating him out. The same has not been the case for Fleury in Vegas who has had Malcolm Subban behind him the entire time. That being said, Fuhr says the best players in the NHL are “immune” to surprises like this affecting their performance. Fleury did well in proving that right about an hour after Grant said it shutting Fuhr’s old team in his first post-deadline start.

Fleury’s been down this road before though. Matt Murray was between the pipes in the clinching game for two of Fleury’s three Stanley Cup victories. The addition of Lehner to the Golden Knights makes the possibility of this happening a third time much more realistic than it was a week ago. Fuhr was in the goal for the first four of his Cup wins, but he was out injured for the entire back half of the regular season and whole postseason for his fifth.

They are all the same. You’re there in the regular season, you are around the guys the whole year. I view mine exactly the same. -Fuhr

The shiny Edmonton Oilers 1990 Stanley Cup champions ring on his finger while making that statement served as strong validation.

But there was one concern Fuhr had with the Golden Knights situation, and that’s the coaching realignment. He hadn’t heard the news, so when I explained that the Golden Knights goalie coach, Dave Prior, was being relocated to Ontario and Mike Rosati was set to take over the day-to-day operations in Vegas working with Fleury and Lehner, he gave me a bit of a side-eye.

There’s something going on there. To make a change this late in the season, especially after adding another goalie at the deadline. That’s something to keep an eye on. -Fuhr

A Look Back On The Golden Knights Path From Contender To Contender In Offseason To Deadline

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights entered this past offseason with a Stanley Cup caliber roster. They were stacked at forward, coming off a season where they finished among the league’s best defensively and had a bevy of prospects coming up, and still had one of the best goaltenders in the world.

However, there was too much money on the books. The CBA allows teams to exceed the salary cap by up to 10% during the offseason, but they must get back down under the cap on the first day of the regular season. So, Vegas needed to shed some money, and thus, a few players.

The conventional wisdom would have been to start by singling out the players with the highest salary coupled with the lowest performance expectations for the 2019-20 season. Send those guys packing, get under the cap, and head into the regular season with as dominant a team as possible.

The Golden Knights opted for a different route, one that may have ended up working out even better, though it came with risks, a bit of a price, and ended up costing a head coach his job.

The trades in many respects brings full circle the strategy that we went into the offseason with last year in a situation where we were over the salary cap. We had to make some decisions that involved veteran players, roster players, and we wanted to acquire draft picks in return to build capital for decisions and moves just like this. -Kelly McCrimmon

That’s the official explanation of the Golden Knights strategy. Let me explain it in more detail.

In moving contracts during the Summer to become cap compliant, the Golden Knights strategy was to harvest as many draft picks as possible. They traded Colin Miller for a 2nd round pick. Nikita Gusev went for a 2nd and a 3rd. And Erik Haula was moved for a young player in Nic Roy and a 5th. Instead of trying to make their roster better before opening night, they wanted to create a bank of “capital” they could cash in 145 days later at the trade deadline.

The thinking is fairly simple, yet when the onion is peeled back, there’s a lot more to it. The simple idea is that having this bank of capital will allow the team to make moves and improve their team at the deadline without having to sacrifice any significant players off the roster in season. 145 days, 62 games, and a heck of a lot of hockey will give them a better understanding of what the team needs in order to win the Cup than they had back in June and July. Tear it down now so we can rebuild it more intelligently later.

And that’s exactly what they did. They turned those “bank of capital” picks into Chandler Stephenson, Alec Martinez, Robin Lehner, and Nick Cousins, while only having to give up Cody Eakin off the roster.

It looks like a significant roster upgrade at the deadline, but in reality, it’s just replacing what they had eight months ago.

Here, take a look at how it all broke down from June 27th to February 24th.

Three forwards in, three forwards out. One defenseman in, one defenseman out. Two goalies in, one goalie out, and a net loss of one draft pick and one prospect.

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Boehlke: Reaction To Trade Deadline Moves

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights have made four moves in the past week adding a forward, a defenseman, and a goalie while subtracting one forward in Cody Eakin.

Let’s start with the big one, the addition of Robin Lehner from Chicago for Malcolm Subban, a 2nd round pick, and prospect Slava Demin. There is no arguing that the Golden Knights got a lot better in this trade going from Subban to Lehner, but this deal comes with a lot of baggage. No, I’m not referring to anything regarding Lehner’s past, he’s proven to have overcome any concerns there and has been incredible in the past two seasons, I’m talking about a goalie controversy.

For three seasons the Golden Knights have had a clear hierarchy between the pipes. It’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s net and whoever is healthy fills in behind him. Now, things have changed. There’s a legitimate argument that Lehner should be the starter right away. He was better last season, he’s been better this season, he’s younger, and he has far fewer games on his body. But, can you really just cast aside the undisputed leader of the franchise heading into the team’s third playoff run, and can you do it this late in the season successfully?

It’s going to be a tough balance, and one that is only going to get tougher as the games grow in importance. Pete DeBoer doesn’t have to choose his starting goalie for Game 1 of the playoffs right now, he has time. But, what if one doesn’t emerge as the clear cut starter? What if they are both great? He’s going to have an incredibly tough choice and one that will have an impact on the locker room. Then, once we get there, how quick is the leash on whoever is in the net?

In theory, these are good problems to have as any coach will tell you that it’s better to have too many good players than not enough. However, we aren’t talking about a 2nd line left-wing or a 2nd pair defenseman, we’re talking about the most important position in the game. Also, these aren’t no-name guys, one is the face of the franchise and the other is the big trade deadline acquisition. One has to ride the pine and there will be an emotional backlash that comes with it. It’s a delicate balance and DeBoer and Dave Prior have to get it exactly right.

There is good news though, the Golden Knights are WAY better equipped now in the event they receive poor goaltending. With Fleury and Subban, if Fleury played poorly, or got hurt, the Golden Knights season was likely sunk. It’s not that Subban was terrible, but this team needs high-end goaltending if they want to hoist the Cup and he’s never proven to be able to provide it consistently. At best it was a massive question mark, now it’s anything but. If either Fleury or Lehner struggle, there’s a hell of an option to turn to (basically the opposite of the Sharks situation last year).

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Carp: A Little More Work To Do

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2019-20 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**

The NHL trade deadline is 24 hours away and the first-place Golden Knights have put themselves in position to do something major to upgrade their roster. Whether they do or don’t remains to be seen but if we’ve learned anything from watching George McPhee operate, it’s that he’s not afraid to go big.

Sometimes it works, as it did with Mark Stone. Sometimes, it doesn’t when he was unable to pry Erik Karlsson from the Senators two years ago and wound up overpaying for Tomas Tatar at the last minute.

So far, the Knights have made three deals this season. They acquired Chandler Stephenson from Washington in early December for a fifth-round pick in 2021. Wednesday, they sent two second-rounders to Los Angeles to get defenseman Alec Martinez from the Kings. Friday, they moved Cody Eakin and his $3.85 million salary to Winnipeg for a conditional fourth-round selection in 2021.

Stephenson has been terrific. Martinez had a storybook start in his VGK debut Thursday with a goal and an assist in the win over Tampa Bay and with Eakin gone, it opens the door for another move while at the same time it is giving one of the younger players in the organization a chance to show what he can do. Saturday, that was Gage Quinney (more on him shortly).

Moving Eakin was a no-brainer. He was having a tough season and those who played with him also appeared to struggle if you want to believe the analytics. He was a pending UFA and it was unlikely the Knights were going to re-sign him. So to get something back, potentially a third-rounder, for him, was pretty good on Vegas’ part.

But the big thing was getting that $3.85 million off the books. For a team that was cash-strapped in terms of cap maneuverability, the Knights suddenly found themselves relatively flush. Now if they want to pull off something big, they may be able to do so though they may still have to be a bit creative if they want to land a really big fish, one that makes them a true Stanley Cup contender.

So what should they do?

The Erik Gustafsson rumors have heated up the last 24 hours after Gustafsson was held out of Chicago’s game with Nashville Friday. He makes $1.2 million and is a pending UFA so he would essentially be a rental. And while the Knights’ philosophy is to not engage in rentals, they might be willing to make an exception in Gustafsson’s case. He would likely come cheap and if Vegas wants to retain him long-term, he’s only 27 years old. He could essentially replace Deryk Engelland dollar-for-dollar if the 37-year-old Engelland, also a UFA, is not brought back. He’s a left-handed shot and as Ken pointed out Saturday, the Knights have a glut of those on the blue line.

Another option could be Toronto’s Tyson Barrie, another pending UFA whose price tag is considerably higher — $5.5 million (though half is retained by Colorado in a prior trade) — than Gustafsson’s. Barrie is a right-handed shot and he has proven track record of offensive capabilities. His final two years with Colorado, he had 14 goals each season and 57 and 59 points respectively. He might fit Peter DeBoer’s system nicely.

The question with Barrie is the ask-back from Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. Could the price be too high?

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Martinez’s Versatility Allows VGK To Go Unconventional With Their Defensive Alignment

We don’t have a VGK Martinez picture yet. Please accept our sincerest apologies for this one where he’s wearing a hideous outfit. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights lineup on Thursday, Alec Martinez’s first game, included six defensemen that all shoot with the same hand. Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Nick Holden, Jon Merrill, and Martinez all shoot with their left hand.

In the NHL this season, of the 294 defensemen to make an appearance, 175 of them, or 60%, shoot left-handed. So, it’s not abnormal that Vegas has a bevy of them, but icing an entire lineup lacking a single right-hand shot defenseman is far from common.

The Golden Knights have used a roster with all lefties four different times this season. I looked as hard as I could, and I can’t find a single other team that has done it once this year. (Because I know you’re wondering, they were a winless 0-3-0 before Thursday)

This season, the Golden Knights have only used two defensemen that shoot with their right-hand; Deryk Engelland and Zach Whitecloud. They’ve played a combined 56 games. The next closest team with the fewest number games by right-handed defenseman is Arizona with 93. Every other team has over 100 with many over 200.

The reason the Golden Knights have been able to get away with it is because of how many players they have that are comfortable playing on both sides. Since joining the Golden Knights, Schmidt, Theodore, and Holden have all seen significant time playing both sides and Martinez may have more experience doing it than all three combined.

He’s a left-shot, from what I understand he’s very comfortable on the right and he’s very good on the right. That versatility’s nice. Having a guy, even though he’s not a right-shot that’s very comfortable on the right is important. -DeBoer

The Golden Knights wasted no time putting that skill to use. In Martinez’s first game, he was paired with Jon Merrill with Martinez playing the right. Not even a period deep, he scored a goal playing the left partnered with Shea Theodore. Later in the game, he killed penalties on the right with both Schmidt and McNabb, and as a power-play expired he played a full shift on the left of Holden.

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“Secondary Moves” Still On The Way For Golden Knights?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The trade deadline is three days away but the Golden Knights have already dipped their toe in the red hot defenseman trade market. Essentially on the same day as Brendan Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, and Marco Scandella were moved, Vegas pulled the trigger on their response adding Alec Martinez for a pair of 2nd round picks. However, there’s still time on the clock and according to the Golden Knights owner, the Golden Knights may not be done yet.

This (the Martinez trade) was our big one really for this trade deadline period. There are a couple of other ideas that are floating around with the pro scouts and with Kelly and George. Now we’ve got a few days. Might be something else happen, but this was the important one, to get behind us, to get a really strong d-man to help supplement what we already have. -The Creator on Vegas Hockey Hotline

(The whole interview by Brian Blessing with The Creator is embedded below.)

At the Martinez announcement presser, GM Kelly McCrimmon was a bit more coy about the future plans surrounding the Golden Knights and February 24th at noon.

This was a move that we had considered for a long time and we identified this as a way we wanted to improve our team was to add a defenseman of this caliber. That’s why we worked hard to finalize the price in advance of the deadline. We’ll do a reset now, is how I would explain it to you, and then we’ll work right until the deadline on Monday to see if there’s any other moves out there that could help us that make sense. -McCrimmon

The Golden Knights are now very tight to the cap with the addition of Martinez, but they remain with a number of upcoming UFA contracts (Eakin, Reaves, Holden, Merrill, Nosek, Engelland) still on the books that could become trade bait between now and Monday.

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Adding Martinez May Pave The Way For Schmidt/Theodore Pairing

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt have both played in over 200 games for the Golden Knights in the regular season and playoffs. They are #1 and #2 in average ice time per game, goals, assists, points, shots, and takeaways among all Golden Knights defensemen, yet in the three-year history of the team, they’ve only been paired together for three games.

The first was in the very last game of the magical inaugural season, Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Schmidt was then suspended for the first 20 games of 2018-19, but when he returned, he found himself paired back up with Theodore. It lasted two games before Schmidt was put back with McNabb and he’s been with Brayden or Deryk Engelland ever since.

Theodore’s partner has been a bit of a revolving door over the course of his 228 games with the Golden Knights, specifically this season. This year he’s played with Nick Holden, Nic Hague, Jon Merrill, Engelland, and McNabb. His most common partner (for 22 games), Hague, isn’t currently on the Golden Knights roster and Shea has played at least even games with four different guys.

Both have played both sides quite a bit, but have each settled in on the right despite being left-hand shots.

With the acquisition of Alec Martinez, maybe now’s the time for the Golden Knights to give Schmidt and Theodore another look. They’ve both grown to be the Golden Knights best defensemen both offensively and defensively, they are interchangeable playing the left and right side, they’ve shown they can eat up minutes and play against the opposition’s best players, and their games really should be much more complimentary now than they were a year and a half ago with Theodore’s defensive game taking a big leap.

Here’s how he D-pairs would likely look with them together.

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