Welcome back Nate! Now, save the season. No pressure bud. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
Nate’s back! But now he needs a partner, and finding the right option not only for Schmidt, but also for the rest of the blueline is easier said than done for the Golden Knights.
Last year eventual Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant paired Schmidt with either Luca Sbisa or Brayden McNabb for a majority of the season. As the season went on Schmidt played most of his time on the top pair with McNabb. Now, as Schmidt is set to return the question is, should he go back with McNabb or is there a better option?
If the Schmidt/McNabb pair is indeed once again reunited, not much else will change in the lineup. Colin Miller will slide down to play with Nick Holden and Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland will remain together.
McNabb-Schmidt Theodore-Engelland Holden-Miller
However, an argument can be made that Miller and McNabb have been the best and most consistent pair, and maybe they shouldn’t be split up. Thus Schmidt would have to find a new home. Since Nate plays on the right side, there are really only two options for who he can play with, Theodore or Holden.
It’s the obvious question to ask following the stunning news of Nate Schmidt’s 20 game suspension, what now? It gets even worse when you consider the possibility of Shea Theodore missing games, but for the purpose of this article (and because this isn’t the time of year for doom and gloom), we’re going to assume Theodore is on the ice on October 4th.
According to offseason quotes by George McPhee, the Golden Knights are expected to keep eight defensemen on the roster out of training camp. With Schmidt out, the roster has a total of 15 available players to fill those eight spots. Five names can probably be safely cast aside as longshots to make the roster (Zac Leslie, Dylan Coghlan, Jimmy Oligny, Jake Bischoff, and Nic Hague) leaving 10 players to fill the eight places.
Don’t be surprised if Gallant leans heavily on Engelland with Schmidt out. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
It really comes down to Brad Hunt, Jon Merrill, Griffin Reinhart, Zach Whitecloud, and Erik Brannstrom fighting for three spots and one starting role. The odds on favorites are Hunt and Merrill with them splitting time as the six starter spot to go along with Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb, Colin Miller, Shea Theodore, and Nick Holden.
Engelland and Miller are the only two right-handed defensemen of the group of five highly likely to crack the starting lineup, but Holden has played most of his career on the right side. Thus, in theory, there are the beginnings of each of the three pairs.
That leaves Theodore, McNabb, and Hunt/Merrill as each’s partner. Last year Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant used both Theodore and McNabb with Engelland quite a bit. Assuming he returns to those familiar pairings, we’re left with four potential sets of pairings.
Option A McNabb-Engelland Theodore-Holden Merrill/Hunt-Miller
Option B McNabb-Engelland Theodore-Miller Merrill/Hunt-Holden
Option C Theodore-Engelland McNabb-Miller Merrill/Hunt-Holden
Option D Theodore-Engelland McNabb-Holden Merrill/Hunt-Miller
Theodore scored the first playoff goal in team history. Might need a lot more of that in Year 2. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
When you think of scoring and the Golden Knights, rarely do names like Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, or even Shea Theodore come to mind. Aside from the occasional Colin Miller blast, the Golden Knights weren’t exactly known for offensive from the blueline. Last season, Golden Knights defensemen scored 37 goals. Good enough for 18th most in the NHL.
Thankfully, the Golden Knights never needed to rely on blueline scoring. However, more output would help the team return to the playoffs. Colin Miller led all Vegas blueliners with 10 goals and 41 points. He was handsomely rewarded with a new $15M contract extension.
Through the course of the playoffs, the surprise unit for the Golden Knights were the defensemen. They completely shut down the Kings, they stifled the Sharks, and they bent but didn’t break against the Jets. Then, in the Stanley Cup Final, it kind of fell apart for the Vegas blueliners.
So, as we head into the offseason the burning question for George McPhee and the Golden Knights front office is whether or not they need to add to bolster their defense or of the missing piece is already on the roster.
Here’s a look at who the Golden Knights currently have under their control.
Nate looks like he’s become a star in the NHL. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
Established and Signed Brayden McNabb, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill, Brad Hunt
While this list contains 310 games played and three players who played all 20 playoff games, there are really only two fully reliable options as full-time starters moving into 2018-19. McNabb and Schmidt are expected to be stalwarts on the Golden Knights blue line this season and moving forward. They may not be paired together again next season, but they’ll certainly be in the top four.
Engelland is a bit of a mystery as he probably had the best season of his career at the age of 35. The question is can he continue playing at that consistent level as he heads into the final few seasons of his career.
Then there are Merrill and Hunt. Hunt is a player that’s bounced around the NHL and AHL and has never really gotten a full-time shot to prove himself. The reason for that is because he’s a bit of a liability defensively due to his size. He’ll have to play well in camp once again to make the roster, but even if he doesn’t, Hunt will be a good option in the event that a puck-moving defenseman becomes unavailable during the season. Merrill is a bit of a different story as he’s more of a defensive-minded player but has the ability to pinch in and help out offensively. The Golden Knights signed Merrill to an extension last season which indicates they believe in him, but it’s still not probable that he’s a 60+ game defenseman next season.
Established and under VGK control Colin Miller, Shea Theodore
Marc-Andre Fleury has had players all over him the last eight games, but he’s done well to keep them out. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
A big story heading from Round 2 to the Western Conference Finals for the Golden Knights was limiting shots in close to the net. San Jose lived in front of Marc-Andre Fleury’s goal, but couldn’t get enough past him to win games. It was assumed if the Jets did the same, the result would be different.
Vegas defensemen made it a point coming into the series with Winnipeg.
Yeah they’re strong and fast, and they can make plays. They’ve got guys that play well in that slot, and play well in tight. That’s going to be our job to make sure that we eliminate those chances. -Shea Theodore on 5/10/18
In Game 1 everything was a mess, especially the first eight minutes (unless you are Ken). Early on in Game 2, it could’ve gone the same direction. In the first period, Vegas allowed multiple scoring chances from the Jets in front of the net. In other words, Winnipeg had a flurry of shots in Fleury’s kitchen.
Well we don’t want to allow chances in front of the net.- Brayden McNabb,
Neal might be better at golf than he is hockey, and he’s pretty good at hockey. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
As they await their next destination, the Vegas media tour continues. This time, legendary PGA golfer Fred Couples chatted with two of the Golden Knights biggest contributors.
I went to George and I said, ‘George are you going to grow a beard?’ He said, ‘You know I’ve seen a lot of coaches grow a beard and they lose the first two games. That beard comes right off.’ -The Creator on Sirius PGA Radio with Fred Couples
Couples has followed the Golden Knights success all season and is captivated by their deep playoff run. In separate interviews with The Creator and defenseman Brayden McNabb, Freddy “Boom Boom” discussed the Western Conference finals, and of course a little golf.
We knew we were contenders. We knew we could possibly go far in the playoffs and even win. We believe in that room and it’s contagious. -Brayden McNabb on Sirius PGA Radio with Fred Couples
The Sirius PGA Radio host brought up x-factor type players and mentioned Marc-Andre Fleury and his postseason performance. Naturally, the man in charge spoke of his admiration for Fleury and made it known the goaltender is a Golden Knight for life.
He’s a great individual. He’s got a great family. My goal for Flower is to have him retire in this town. I really appreciate what he’s done, his attitude, and what he’s done for this team. -The Creator
Schmidt vs. Kopitar. Engelland vs. Carter. Round 1 went to Vegas. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
If you ask All Star head coach Gerard Gallant if he likes to match lines he usually responds with some sort of quip about how he’s not smart enough to make it happen. Instead, he prefers to roll four lines and attempt to let his guys play their game and force the opponent to match them.
However, on the other side of the ice, it’s a different story. For much of the year Nate Schmidt and his partner (Brayden McNabb or Luca Sbisa) have drawn the best offensive line of the opposing team. Last night was no different as Schmidt/McNabb were on the ice for a majority of their time against the Kopitar, Brown, Iafallo line. The difference for the Golden Knights is that they didn’t just limit the defensive matching to one line, they did it with the Jeff Carter line as well. Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore were matched up heavily on the Kings second line and did well shutting them down.
Schmidt and McNabb played nearly 13 total minutes against Kopitar and managed a positive Corsi For of 57.69 and only allowed four even strength goal scoring chances in that time. Engelland and Theodore did just as well in the 12 minutes they saw against Carter with a slightly above 50% Corsi For and only two scoring chances against.
You hope you are going to get those matchups as much as possible. It doesn’t happen every time and I’m not a guy who is going to yell at our guys to change right away when you get a non-matchup line. You just do the best you can as coaches. -Gerard Gallant
This matching also has an offensive benefit for the Golden Knights. Colin Miller and Jon Merrill both posted 60+% Corsi For and spent a majority of their ice time in the offensive zone, where Gallant wants them.
All in all, the Golden Knights did well in getting the right players on the ice against the right Kings, and it worked like a charm in Game 1.
At least we’ve got one guy who will hit you. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
The Golden Knights are a lot of things, but one thing they are not is physical. In years past, that would be a major incitement as bigger, tougher, skilled teams would seemingly always win. Nowadays, it’s more skill, speed and possession, something the Golden Knights are excellent at. However, not being physical doesn’t mean Vegas isn’t aggressive.
We play a hard game. We win puck battles and some one on one battles, and that’s a big part of being physical. -Gerard Gallant
As we’ve seen all season the winning formula for Vegas has been tempo, pressure, and playing smart with the puck. The overall balance of the club has been incredibly important, as Gallant is one of few NHL coaches able to truly roll four lines and three pairings. Trust in his roster depth is a good reason why Vegas is winning so often. Every player from #3 to #92, gets a the opportunity to impact a game.
Speaking of #3, defenseman Brayden McNabb’s nightly presence can have the ability to change opponents mentality. Players hesitate chasing pucks in the corner or getting into a board battles with the 6’4 defenseman. Against Toronto, McNabb put on a show with consecutive knockout blows on one shift. His bodycheck changed the momentum for both teams. The most impressive part of McNabb’s physical play is his ability to deliver clean hits. Brutal, but clean. Checks look more dangerous coming from a bigger defenseman, but point of contact is legal. McNabb has crushed opponents 669 times over his career, and never been suspended in the NHL.
The signing locks McNabb up through the 2021-22 season. He becomes one of just two players that are signed beyond the 2019-20 season (Reilly Smith).
McPhee- "McNabb is a very good defensive defenseman. He's got a long stick, and is good with his stick. He's locked down some top opposing players for us and we hope he's here for the rest of his career."
I like you, I just don’t like playing with you. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
Over the course of the first 13 games of the season, the Golden Knights set their lines and ran with them during a game. Barring special teams or injury, the four forward lines and three defensive pairings stayed the game all 60 minutes of the game.
That was until Monday night in Toronto.
After a rough 1st period in which Vegas let in three goals and got destroyed in possession, Gallant had seen enough from two of his defensive pairings and decided to switch it up.
The original pairings were Nate Schmidt/Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland/Brayden McNabb, and Shea Theodore/Colin Miller. He stuck with Schmidt/Sbisa throughout the entire game, but after an early 2nd period penalty, McNabb and Theodore were switched.
From that moment on, the Golden Knights outscored the Maple Leafs 2-0, outshot them 11-7 at even strength, and seemed to control the action for the remainder of the game. When all was said and done with the game, McNabb played more minutes with Miller than he did Engelland, and from the naked eye, both “new” defensive pairings were better than the original ones.
The Engelland goal was created by a Theodore stretch pass (and a terrible Toronto line change). Miller and McNabb had a 70% Corsi For Percentage and were on the ice together for one of the three Golden Knights goals, and Shea Theodore probably played his best game as a Golden Knight with his new linemate.
When Vegas is at it’s best, they are playing a much more offensive style game. They create turnovers through forechecking and in the neutral zone and then quickly make things happen in the offensive zone (see the gif above). When Engelland’s playing with Theodore, Miller with McNabb, and Schmidt with Sbisa, the Golden Knights always have a defenseman on the ice that has offensive capability. It allows them to play the style of game that’s worked at all times rather than really going for it with one pairing and backing off with another.
The switch may have been made because of the score, but the results were staggering. Right back at it tonight, keep your eyes peeled on how Gallant lines em up to start the game. I have a feeling we’ve seen the end of 3/5 and 6/27… cause 3/6 and 5/27 are much better. It just took a little while longer to figure it out than it should have.