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The Stone Age Impacts Golden Knights Defense

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When the Golden Knights acquired Mark Stone at the NHL trade deadline back on Feb. 25, it was assumed the offense would perk up as Stone had 28 goals in the bank from his time in Ottawa.

But who knew the defense would be the unit that has come alive?

Collectively, the Vegas blue line corps is playing some of its best hockey of the year. And while it may be a coincidence that it has come since Stone’s arrival, the changes Gerard Gallant made a few weeks ago, moving Deryk Engelland with Nate Schmidt, playing Shea Theodore with Brayden McNabb and giving Jon Merrill a regular spot in the lineup, seemed to have worked.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The defense accounted for both goals in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Calgary at T-Mobile Arena. More important, the Knights have allowed just nine goals in the six games Stone has worn the steel grey No. 61.

Obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury’s play in the crease has been a big part of that. But don’t discount the job his D-men are doing in front of him.

The Knights are winning more battles in their own end. They’re more active in using their sticks to take away the cross-ice pass. They are making smarter decisions in breaking out of their own end. They are pinching in the other team’s end more judiciously and not getting caught in as many odd-man rushes the other way. They continue to block shots at a high rate. They seem to be communicating better.

All of that was again on display Saturday here in Vancouver at Rogers Arena against a Canucks team which Vegas handled a week ago, 3-0, and 6-2 Saturday for their sixth straight win. The Knights scored a franchise-record five first-period goals and there was no looking ahead to tonight’s big game at the Scotiabank Saddledome and the rematch with the Flames.

And as many predicted, Stone finally scored as a Golden Knight as he opened the scoring 1:32 into Saturday’s contest.

Gallant said you never know what’s going to happen when you change your lineup. But these moves appear to have worked so far.

It was just shaking things up. When you’re losing, you’re not happy. So we made a few changes with the D and so far it’s worked. I like the way they’ve been playing. -Gallant

You ask the defensemen what’s turned things around, you get different answers.

I think change can be good sometimes. You get a little stagnant with the way you play. I just think that it’s about trending. If you continue to play well, you want to make sure you keep doing those things that help you win. Colin Miller and Jon Merrill have been playing fantastic for us. When you have that kind of depth on your team, that’s important. -Schmidt

Theodore said the defensemen are reacting better to the puck and making the right play more consistently.

I think we’re just quick to pucks and we’re not giving them as much time and space in the corners. Usually when you give teams with good skill players time down low they’re going to make plays. I think our centers have been coming in and killing those plays and that’s been big for us. -Theodore

Engelland said it has been a collective mindset that has seen the team’s defensive uptick.

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Added Offense Comes From Mixed Up Defense

Having lost three straight, five in a row at home, and eight of 11, the reigning Jack Adams award winner, Gerard Gallant decided to get a bit radical and change up two forward lines and two defensive pairs.

When you are losing you have got to try new things, right? -Gallant

It didn’t take long to see the change he was looking for. Directly off the opening faceoff, playing with Deryk Engelland, Nate Schmidt took the puck, jumped up into the rush and created a scoring chance for the Golden Knights.

(Nate’s) legs move as quick as his mouth does and he’s at his best when he’s skating. -Deryk Engelland

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Schmidt and Shea Theodore were both put in new positions on Saturday night. Not only playing with new linemates, but they were also each playing on the opposite side of the ice. It was the first time Schmidt has played on the left side while a member of the Golden Knights, and the first time Theodore had ever played the right side while in the NHL.

(In the) offensive zone I think it’s easier to get the puck to the net, but getting the puck D-to-D behind your net (in your own zone), you can’t really look up ice and you don’t really know what’s coming. It’s kind of a pros and cons thing. -Theodore

Re-watching the game, Schmidt and Theodore started a total of eight rushes into the offensive zone by skating the puck either out of their own zone and/or through the neutral zone. It’s not abnormal for either to do it, but five times for Schmidt and three for Theodore is certainly more than the norm.

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Nate’s Back, But Who Should He Play With?

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.

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Golden Knights Defensemen Power Rankings

Brannstrom is on his way to forcing McPhee and Gallant into keeping him around. (Photo by Brandon Andreasen)

We are now over a week into training camp and have seen a pair of preseason games in which 32 different skaters have taken the ice for the Golden Knights. The impending suspension of Nate Schmidt and the possibility of Shea Theodore missing games with the contract negotiations has the blue line wide open heading into October 4th.

I like carrying eight defensemen and we’ve done it because some of the young guys weren’t really ready to be called up, so we wanted to carry eight. We’re carrying eight again next year. The good news is, we’ve got guys that can be called up this year. -George McPhee

Of course, there are still nearly three weeks of practice and six preseason games to sort it all out, but let’s take a look at how we think it shakes out as we speak.

This is a ranking of each defenseman in the Golden Knights system by the current level of play. This does not take into account things like suspension, holdout, waiver exempt status, contract, or likelihood to make the roster. These are my rankings, not necessarily how I believe the team would rank the players. (Nonetheless, admittedly, a lot of my beliefs come from decisions made by the front office and coaching staff on players.)

1) Nate Schmidt

Nate is in a class of his own on the Golden Knights blue line. He’s the only player currently even close to being considered a 1A defenseman, and even that can be debated either way. However, with the suspension, he’s unavailable for 20 games, so he won’t be an option for the Golden Knights come October 4th.

2) Brayden McNabb

Looking back on the contract, McNabb was an absolute steal for George McPhee. With Schmidt’s absence, McNabb will step into the role as the Golden Knights top defenseman. He’ll be relied upon to stop the opposing teams’ best players night in and night out for the first month and a half and will be the key penalty-killing defenseman as well. McNabb is much maligned at times, but the guy is a legit high-end shutdown defenseman and when paired with the right player, he and his partner can shine.

3) Colin Miller

Yes, Miller is rated above Theodore, and not because Theodore is not in camp, but because Miller is the more complete player at this moment. Give it a few years and Theodore will probably soar past him, but right now Miller has become acceptable (and probably even more than that) in his own end and he’s an absolute weapon in the offensive zone. He boasts the hardest shot on the team and he’s bound to have a mega offensive season playing a much more prominent role than a year ago.

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Where Does The Blue Line Stand Now With Schmidt Out Of The Picture?

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

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Golden Knights Quick Hitters

We promise something new on SinBin.vegas every day of the year (except Sundays) no matter whether the team is on the ice or it’s the middle of summer. Normally we pick one topic and throw everything we can possibly jam into one article at you and call it a day, but today we’re going to change it up a bit. Nothing really warranted a full story, so instead, we present you with “quick hitters.”

 Single Game Tickets On Sale Today

If you are following @GoldenKnights on Twitter, you’re probably already aware of this as they’ve found about 47 different creative ways to remind you, but if not, single game VGK seats go on sale at noon today.

Here’s the link to get tickets.

McPhee Stays Unbiased During Draft

With the 135th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, the Golden Knights selected Brandon Kruse from Bowling Green State University. BGSU just so happens to be GM George McPhee’s alma mater, however, in an interview with FloHockey.tv, he says that had no impact on his decision to draft Kruse.

It’s a coincidence. I leave our drafting up to our scouts. I’m happy that they drafted him because he’s a terrific player, and I’m glad that they weren’t influenced by me; there’s no bias involved, they took the best player available, who happened to play at Bowling Green. I’m excited that it provides another reason to get to Bowling Green this year and watch them play. -McPhee

100 Point Projection

The creator of Corsica.hockey released a projection for every team and had the Golden Knights once again eclipsing the century mark.

This model is widely regarded as one of the most accurate out there. Unlike most who had the Golden Knights in the 60’s or 70’s last season, Perry projected Vegas at 82, one of the highest we found. Hopefully, he’s 25 points short again. 

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Don’t Expect A Golden Knights Captain Any Time Soon

One of the biggest reasons the Golden Knights don’t have a captain is that this guy won’t let his teammates anoint him as one. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Last year the Golden Knights were one of just a handful of teams that did not have a player wearing a “C” on the ice. Instead, they opted for what they called a “leadership group” which was a rotating cast of about seven alternate captains.

They went on to have an incredible season on the ice and players still rave about how amazing the group was off it. Plus, they were able to integrate new players starting a few days before the season began with Malcolm Subban, a waiver add in December in Ryan Carpenter, and the trade deadline acquisitions of Ryan Reaves and Tomas Tatar, without a hitch.

Yet, the question still seems to be floating around the organization, who will become the team’s first captain?

The short answer, and the right answer, is no one.

Nothing’s been said. I don’t think anybody is too worried about it. We have a ton of really good leaders. Old guys, young guys, so it’s really a collective group thing and I think everybody in the room is absolutely fine with that. –Deryk Engelland to NHL Network

Before Opening Night last year, the team announced Deryk Engelland, Jason Garrison, James Neal, David Perron, Luca Sbisa, and Reilly Smith would wear “A’s.” However, throughout the course of the season and into the playoffs Pierre-Edouard Bellemare became a staple as an alternate as well.

With Garrison, Neal, Perron, and Sbisa all gone, there certainly could be some consideration to hand the captaincy over to Engelland. However, the more likely scenario is for the team to add players like Nate Schmidt, Jonathan Marchessault, Cody Eakin or even a newcomer like Paul Stastny or Nick Holden to Smith and Bellemare in the leadership group.

The Golden Knights organization, especially when it comes to symbolic things, are very much believers in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. Thus, as Western Conference Champions, don’t expect to see a “C” on any players sweater any time soon.

Although, the argument can be made that it is broke. No team since the 1972 Boston Bruins has won the Stanley Cup without a captain. The Golden Knights were three wins away from bucking that trend, but they didn’t. Personally, I’m skeptical that the lack of a “C” on a jersey was the reason, but hockey players are weird, so who knows what they believe.

Golden Knights Results At NHL Awards

Should have been a Selke candidate, could have been a Hart candidate, but the Lady Byng will have to do. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

For every Golden Knight, any trophy they win tonight is not the one they really wanted. However, a little hardware for an amazing season never hurt anybody. Vegas has four finalists in four separate categories at the 2018 NHL Awards. William Karlsson is up for Lady Byng (sportsmanship), Deryk Engelland for Mark Messier Leadership Award, Gerard Gallant is a shoe-in for Jack Adams (coach of the year), and George McPhee for GM of the Year.

The other finalists for each award are as follows. (We will update each award with the winner as well as some quotes and whatever else we come across throughout the night)

Lady Byng Trophy

William Karlsson (VGK)
Aleksander Barkov (FLA)
Ryan O’Reilly (BUF)

Winner: William Karlsson

To be honest I’m more nervous, kind of scared. What if I win? I have to go up on the stage, it’s kind of scary. For sure (scarier than playing the Stanley Cup Final). Much more. At least I know what I do on the ice. Going up on the stage and potentially having to speak to a lot of people is a lot scarier. -William Karlsson

It’s very special, just looking back a year ago who would have thought I would have been sitting here nominated for an award, but to win it, it’s been a crazy year. -Karlsson

Messier Leadership Award

Deryk Engelland (VGK)
Wayne Simmonds (PHI)
Blake Wheeler (WPG)

Winner: Deryk Engelland

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Offseason Outlook: Defensemen

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

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Matching D-Pairings With Top Offensive Lines Worked In Game 1 For VGK

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.

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