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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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Golden Knights Reserves Become Fans Like Everyone Else

We know they’d rather be on the ice, but the VGK healthy scratches maintain the right attitude. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Imagine this. You’ve worked your entire life to become a professional hockey player, make it to the National Hockey League, and to eventually play for the Stanley Cup. Then, your team makes it there, coach brings down the lineup card, and your name is not on it. Rather than play in the game, you are destined to sit in the press box wearing a suit and watch. Sounds like the worst, right? Actually…

It’s awesome. When you’re sitting upstairs and we score a goal guys are jumping and down, hugging each other. That’s what it’s all about. Everyone is a part of the same goal. -Brad Hunt

Hunt hasn’t played since April 7th in Calgary, the Golden Knights last regular season game.

Guys like myself, Jonny (Merrill), and others who haven’t played in awhile, we all want everyone to do so good because we know it’s a chance at something we may never get a chance to do again. It’s been so special. -Hunt

Talking to Hunt, fellow defenseman Jon Merrill, and others, you’d think these guys average 20 minutes a night in the postseason.

I’m honestly more nervous when I’m not playing. When you’re out there playing you’re not thinking about anything, you’re just playing. When you’re upstairs you’re just a fan, you want the boys to win so bad. -Jon Merrill

Golden Misfits? More like Nervous Nellies.

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Major Lineup Shuffling Furthers 1st Period Importance

Game 4 was the first time in the eight-game playoff history of the Golden Knights where they were severely outplayed. It ended as a 4-0 beatdown and the Sharks had evened the series.

In response, Jack Adams finalist Gerard Gallant appears to be making a host of lineup changes. Based on morning skate, it seems Ryan Carpenter, Oscar Lindberg, and Luca Sbisa will be placed into the lineup, while Tomas Tatar, Tomas Nosek, and Jon Merrill will all come out.

Last year, Lindberg was tremendous in the playoffs. If he does it tonight, Gallant is going to look like a genius. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

This will be the first game the Golden Knights will be without Nosek since February 11th, and just the 3rd game all year in which Nosek will be a healthy scratch. Oddly enough, the last time Gallant chose to scratch Nosek it was a 5-4 overtime win against the Sharks on November 24th.

If Sbisa returns, it will be his first game action since February 27th. Lindberg would also be making his Vegas playoff debut having been out since the final game of the regular season on April 7th

You do what you have to do. You put your best lineup in that you think gives you the best chance to win that evening. We’ve done it all year, guys come in and play different spots and play different roles, it’s all you can do. You go with your decision, you talk to your coaches, and you do the best you can. -Gerard Gallant

The changes magnify the 1st period, however. With multiple players who have been out for over a month returning to the lineup and potential changes to three of the four forward lines (see below), the Golden Knights are vulnerable early. It often takes players a bit of time to get back into the flow after missing games, but Vegas can’t afford to fall into a hole.

Throughout this entire season, when the Golden Knights have really needed a game, they’ve usually gotten it. But beyond that, they’ve almost always started out those games well. That was the case the last time they had to “flip the switch” back on going from a disastrous loss in Calgary to the playoff opener, but the time before, against the Flames at home, it took a period or so to really get going.

This team has it in them to play a good game tonight, no one is debating that. They just have to do it right away. They can’t play anything but their best from the moment the puck is dropped, and that’s what makes the lineup changes concerning. The Golden Knights have home-ice advantage in a best of three series, now they have to take advantage of it, and they can’t let cold legs and unfamiliarity get in the way.

Projected Game 5 Lineup

Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault
Perron-Haula-Neal
Lindberg-Eakin-Tuch
Carpenter-Bellemare-Carrier

Schmidt-McNabb
Theodore-Engelland
Sbisa-Miller

6th Defenseman

Expect Sbisa to get back in the lineup, but who he’ll be paired with remains a question. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Just as is the case with the 12th forward, with the return to health along the Golden Knights blueline, All Star head coach Gerard Gallant has some tough decisions to make heading into Wednesday’s playoff opener.

Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Colin Miller, and Shea Theodore are certainties to be in the lineup. Deryk Engelland is likely to be crack the lineup but there’s at least a bit of decision making needed with him as his play has seemed to slip as the season has worn on.

That leaves four defensemen with just once spot available in the Vegas D-core. As we did with the forwards, here’s a pros and cons list of each player and then both Ken and I made selections as to who we believe will get the call.

Luca Sbisa
20 Playoff games
1 goal, 4 points, -10 rating, 17:15 ATOI

Pros: Sbisa was one of the most reliable Golden Knights defenseman to start the season, was once considered VGK’s superstar shadown, and he has played several playoff games. Before being injured in mid-November Vegas was 10-5-1 with him in the lineup. Usually, Sbisa was paired up with Nate Schmidt and split duties covering the best forwards in the NHL. Like Englland, Sbisa is best staying home and protecting the net. Although he has done his share offensively. When Sbisa records a point the Golden Knights are 10-1-1 this season.

Cons: Sbisa has been hampered with injuries most of his career, and this year has been no different. Vegas was expecting a healthy defenseman after playing a full 82 games in Vancouver last season. It’s uncertain how injured he is, or if he’s even healthy enough to play against the Kings. Sbisa has suited up for 20 postseason games, going 8-12 with three different franchises. Sbisa could be the better overall option but Gallant may decide to go with Engelland because of similar style and trust.

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JON MERRILL (D) ACTIVATED FROM IR; SHEA THEODORE (D) PLACED ON IR

Merrill will play his first game since January 4th when he was placed on IR with an undisclosed injury. Theodore has been out since the game against Edmonton on February 15th. NHL rules only require a player on IR to miss seven days, so Theodore will be eligible to return on Friday for the game against Vancouver.

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Jon Merrill’s New Mode Of Transportation Isn’t What You’d Expect

We don’t have a picture of Jon on the scooter yet. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Jon Merrill is a professional athlete.

Jon Merrill just recently signed a $2.7 million contract.

Jon Merrill drives a scooter to work.

Last month, after a Golden Knights practice a few us got chance to see him riding in his shiny, new toy.

It’s riding in style. -Jon Merrill

To shorten his commute, Merrill needed something easy, comfortable and flashy.

I had been walking to and from the rink, so I picked one up as an ulterior motive to walking. -Merrill

The newly extended d-man didn’t waste his money on an expensive sports car, or a Harley-Davidson, or even a hoverboard. Nope, Merrill chose the form of transportation locals cringe at most, the moped.

I don’t really drive it on the main roads. I just go from here (City National Arena) to my house. -Merrill

So if you see someone flying down Pavilion Center Drive at a speedy 30 MPH, it’s probably #15 (or Ken, he has one too).

The boys love it. They’re all jealous, they want one. -Merrill

We thought for sure this was an illusion that can only be created in mind of a scooter owner, but…

I want to get one for the summer. That’s my next purchase. -Luca Sbisa

The European has his eye on a new Vespa. As a kid in Switzerland, Sbisa became familiar at an early age with Merrill’s type of traveling.

Step one, when you’re fourteen you get a moped. Legit, it has peddles on it. You have to push it, and it goes 20 miles an hour. When you’re sixteen you get a scooter, and At eighteen you get a car. -Sbisa

A young Luca learned how to get himself around his Swiss town, which began with skateboarding.

You go into skateboards, then mopeds. The guys would put the skateboard on the back and sit on it. Once you got into the scooter phase, you ditch the skateboard. You try to be the cool guy. -Luca

This team never stops stunning us.

***

UPDATE: This picture was published on the Golden Knights Facebook page on April 24th.

GOLDEN KNIGHTS SIGN JON MERRILL (D) TO 2 YEAR EXTENSION WORTH $2.75M (AAV $1.375M)

LUCA SBISA (D) ACTIVATED FROM IR; JON MERRILL (D) PLACED ON IR

The Golden Knights get Sbisa back after missing the previous nine games. Merrill has been placed on IR with an “undisclosed” injury. There is no timeline on Merrill’s return.

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How In The World Do You Stop The Tampa Bay Lightning?

Theodore, Merrill, and the VGK defense were superb against Pittsburgh. Can they do it again to an even higher powered attack? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It’s a question being asked all around the league and very few have the answers. We chatted with young Golden Knights defensemen Shea Theodore and Jon Merrill to get their thoughts on shutting down Tampa’s high-scoring offense.

When you have teams that come in with strong players, you have to keep it simple and zone in on those guys. Sometimes when you give them too much respect, that’s when they’re at their most dangerous. As a d-man that’s when your gap starts to slide and you’re doing too much watching. -Shea Theodore

It’s no secret the Lightning’s top line is lethal. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov have scored 48 goals as a top unit. To compare, the Golden Knights top line has a combined 35 goals. Theodore believes the Golden Knights defense is getting comfortable with defensive challenges.

As you play more and more games you get more comfortable playing with those kind of players. For example, the game against Pittsburgh I thought me and Engo were matched against Crosby all night and we did a good job shutting him down. We tried to eliminate as many scoring chances as we could and I felt like we did a good job. -Theodore

Will Vegas defensemen change their strategy and play more conservative against Tampa?

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Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Like a lot of things with the Golden Knights, too many guys playing well was not a concern we expected to be an issue. However, five games in, that’s the exact spot Geroge McPhee, Gerard Gallant, and the Golden Knights have found themselves in.

Hey everyone, look how great we’re all playing! (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

After leaving Vadim Shipachyov, Alex Tuch, and Shea Theodore off the opening day roster due to “numbers decisions,” Vegas started the season 3-0 using the same 20 players in all three games.

Then the injuries and a loss came. Erik Haula and Jonathan Marchessault were put on IR which freed up spots for Shipachyov and Tuch, and Gallant decided to mix up his healthy scratches following the loss as he inserted Brad Hunt and Jon Merrill for Jason Garrison and Brayden McNabb.

All four “new” players had a major impact on the game Sunday night, and it’s left Vegas with an abundance of players and not enough roster spots to keep them all.

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