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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 Schmidt Wants To Be A Star

We know he has pretty good feet. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Nate Schmidt is a character. Yet even amongst all the crazy stuff he’s said or the wacky situations he’s placed in on national TV, he always finds a way to surprise us. The most recent revelation is something you would probably never expect.

I love dancing. I used to (take lessons). I haven’t been taking them. It’s been probably 2 years since I’ve been. (My girlfriend and I) go to swing dancing where you dance to jazz music. I like high intense jazz. -Nate Schmidt

He says it’s a great work out and he has fun doing it.

The first time I went I made a mistake, I only brought one shirt. The second time I brought three. -Schmidt

So, obviously, the next step for an athlete on a high profile team with a personality made for TV… Dancing with the Stars!

I would love to. If you can run it by George (McPhee) and he would allow it I would do it for sure. -Schmidt

Posting this article is our way of “running it past George.” Schmidt would be tremendous on the show and I can almost guarantee the producers would love to have him. So, if anyone has any connections to ABC, hit us up, we want to make this happen, it would be a great thing to distract us from how awful offseason is.

Plus, Schmidt actually thinks he would fare pretty well on the show.

I have decent rhythm, great energy, and excitement and facial expressions. -Schmidt

I can already envision it. The ridiculous costumes, the terrible dancing (at least in the first few episodes), Fleury and Reaves in the crowd rooting him on. Schmidt holding up the mirror ball trophy.

This needs to happen.

Could VGKs Lack of Defensive Scoring Be A Future Problem?

Stop worrying about 3rd line scoring, start worrying about blue line scoring. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It’s no secret, the Golden Knights are getting very little offense from there defense. Overall, the low production from their blue line could be a concern going forward. Sure, power play specialist Colin Miller appears ready to return to the lineup but even with him it may not be enough.

I think sometimes we’re complicated things too much. My job and Millsey’s and Schmitty’s, the guys that are back there, we have to do a better job controlling it. Instead of setting up a play and try and seam it, we just have to get pucks through. -Shea Theodore

At first glance, 97 combined points from the Golden Knights defense doesn’t look that bad, but when you look around the league it’s a very low total.

Points from Vegas defenseman in 2018-19

Theodore 21 Points (5 Goals, 16 Assists)
Miller 17 Points (2 Goals, 15 Assists)
Schmidt 16 Points (4 Goals, 12 Assists)
Holden 13 Points (3 Goals, 10 Assists)
McNabb 12 Points (1 Goal, 11 Assists)
Hunt 7 Points (2 Goals, 5 Assists)
Engelland 6 Points (1 Goals, 5 Assists)
Merrill 5 Points (1 Goal, 4 Assists)
97 Total Points from VGK defenseman
19 Goals, 78 Assists

In just the Pacific Division alone, defensemen are putting up Norris trophy type numbers.

Top 5 Defensemen in Points

Brent Burns SJ: 52 Points(9 Goals, 43 Assists)
Mark Giordano CAL: 48 Points(9 Goals, 38 Assists)
Morgan Reilly TOR: 47 Points(13 Goals, 34 Assists)
Erik Karlsson SJ: 43 Points(3 Goals, 40 Assists)
John Carlson WAS: 43 Points(6 Goals, 37 Assists)

Up in San Jose, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson’s combined offense is roughly the same as the entire Vegas defensive unit. Calgary’s captain Mark Giordano has been heavily involved all season, and on pace for a career-high offensively. When you go through the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference, Vegas has the lowest threat from the blue line.

San Jose: 143 Points (Goals, Assists)
Nashville: 125 (Goals, Assists)
Calgary: 116 Points (Goals, Assists)
Winnipeg: 104 Points (Goals, Assists)

San Jose and Nashville are loaded with blue line scoring, what’s new right? Predators have even been down one of their weapons PK Subban to injury. Like Vegas with Miller, Winnipeg’s blue line lumber, Dustin Byfuglien has also played limited games this season. So, you have to wonder if the Jets are searching for defensive help for the postseason.

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The Nate Effect

This dude is a #1 defenseman in the NHL Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

There’s a theme floating around VGK land that goes something like this… “The Golden Knights are 3-9-0 against the top 10 teams in the NHL, are they really that good?”

Technically, this stat is correct. Aside from wins over Washington, Calgary, and San Jose, the Golden Knights have been quite miserable against high-quality competition. However, there’s an important caveat that’s missing to the theme. That caveat’s name is Nate Schmidt.

While I was in Arizona for the home game against the Coyotes at Gila River Arena, I asked Gerard Gallant when he thought his team turned the corner. His answer was when Nate came back. (I forgot to press start on my recorder so I don’t have the full quote, but I remember it wasn’t great except for the overall premise so I decided not to take the time to track it down. Just believe me, he said Nate, or something like that.)

If you use the same stat since Schmidt’s return, the Golden Knights are 3-4-0 (.429) in the same category (with a pair of wins against the Islanders, 12th, just missing the cut). Thus, they were 0-5-0 (.000) against the current top 10 in the NHL without Schmidt.

I expanded the stat to include all playoff teams. Vegas is 8-11-1 (.425) against the 15 teams currently holding playoff spots. They are 6-4-1 (.591) with Schmidt, 2-7-0 (.222) without him.

It’s not hard to see that the Golden Knights are a different team with #88 in the lineup. During Schmidt’s suspension, the Golden Knights were 8-11-1 (.425), had a -8 goal differential, and averaged just 2.5 goals per game. Since his return, they’re 20-6-3 (.741), have a +24 goal differential, and are averaging 3.34 goals per game.

They’ve beaten Calgary, San Jose, Washington, Dallas, Colorado, and the Islanders twice while falling by on the road to Calgary, Columbus, and Winnipeg and at home to San Jose. (Oh, and if you are into this sort of thing, they outplayed Winnipeg and San Jose in those losses.) Vegas is a whopping 10-1-2 (.846) at home with Schmidt and have improved their road record significantly from 3-8-0 (.272) to 10-5-1 (.656).

All the while, in the 29 games with Schmidt, VGK has missed Schmidt’s BFF Erik Haula for all 29, Paul Stastny for 13, Colin Miller for 13, Max Pacioretty for 9, and Reilly Smith for 4. Deryk Engelland, Shea Theodore, Tomas Nosek, and William Carrier have all missed time too.

Stats can always be diced up any way you wish, but the fact remains, the Golden Knights are a damn good hockey team when Nate is in the lineup… no matter who or where they are playing.

Fleury, Reaves And Schmidt Have Plenty Of Laughs At Their Expense On Spittin’ Chiclets

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It was a good old-fashioned Vegas roast on the latest episode of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. Host Rear Admiral and former NHL’ers Ryan Whitney and Paul “BizNasty” Bissonette welcomed Golden Knights star’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Nate Schmidt and Ryan Reaves to an evening at the Friars Club.

Coming right off the faceoff, the trio wasted no time bagging on Vegas’ early struggles, and Nate Schmidt’s suspension.

What happened early in the year? -Bissonette

Couldn’t tell you about the first twenty. -Schmidt

Schmitty let us down, you know. -Fleury

Oh, c’mon! -Schmidt

After Fleury cracked up the room with his playful knock on his teammate, the gang asked Schmidt to get into his little stint in Vienna.

I would practice, I’d get bag skated everyday by this Finnish coach. He would come out with no stick, no gloves and put his hands behind his back and just skate up and down the ice. Fifteen laps was their pregame skate one day. I got back to the bench and looked up in the stands at the GM and go, ‘where am I?’ I’m going to be in the best shape of my life when I go back.” -Schmidt

Bag skating is a term players use when coaches are riding them hard in practice. It might be before or after practice, and it could be a variation of laps, goal line to goal line sprints, or suicide laps. Which are even exhausting to think about.

I was bag skating everyday. Five, six times a week. They take their skating a little more seriously. They skate, and skate, and skate. -Schmidt

Schmidt was asked if he traveled with the Vienna Capitals, his adopted club. The never bashful defenseman, although ashamed, openly admitted to some sweet star treatment in Europe.

I went on the road with them one game. The only problem was, this is terrible, the GM and I flew to this place and the rest of team bussed it. It was a nine hour bus ride from Zurich… I was rested. -Schmidt

The Golden Knights defenseman added that training in Vienna was…

Once, in a lifetime experience -Schmidt

Hopefully. -Bissonette

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Christmas Break Odds And Ends

The Golden Knights have the next three days completely off, meaning no games, practice, and no media availability. They currently sit in 3rd place in the Pacific Division with 44 points in 39 games. That’s one point behind the 2nd place Sharks and one ahead of the 4th place Ducks.

There are a few topics I wanted to discuss but none of them garnered a full article. So, we cram them all into one and call it a day. Here we go.

Brandon Pirri Re-Assigned to AHL

Gone now, but for how long? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Following the overtime loss to the Kings last night the Golden Knights re-assigned Brandon Pirri to the Chicago Wolves. In doing so they also took Max Pacioretty off IR.

Just looking at the moves, this would lead most to believe that Pacioretty will return Thursday and will be slotted back into his normal place in the lineup. That may happen, but it also may not, and Pirri might wind up right back on the 2nd line despite being re-assigned a few days earlier.

Per NHL rules, if a player clears waivers, which Pirri did on October 4th, they must play 10 games or be on the active NHL roster for 30 days before they are eligible for waivers again. Pirri was recalled to the Golden Knights on December 18th and played in games on the 20th, 22nd, and 23rd before being re-assigned on the 23rd. Thus, he’s played three games and spent five days on the roster.

By optioning him back to the Wolves during this three-day break, the Golden Knights still have six available games and 24 days before he must re-clear waivers. The clock is cumulative, so even if this stint with the Golden Knights is over, it restarts if he is called back up again.

What all of this is trying to say is that there’s a practical reason to send Pirri down to the AHL even if VGK intends to play him on Thursday. It may or may not happen, but unlike most situations when a player is returned to the AHL, this one does not necessarily mean his time with the Golden Knights is up.

Struggles Without Main Defensemen

It was well-documented how much the Golden Knights missed Nate Schmidt during his 20 game suspension. They went just 8-11-1 and were much closer to the basement of the Pacific than they were the top.

VGK proving they can’t be without 6 or 88. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Over the past two games, they’ve gone 0-0-2 at home while missing Colin Miller due to an upper-body injury.

Deryk Engelland has missed six games this season, the Golden Knights are 3-2-1 in those games.

Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, and Nick Holden have played in all 39 games

When Miller and Schmidt are both in the lineup, Vegas is 12-4-1. When one or the other is missing they are 8-11-3.

Defensive depth is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, whether that be via trade or by giving some of the young AHL prospects a chance. Either way, something needs to be done because no team makes it through the playoffs with just six defensemen.

Long Shifts

Vegas has 13 players, including nine forwards that average 0:50 or more per shift. There are only 118 NHL skaters that average 0:50 or more

The Golden Knights have 10 players in the top 100 in the NHL in this category.

Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch lead the team with 0:56 average per shift while Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, Paul Stastny, and William Karlsson all average at least 0:53.

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Schmidt Comes Home, Neal Returns, Carr Debuts

Even aside from being dubbed as “Kids Day” at T-Mobile, the 3 PM start, and the home team wearing white jerseys, Friday’s game had a lot going on. So, when the game ended, we at SinBin.vegas split up to cover all three major stories at the same time. Jason went to the visitor’s locker room to track down James Neal, Steve spent the day focused on Daniel Carr and chatted with him after the game, and I drew the Schmidty straw. Here are all three stories wrapped up into one post.

Schmidt Comes Home
(written by Ken Boehlke)

Ever been in one of those circus mirror rooms where everywhere you turn you see a slightly different version of yourself? Creepy, right? Now, imagine you do the same thing, but the room doesn’t have mirrors and instead, they are real people, over 10,000 of them.

It felt like another dimension out there. -Nate Schmidt

But as much as Schmidt’s return was celebrated by those in the stands, it was his teammates and his coach who have the deepest appreciation for what he brings back to the Golden Knights.

You guys talked about Nate Schmidt and that’s important to our team and he is really important to our group and I think it makes us a lot better team, when we can come out and throw the defense at you like that and play the game that we play all the time. -Gerard Gallant

Nate seemed to really enjoy his time on the ice as well.

It’s fun to be back, fun to be back here (at T-Mobile Arena). It was such a fun game to be a part of. I love when we play our game. It’s fun, it’s fun hockey. It’s the reason why you play the game is when your team is playing that way. -Schmidt

You might say, he had fun. So did the rest of the Golden Knights when they saw the 10,000+ Schmidt faces in the crowd.

I got back in there in the locker room and the guys just stared at me and gave the open eyes like ‘woah.’ Never seen something like that. -Schmidt

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Get The Puck Out Of The Zone… Now!

Get to it and get it out. That’s how VGK wants to play in their own end, and they know they haven’t done enough of it. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Hockey is a funny game. One night a team can come out completely flat, give up seven unanswered goals, and get embarrassed and then a few nights later that very same team can play an excellent defensive game and grind out an overtime win. The difference between the Golden Knights Monday night performance and their Wednesday night performance were stark.

So what changed?

Following Monday night’s loss the Golden Knights wanted to put the game in the rearview mirror, a commitment to simplicity helped the Golden Knights turn it around in just two nights time.

Nevermind what we can do to get up ice, nevermind the plays that we can make, be simple and just give the (opposing) forwards a steady diet of right ups, and quick ins and tip ins and let them go to work. -Nate Schmidt

Schmidt got a little inside baseball hockey on us there, but what he’s talking about is moving the puck quickly out of the zone. Rather than sitting back and trying to make the perfect play to spring an offensive chance, the defensemen wanted to simply get the puck out of their own zone as quickly as physically possible. Either move it directly out or move it once to the D-partner and let him move it out.

It forces them to go to work. It forces them to go to the go on the forecheck. You kind of take it out of their hands and take it out of our hands. That was what we talked about as a group on the day off. A healthy diet of right-ups. A healthy diet of quick-up D to D. -Schmidt

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Illustrating Nate Schmidt’s Impact On The Golden Knights

This guy is good at hockey. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The story of the night for the Golden Knights in Edmonton was the return of their best defenseman, Nate Schmidt, from his 20 game suspension. Any time a team gets one of their best players back into the lineup they are surely going to be better. The score certainly indicated that, but simply pointing to the score and saying, “well, they are better with Nate in there” really does no good.

So, instead of being that guy, I decided to go back and watch every shift Schmidt took in his first game back to help show exactly what he brings and how he’s affecting the other players on the ice.

Let’s get the obvious points out of the way. Nate Schmidt is good, like, really good, like top 20 NHL defenseman good. Anyone who wants to debate that simply hasn’t watched enough of Schmidt in a Golden Knights uniform to know what they are talking about. Schmidt’s defensive awareness, his skating speed and skill, an incredibly strong defensive stick, and his strong offensive instincts make him an excellent all-around defenseman. Where most VGK defensemen fall into one category or the other (Offensive-minded: Theodore, Miller, Hunt) (Defensive-minded: McNabb, Engelland, Holden, Merrill), Schmidt does both well above average.

But enough telling you Nate is good at hockey, let’s show it. Starting with how his skating paired with quick decision making makes the game easy on his teammates.

The play starts with a display of his strong stick and skating. As the puck moves along the boards, he’s always within a stick length of it, moving his feet and constantly taking away the time and space the forwards have to make a play. Then, a huge burst of speed is displayed when the puck pops out towards the Golden Knights goal. But as impressive as the play to get the puck is, what he does with it after is even better. Schmidt quickly gets the puck off his stick to Bellemare. Then, he presents himself as a return option for Bellemare. He’s given the puck back, and quickly moves it over to Theodore who has plenty of ice to safely exit the zone.

As I watched all of Schmidt’s shifts, quickness in decision making was the number one asset that shined through. Jonathan Marchessault and Cody Eakin also excelled in this area last night, but Schmidt’s return brought that back to the defense. To show what it looks like when quick, correct, decisions are not made, check out this clip from later in the game.

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