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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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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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The Golden Knights Identity; What Is It? What Is It Supposed To Be?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When Pete DeBoer was first hired a common term he would use in talking about his new team was “identity.” He said it in a number of ways but the refrain was always the same, that the team had a great identity and when they played with it they were almost unbeatable, but recently it had been lost and they were playing without it.

Here’s one example from five days after he was hired.

I think for me just playing aggressive, and dictating games and wearing teams down with our depth because we have the ability to roll four lines and be really hard to play against. I think we want to get back to that. Not that that slipped totally off the table but that’s something this team did better than anybody in the league for a long time and we want to try and get that type of identity back. -DeBoer on 1/20/20

I have to admit, it’s a term that’s always troubled me. Identity. I don’t even really know what it means. Everyone uses it, heck I’ve even used it, but if you pinned me down to explain exactly how it relates to a hockey team, I can’t do it. So to hear it over and over again from the new head coach as basically the primary focus on how to solve the issues the Golden Knights had been having, I couldn’t help but tilt my head the way Wiglaf and Rupert do when I ask them if they want a piece of cheese.

What is the Golden Knights identity? What’s it supposed to be? Has it changed?

I’ve spent the last three weeks pondering all of this and finally had a chance to ask a few players, and the coach, specifically about it. Take a listen to it all, in its raw form. First is Jonathan Marchessault, then Nate Schmidt, Paul Stastny, and it ends with Pete DeBoer.

I’ve listened to each of those four interviews about 10 teams apiece and I still have no clue how to define the Golden Knights identity.

It’s just a bunch of buzzwords that apply to every hockey team.

Relentless. Heavy. Fast. Aggressive. Play as a unit. Hard to play against.

Put that aside for a second though, I’ll get back to it.

However anyone defines it, it seems to have shifted. Well, sorta shifted. Actually, no it hasn’t shifted at all. It’s exactly the same, it just looks a little different because this team is more skilled, or to use a simpler term, better.

But it’s not. Or at least it hasn’t been when counting wins.

Both teams have the ability to check off all the buzzwords. The makeup of the team really isn’t that different aside from adding a new buzzword, “heavy,” which really just means “we have Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty now.”

So why aren’t they playing the same way? Why are they going through all these problems? Why was the identity lost in the middle of the third season?

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Carp: The Joy Has Returned To Nate Schmidt’s Game

**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.**

Nate Schmidt had just come off the ice after Saturday’s morning skate at City National Arena and he was wearing a big smile.

Nothing new about that. Schmidt is usually smiling. As one of the members of an exclusive club, he gets the fact that playing in the NHL is a privilege and it’s one that he embraces.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But there was something different about Saturday’s grin. I don’t know if it was an aura or a sudden uptick in demeanor, but Schmidt was really, really in a good mood. Perhaps it was the fact that after being away from home for nearly a month, he got to sleep in his own bed Friday night and that he and his teammates would finally get to skate in their own rink later that night in front of their fans.

My theory is Schmidt is a happier person these days because he is playing better hockey and he seems to enjoy playing for Peter DeBoer.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: it has been a tough year for the 28-year-old defenseman from Minnesota. He hurt his left knee on opening night in a collision with San Jose’s Logan Couture and he missed 12 games. He struggled early upon his return. Then his coach was fired as the Golden Knights went through another befuddling stretch of inconsistent play.

But lately, Schmidt has shown signs of being his old self, the guy who jumped into the play and made things happen, which is what the Knights got from him their inaugural season in 2017-18 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final.

I think one of the big things is simplifying your game. I was trying to do too much the first half of the year. You tear it down, bring it back up, sort of like a grassroots kind of thing. Schmidt

Schmidt and Shea Theodore have both been contributors to the Knights’ attack. Since DeBoer took over for Gerard Gallant Jan. 15, Schmidt has score two goals and has six assists. He has had back-to-back multi-point games and now has 26 points for the year.

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Golden Knights Utilizing Zone Starts To Deploy Right Defenseman At Right Time

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

One of the most overlooked stats in hockey is zone starts. NHL coaches go to great lengths to get the correct players on the ice at the right times, but when examining stats, very rarely will you see a nod to a player’s zone starts.

When judging defense we like to use stats like +/-, Corsi, goal percentage, and defensive point shares. However, it’s important to consider deployment when taking all of this into account.

It’s become especially crucial when breaking down the statistical seasons of the Golden Knights blue liners. Looking at the numbers without zone starts involved it appears as though Shea Theodore has emerged as Vegas’ best defenseman. He leads all defensemen in goals, assists, points, shots, offensive point shares, defensive point shares, Corsi, Corsi relative, expected goals, expected goals percentage, and expected +/-.

There’s no question that Theodore has become the Golden Knights’ most effective offensive weapon from the blue line. That’s why the coaching staff have used him in a role much different than that of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb.

The Golden Knights are 2nd in the NHL in percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone. In Golden Knights games this season, 35.6% of draws have been in the offensive zone, 32.7% in the neutral zone and just 31.7% in the D-zone. Vegas has taken 648 offensive zone draws to only 577 in the defensive zone. That means the Golden Knights baseline zone start percentage is 52.9%.

In other words, any player getting less than 53% offensive zone starts is being deployed in a defensive role, while anyone above is in an offensive role. Here are the Golden Knights primary defensemen’s offensive zone start numbers this season.

oZS%
Hague 65.5%
Theodore 58.0%
Engelland 54.9%
Merrill 51.8%
Holden 49.8%
Schmidt 47.7%
McNabb 47.3%

The difference between the top of that list and the bottom is massive. Hague and Theodore are drawing offensive zone shifts more than 6% more than the team average while McNabb and Schmidt are finding themselves starting in the D-zone around 6% less than the average.

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“Our Game Has Taken Off Since” VGKD 2.0

There’s no doubt that game was huge for us. We played a good hockey game that night and all of a sudden it looked like we were going to come out with no points. Then with 0.3 seconds left on the clock we tie it up and then we win the game. Our team was really excited after that game. They were excited, pumped up and I think that’s been a big positive for us moving forward. –Gerard Gallant on VGK Insider Show

With each and every game that’s passed since, the game in Nashville is looking more and more like the turning point of the season.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Since that game, which was three weeks ago now, the Golden Knights are 8-2-1. They’ve won four road games, and even in the three games they dropped they played well for the majority of them.

There’s plenty that’s changed since that fateful night in Nashville (listen to our podcast dropping later today where we dive into all of them), but the biggest one is undoubtably the introduction of VGKD 2.0.

It’s no secret we tweaked some things in our game and I think it’s allowed us at times to work hard going the other way. -Max Pacioretty

Before the change, the Golden Knights had scored 77 goals and allowed 77 goals. That’s 2.96 goals per game both scored and allowed. Since, Vegas has scored 35 and allowed 28. 3.18 goals for and 2.55 goals against. A difference in 0.63 goals per game total!

We’ve been a lot better at getting our guys up into the offensive zone and keeping pucks alive. You give our forwards an extra 10 seconds in the zone and that’s all they need sometimes. -Nate Schmidt

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Quick Stint In AHL Helped Nic Hague Upon Return To NHL

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When Golden Knights training camp ended and the team headed into Opening Night against the San Jose Sharks, Nic Hague was on the NHL roster.

He was a healthy scratch the first game of the year, but an injury to Nate Schmidt thrust Hague into the lineup. He played seven straight games and was replaced by Jake Bischoff for four. He played one more at the NHL level before being assigned to the Chicago Wolves upon Schmidt’s return.

Obviously I go down there and I’m in a position where I’m playing big minutes, I’m on the power play, penalty kill, regular shift 5-on-5, so to go down and get a touch in all those areas it was nice, but I don’t want to be there, I want to be here. -Hague

Hague played in four AHL games, racked up two points and 13 shots, while playing top-pair minutes. But it’s what happened after those four games that really seemed to change the course of Hague’s young NHL career.

Since coming back to the NHL on November 5th, Hague has played in every game but one (VGK’s worst game since, at Washington).

Truthfully I think the more those kids play the more confident he’s going to get. When they look confident on the ice, when you notice it and when I notice it, that’s when you are going to be an NHL hockey player and that’s what I’ve liked about him lately. -Gerard Gallant

Hague’s play since coming back has been substantially better than it was in his first stint in the NHL to start the year. He’s standing guys up at the blue line, his gap control has improved, he’s been more physical, he’s starting to utilize his long reach, and most importantly, his offensive game is beginning to shine through.

He’s been way more confident with the puck. Often now you see him not dumping it in every time he’s got it. That’s where you see the maturation process in a player and you see it with him. -Nate Schmidt

Personally, I think that four-game stretch in the AHL made a huge difference for the giant left-handed defenseman. There are stats that point to it, but it’s more about how he looks. His reads have been better and quicker. His decision-making in all three zones has improved, and for the first time in his career, we finally saw him take advantage of the length of his stick to help create a goal against Chicago.

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Return Of Schmidt Should Mean Return Of Theodore’s Offense

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It didn’t happen for even one game last year, but tonight appears to be the night for the Golden Knights. Vegas will head into tonight’s Halloween game without a single player on the IR and not a single player missing with an injury.

Nate Schmidt is expected to resume his role as the team’s #1 defenseman and Alex Tuch will get a try with a pair of Cody’s, Eakin and Glass.

Each return from injury has a chance to have a significant effect on the team, but Schmidt’s return does more in regards to changing the lineup. It means at least two new D-pairs and more importantly, it means fewer minutes and less responsibility for guys like Shea Theodore, Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland, and Jon Merrill.

Nate’s a good player and he’s been one of our top players for two plus years and he’s going to make a big difference in our group. He’s important and he puts everybody where they belong. -Gerard Gallant

There are two different likely lineup options for the Golden Knights defense heading into this game. Either Holden and Merrill stick together and Theodore swaps sides to play with Engelland, or they return to the opening day pairs which had Merrill and Theodore together and Holden with Engelland.

Either way, the top pair minutes will now be handed to Schmidt as opposed to Theodore. That’s what Gallant is talking about when he says “puts everybody where they belong,” and the result of that should be a more noticeable impact on the game for Theodore.

We were worried about winning games, we weren’t worried about Shea’s (offense). He was playing big minutes against top players and that might change a little bit now so it’s going to help him, but in the long run it makes him a better player. -Gallant

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Golden Knights Award Campaigns

I was watching TV last night when I saw an ad for a candidate running for President in 2020.  That got me thinking. We’re already a month into the NHL season, should we start the campaign for Golden Knights to win individual awards?

I was still lukewarm on the idea, seeing as Vegas has only played 13 games and the awards show is seven months away. But then, my mind was instantly changed.

A second ad for Tom Steyer!

I figured if Tom is already trying to get my vote in November of 2020, it’s fair for me to start talking/writing about Mark Stone winning the Hart, Cody Glass for Calder, or Valentin Zykov for Masterton (he’s got about as much a chance as Tom 2020, right?)

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Hart Trophy – Most Valuable Player
VGK Candidate: Mark Stone

Stone currently sits in 9th place in both goals and points through the first month of the season. Of course, in order to win the Hart, he’ll need to jump into the top five at the very least, but a 100+ point effort from one of the league’s best defensive forwards would definitely warrant consideration. If Stone can keep on this pace, he’ll be pushing the century mark and he’ll likely be doing it for a team that’s running away with the Pacific Division by March. Honestly, it will probably take an injury or two to a few of the main candidates, but the longer Stone stays in the top 10 in points, the stronger the candidacy will get.

Vezina Trophy – Top Goaltender
VGK Candidate: Marc-Andre Fleury

Fleury currently leads the league in wins, minutes, saves, and point shares for goalies. He’s posted a .928 save percentage and 2.30 goals against average, both of which are better than the numbers Andrei Vasilevskiy put up en route to his Vezina last year. Fleury has made a countless number of incredible saves and is the main reason the Golden Knights are 8-5-0 rather than 5-8-0. Vegas seems once again primed to run him out there 60+ times this season which means he should be at or near the top in every statistical category for goalies when the season is over. It’s literally the only thing he hasn’t done in his career. Hopefully this is the year.

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Media Members Pick Perfect Golden Knights Lineup

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Heading into Thursday’s Halloween game against the Montreal Canadians, it appears the Golden Knights will be at full strength for the first time all season. Nate Schmidt, Alex Tuch, and Malcolm Subban are all back. Deryk Engelland’s “minor tweak” shouldn’t keep him out of the lineup, and despite being sent to the AHL yesterday, Nic Hague, Jake Bischoff, and Nic Roy are all available to the Golden Knights.

A full-strength roster means a full-strength lineup. But, what that looks like is in the eye of the beholder. The perfect lineup to me is not the perfect lineup to you is not the perfect lineup to Gerard Gallant.

So, we figured the best thing to do to illustrate the possible differences would be to ask members of the media to submit their lineup if they were the head coach. Each of the three writers for SinBin.vegas, plus Justin Emerson from the Las Vegas Sun, Ryan Wallis from Fox Sports Radio, and Jesse Granger from The Athletic each sent in their “perfect lineup” with a little explanation as to why they like it that way.

Ken Boehlke, SinBin.vegas

Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith
Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone
Carrier-Glass-Tuch
Nosek-Eakin-Reaves

McNabb-Schmidt
Merrill-Holden
Hague-Theodore

Explanation: First things first, Cody Glass needs to be playing center, so I put him there. Then, that left me with the option of playing Eakin as 4th line center or as a winger. We’ve never seen him as a wing and he’s a terrifically responsible defensive center that would fit well on the 4th line. So, now it’s Reaves, Pirri, or Roy? I liked what I saw from Roy, but it was as a center and for a single game. So, I’ll stick with what we know, and go with Reaves. The final option is who to play on the left wing on the 3rd and 4th lines. The options are Carrier or Nosek. Carrier has flashed when given the chance to show some offense, and with the Golden Knights, he’s never gotten a chance to play with skilled forwards. Nosek has, and he’s been just okay. So, let’s go with Carrier and see what happens.

As for the D, there wasn’t much to choose from. With Schmidt back, he clearly should be with McNabb to make the best pair possible and have them eat up the toughest minutes. Holden and Merrill have been perfectly suitable with each other so I’ll leave that. Which brings us to the only decision, Engelland or a rookie. I like Theodore on the right because it accentuates his offensive talents. Thus, I’m willing to roll the dice and try Hague with Theodore and see if they can hold their own in their own end. PK duties are fine with 88, 22, 15, and 3 with Engelland out of the lineup.

Justin Emerson, Las Vegas Sun

Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone
Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith
Eakin-Glass-Tuch
Carrier-Nosek-Roy

McNabb-Theodore
Merrill-Schmidt
Holden-Engelland

Explanation: I’d like to see what Glass could do as a playmaking center, particularly with a winger like Tuch. I also think as a lefty, Eakin would be better suited to the left wing than either righty on his line. On the fourth line, Nosek has proven to be a terrific defender that can win faceoffs, while Carrier and Roy’s speed can generate offense while still laying the hits that the Golden Knights value. McNabb and Theodore have been strong matching with other team’s top lines, while Merrill and Schmidt could help them against teams with a strong top-six. Holden has been playing well enough to keep in the lineup, while I haven’t seen enough out of Hague or Bischoff to think that right now they are better than the six veteran defensemen that Vegas has.

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