Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play protocol is underway which meant groups of six players were allowed to resume training on the ice at team facilities.
The Golden Knights provided a video of one of those groups including Marc-Andre Fleury, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, Nick Holden, and Deryk Engelland.
Group sessions are expected to continue for the next six weeks or so until the league re-opens for training camps prior to the 24-team playoff. The target date to start training camps is mid-July while the hope is to start playing games in early August.
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.
The main storyline heading into Golden Knights training camp was the battle between the five rookie defensemen to see who would win the roster spot and ultimately find themselves in the NHL. Camp came and went, and when Gerard Gallant submitted his opening night lineup, it was six veterans on the blue line and a pair of rookies in the press box.
Then hockey intervened, and now it’s become unavoidable. Tonight, Tuesday, and likely for the next 10 games or so the Golden Knights will be forced into playing at least one rookie on defense.
But before we get into which one will get the call first (and second and third), it’s imperative to understand how the Golden Knights veteran defensemen stack up.
First, there are the two studs, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb. Historically, the Golden Knights prefer to have a “shut-down pair” which they rely upon to take the lion’s share of the minutes against the opposition’s best line. With the new preference of Theodore playing on the right, McNabb’s history on the left, and nearly 20 games of experience playing together, those two will likely be a pair for the foreseeable future. They’ll probably be pushing 22 minutes apiece per night, and they’ll be asked to stop the #1 line of the Sharks, Bruins, Coyotes, Flames, and whoever else the Golden Knights play until Nate Schmidt returns.
Next, there’s Deryk Engelland, the crafty defensive-minded veteran who has averaged 20 minutes a game each of the first two years of the Golden Knights existence. He’s right-handed, plays on the right side, and really needs a puck-mover as a partner to have the most success. His most likely partner is Jon Merrill, at least at first. Merrill has the ability to move the puck, he was listed in the Golden Knights top-four defensemen to start the year, and he exclusively plays the left side.
Which brings us to the fifth and final veteran blueliner, and the player who’s success or failures basically determines the arrangement of the Golden Knights defensive unit until the return of #88. His name is Nick Holden, and he’s the “ambidextrous” (not really, but he has a long history of playing both sides of the defense over the past three years) defenseman that has become the fulcrum of the Vegas blue line.
Holden played 36 games on the right side last year while playing 25 on the left. He started this year off on the left of Deryk Engelland. He’s played with Engelland (Holden on left), Theodore (Holden on left), Merrill (Holden on right), and McNabb (Holden on right) in just the last six meaningful games he’s been in the lineup. In the preseason this year, he played with Bischoff (Holden on right) and Schuldt (Holden on right). Thus, he’s played with skaters, puck-movers, plodders, big guys, little guys, offensive guys, stay-at-home guys, or however else you want to label a defenseman.
I think we all feel comfortable playing with each other and fortunately, I think every guy’s played with everybody. Out of necessity last year with Schmidty out and even this year in training camp we were kind of interchangeable. -Holden
That’s why he’s the key piece moving forward. If Holden is not at least serviceable, the entire d-corps will falter. The side, the partner, how far up the lineup, it all matters for Holden. So, for me, finding the right spot for Holden is even more important than selecting which of the four rookies is in the lineup.
No rookie left training camp with a clear edge on anyone else. Sure, we all ranked them the best we could, but we really were splitting hairs. So, whichever one is in the lineup, you’ll probably be getting somewhat of the same caliber of performance. The difference between them is where Holden will end up, and with him, we’ve seen good, we’ve seen bad, and we’ve seen somewhere in between, and the Golden Knights need more good than bad while their best d-man sits out.
Which leads us to the options. These are listed in no particular order, except for the fact that Hague is listed first because he’s the most likely player to get the first chance.
When the Golden Knights take the ice on October 2nd there will likely only be one change along the blue line. Out went Colin Miller and in comes the winner of the rookie defenseman battle between Jimmy Schuldt, Nic Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff, and Dylan Coghlan.
However, the way they line up may have to change with the new makeup of the defense. With Miller in Buffalo, the Golden Knights are left with just one right-handed defenseman among the guaranteed mix. That leaves plenty of options in how Gerard Gallant and Ryan McGill will set the pairs.
Here’s an attempt to breakdown what each defenseman does best and who they might match up best with.
(Each player is listed with their best match as a partner, other options they could succeed with, and players to avoid. The match is to maximize that player’s skills, it is not necessarily to create the best pair. Other options are ranked in order from best option to worst. Players to avoid are listed in no particular order.)
Schmidt is the swiss-army knife of the Golden Knights defense. He really does it all and it allows for him to be partnered with pretty much anyone. As a mobile puck-mover, he can be paired with a stay-at-home player or he can be put with another puck-mover to create a dynamic pair. Schmidt is able to contribute offense, but he’s also one of the most reliable players the Golden Knights have in their own end. Schmidt has played on both sides, and played with Engelland and McNabb for the majority of last season. However, they have paired him with Theodore on multiple occasions, including in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. It’s never really gone well, but there’s been a willingness to try it. Best Match: McNabb Other Options: Schuldt, Engelland, Merrill, Theodore, Hague, Whitecloud, Coghlan, Bischoff, Holden Avoid: None
The defensive stallwart, McNabb almost has to play with a skater. That being said, McNabb has really been at his best with Schmidt as his partner. Late in the year last season, they put him with Theodore, and while Shea thrived it often led to McNabb being caught in vulnerable defensive positions which was highlighted by the OT goal that ended Vegas’ season. Throughout the two year history, the Golden Knights have really only used McNabb with Theodore, Schmidt, and Engelland and one of those pairs was a nightmare. McNabb has spent the entirety of his Golden Knights career playing on the left side. Best Match: Schmidt Other Options: Theodore, Schuldt, Coghlan, Whitecloud, Hague, Avoid: Engelland, Bischoff, Merrill, Holden
In exchange for selecting Jason Garrison, and his exorbitant contract, in the Expansion Draft, the Golden Knights received a 2nd round pick (which they traded for Keegan Kolesar), a 4th round pick (which they selected Paul Cotter) and Nikita Gusev.
Three assets in exchange for not only taking a bad contract off the hands of a contending team, but also laying off players like Yanni Gourde, J.T. Brown, Andrej Sustr, Slater Koekkoek, and others.
It was a cross between the expansion situations with Columbus and the New York Islanders and that of Minnesota and Florida, but it most resembled the pickle Anaheim found itself in.
With the Ducks, Vegas received Shea Theodore for laying off Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson and picking up the bad contract of Clayton Stoner. Anaheim’s available options were better, but Garrison’s contract was much worse.
So, from Tampa Vegas got a pair of picks and an asset who was sitting over in Russia waiting for the time to come to make the leap to the NHL. No matter when that happened, he would become a Golden Knights.
If you go through every trade Vegas executed at the Expansion Draft, it’s reasonable to believe that Gusev’s value at the Expansion Draft was somewhere between a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick. The exact value depends on how badly Tampa needed to get rid of Garrison’s contract as well as how much they valued their exposed players.
Since that day, George McPhee and the Golden Knights tried to diminish Gusev’s market price, while the Russian has done nothing but raise it. Finally it came to a head yesterday when the Devils sent a measly package of a 2nd and a 3rd round pick to end the Gusev in Vegas saga.
When Vegas acquired Gusev, he had just finished a breakout season putting up 71 points in the 2016-17 season. It was the first time he scored more than 40 points in the KHL. On the international stage he had dominated the World Junior tournament years prior and put up impressive numbers at the World Cup but his track record as short.
Since, he’s won back-to-back KHL MVP’s, broke the record for assists in a season, won a Gold medal, dominated at the IIHF World Championships and cemented himself as the best player outside of the NHL. (Read more about that here.)
In other words, he went from a player who appeared to be headed in the right direction to one who burst into a full fledged superstar everywhere but the NHL. Whatever his stock was in June of 2017, it has surely risen dramatically since.
Then there are the Golden Knights who did the opposite. At every pass, they diminished his value.
Now that the wait is over and fan favorite Deryk Engelland signed his new contract to stay in Las Vegas, it’s time to discuss his future impact. First off, let’s note that Engelland will receive less money in 2019-2020 but will have a chance to make up for it.
Deryk Engelland has re-signed with the Golden Knights for the league minimum of $700,000 with performance bonuses which could reach as high as $1.5 millon.
At 37-years-old you’d assume his overall presence would begin to drop off. After all, his time on ice dwindled from 20:17 ATOI in 2017-18, to 19:53 ATOI in 2018-19. I’m being sarcastic, that’s not much of a difference. Same can be said for his penalty kill minutes, it’s virtually equal to VGK’s first season and I could argue he was as good if not better in 2018-19.
Just take a look at Engelland’s 2019 Postseason penalty killing performance.
Game 1: 4:26 PK Minutes (Game Leader), 1 Goal/5 San Jose Power Plays
Game 2: 9:19 PK Minutes (Game Leader), 1 Goal/8 San Jose Power Plays
Game 3: 4:16 PK Minutes (Team Leader), 1 Goal/3 Power Plays
Game 4: 4:31 PK Minutes, 0 Goals/4 San Jose Power Plays
Game 5: 3:15 PK Minutes (Game Leader), 1 Goal/3 San Jose Power Plays
Game 6: 2:45 PK Minutes, 0 Goals/2 San Jose Power Plays
Game 7: 7:56 PK Minutes (Game Leader), *4 Goals/9 San Jose Power Plays
Total: 36:28 PK Minutes, 5 Goals/34 Power Plays, 0.13 San Jose PPG when Engelland was on the ice.
*You all know why there’s an asterisk
So just on defensive special teams alone, Engelland’s return is a positive one. However, the issue could be on even-strength. How will the Golden Knights coaching staff deploy the elder statesmen this season? Is it possible Jon Merrill, Nick Holden(if still on the roster), or Rookie d-men see more time on 5v5 than in 2018-19. That direction would balance Engelland’s minutes under 18-19 minutes a game. Which could be more beneficial for the team.
A big part of my game is killing penalties-Deryk Engelland
Another element to Engelland’s 2019-2020 usage will be who he is paired up with. Over the past two seasons, it’s been a consistent dose of Engelland and Shea Theodore. I’d assume with the uncertainty of the younger defenseman, that pairing would remain the same to start training camp and the season. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way, and frankly I don’t think it will. With the possibility of a rookie in the lineup nightly, Vegas may want to break in the young blueliner with an experienced, reliable defenseman like Engelland. It worked for Theodore.
In a perfect world, Engelland would see less even-strength minutes and continue to be a rock on the penalty kill. Keep in mind the Golden Knights paid him less money to stay which could be a sign the organization sees Engelland playing a lesser role this season. Or it’s just another shrewd business move by the front office.
Either way, subtracting 5v5 minutes means fresher legs on the PK. It’s an easy, obvious approach to distribute minutes and get the most out of the 37-year-old in 2019-2020. It’s almost too obvious if a half-wit like me can figure it out. Clearly he’s valued and trusted on the ice by the coaching staff which would lead you to believe they expect the same #5 out there. And how can you fault them after two successful seasons with Vegas?
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.
Say it ain’t so, ref! (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
Here we are, 8:40 into the 1st period at T-Mobile Arena. The Golden Knights are buzzing, creating chances left and right, and defending about as well as they have all year, when Shea Theodore skates through nearly the entire Buffalo Sabres team to score a highlight toe-drag goal. The arena is going crazy, the Golden Knights are celebrating, and that nervous feeling that’s been plaguing Vegas early this season feels like it’s fading away, but then, the referee skates to the red line, turns on his mic and says “Buffalo is challenging if the play is offside.”
Watching the replay, it was clearly offside as Max Pacioretty entered the zone early. That feeling of euphoria, gone.
We knew right away the goal was offside as soon as we looked down. It wasn’t a big deal. We knew it was coming. -Gerard Gallant
When something like that happens it all part of the game, you’ve got to regroup from it. It’s still an unbelievable play by Shea, it’s still a highlight. -Brad Hunt
Wrong little guy skating to the box, but you get the point. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
Ok fine, no big deal, right? But then, minutes later, Tomas Hyka took a hooking penalty, and all the good the Golden Knights had done in the 1st 10 minutes was ready to disappear into thin air if the penalty was not killed off.
It’s an all too familiar story seven games into the season, and a feeling every Golden Knights fan had the second the penalty box door opened. Here we go again.
Yeah, it felt like that was our luck at that time, but you know, what can you do? It’s in the past and all you can do is battle forward and I’m proud of the way we did that. -William Karlsson
That’s exactly what the Golden Knights did. They killed that penalty (and like a thousand others), they kept battling through the misfortune, and they made it change. Jonathan Marchessault scored a power play goal, Cody Eakin raced for a shorthanded one, and Karlsson even got on the board for the first time this year as well.
One of the Golden Knights’ major additions this offseason was bringing in defenseman Nick Holden as a free agent. The 6’4″ versatile defenseman has scored 10 goals twice and has tallied 20 or more points three times in his career. He’s responsible defensively and is consistently deployed to start shifts in his own zone (56% career D-Zone Starts).
However, the moment Holden’s signing to Vegas was announced, a barrage of hate was thrown towards the Golden Knights by fans of Holden’s previous teams, the Avalanche, Rangers, and Bruins. Look…
— The 3 Headed mets GM is worse than your teams GM (@SAQUONSEAZ) July 1, 2018
But why? Why is it pretty much universal when you ask fans what they think of Holden they react negatively? To find the answer, we went straight to the source and asked the man himself, why does everyone hate you?
I think cause I’m not a real flashy guy. I try to do the little things right all the time. I won’t make any real big plays where fans will notice me. They’ll notice when I get scored on and they won’t notice anything else. They won’t notice if I block a shot. Most fans like the offensive guys and the tough guys and I’m neither. -Nick Holden
What Holden does is play good defense. Holden has posted four consecutive seasons with a defensive point share of over 2.5 and registered a 3.9 in each of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. For reference, only Brayden McNabb (5.0) and Nate Schmidt (4.8) scored over 3.9 for Vegas last year.
I learned a few years ago to not really watch that stuff, it just matters what happens in here (the locker room). -Holden
We’ll see what Vegas fans eventually think of Holden when he hits the ice for the Golden Knights for real. Odds are they’ll hate him too, even though he’s a really good player, just not the right kind of really good player.
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.