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Pick A Pair: The Best D-Pair Match For Every VGK Defenseman

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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.)

Nate Schmidt

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

Brayden McNabb

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

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Will Deryk Engelland’s Role Be Reduced in 2019-2020?

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.

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.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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?

Golden Knights Agree They’ll Have To Protect Their “Bubble” Better

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Jason Pothier)

Earlier last week Golden Knights defensemen Shea Theodore talked about what the team learned from last year’s second round series against the San Jose Sharks.

It was our first playoff run as a team and we learned a lot from each series. (The Sharks) are good with their sticks around the net. When you look at Pavelski, the amount of goals he’s tipped in right around low. Kane’s another guy, Hertl’s a guy, Couture, they’ve got a lot of guys that play really well in tight and around the net. -Theodore

One of the elements to the Sharks game last season was to crowd the open space in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and boy did they ever do it again in Game 1. As Theodore mentioned, Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane and Logan Couture were, and still are, tough to handle. San Jose tried circling around and camping out in front of Fleury, but thankfully for Golden Knights fans, the Golden Flower was superb.

On Wednesday night, the tables were turned. Sharks players spent a majority of the night camped out in front of Fleury and the Golden Knights couldn’t clear players out of the “bubble.” The area from the crease and extended out a few feet has to be locked down if Vegas wants to keep the Sharks off the board as the series continues.

Coach Gerard Gallant spoke about the Sharks tight down low-pressure yesterday at his daily press conference.

We gave them too much time there. They came out they were physical and they forechecked real good. You got to be physical, you have to be strong. They spent too much time in our zone against our D. -Gallant

So, what’s the adjustment for Game 2?

I think you have to be aware of where they are. When they add that fourth guy in the rush as d-men we have to be talking to our forwards on who to pick up. That’s when it can become really deadly. -Theodore

While we all watched Fleury make amazing saves series after series last season it’s tough to expect him to do it again. He’ll need less traffic and double parked Sharks in his zone. If his teammates can do a better job of sealing up the bubble in Game 2 they’ll have a great chance to even the series.

Confidence Not An Issue For Vegas Against San Jose

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

We’ve all seen it over the past two seasons, the Golden Knights have the San Jose Sharks number. In their 14 matchups, Vegas is 9-2-3 against San Jose in the regular season and postseason combined. I know the team won’t come out and say it but I will, the Golden Knights own the Sharks. Both teams know it, both fanbases know it.

One guy that doesn’t care about anything from the past is Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant.

To be totally honest with you, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done against them the last year and a half. It’s going to be a brand new series. It’s going to be two real good teams battling for a chance to move on in the playoffs. I don’t care. They’re a really talented hockey team and they’re better than they were last year. I think we’re better than we were last year. It should be a great series and the past means nothing to us. -Gallant

Gallant is very good at downplaying but he’s well aware of the advantage his team has over San Jose. He correctly rattled off his team’s record against the Sharks in Tuesday’s press conference. The players are well aware of their success against San Jose too. But will Vegas’ confidence get in the way? And how will the Golden Knights keep from being overconfident heading into their first round series against San Jose.

We are hoping to use that to our advantage and be confident against them. We believe we can dominate them. Go into their building and play well like we’ve proven that we can do. Historically, it’s a tough place to play but I think we’ve done a good job in that building. We’ve kind of gotten them off their game and getting into our game quickly. We’re going to try and stay confident and believe in ourselves. -Jon Merrill

Confidence aside Merrill isn’t concerned what’s going on in the Sharks locker room. The focus is all about his team, and his locker room.

We worry about ourselves. We focus on what we need to do. We’re a tight group and our success is going to come from here. -Merrill

Shea Theodore has turned into a bonafide top-four defenseman this season, and not just his skills on the ice. Theodore transitioned from a young prospect and becoming a well-paid veteran. He recognizes his team’s success and isn’t afraid to boast about it.

The games that we’ve played against them they’ve been intense, they’ve been physical. They’re a good team but when we play our style, I think we’re getting into their heads. We got Reavo and he does a pretty good job running around and chirping guys… It definitely gets us going. -Shea Theodore

Theodore wasn’t being cocky or trying to send bulletin board material for San Jose. The Sharks don’t need that, they have enough already.

Yeah, things change. It’ll be something we’ll feel and see how it goes. -Theodore

Bottom line, Vegas has gotten the better of San Jose over two seasons and they have the opportunity to continue their dominance in the first round. The question is, can San Jose do anything to stop it?

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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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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Valentin Zykov Helps Fill An Age Gap For VGK

Youth is a problem for VGK, hopefully Valentin Zykov can help fix that. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The average age of the Golden Knights current active roster is 28. If you weight it by time on ice that number jumps to 29, the 3rd highest in the league, tied with San Jose and Los Angeles.

The team has eight players that are at least 30 and another nine that are 27 or 28. There are only three guys under the age of 24 that have seen the ice for the Golden Knights in 2018-19 with Alex Tuch being the youngest at 22.

That distribution is a massive reason why Valentin Zykov was not only claimed by the Golden Knights, but also why other arrangements (Brandon Pirri to AHL) were made to allow him to stick around.

Age-wise he fits into a group where we don’t have a lot of players. Our only young players on our team are Theodore and Tuch. So it’s good business by us to give this a chance and take the opportunity to evaluate him. -Kelly McCrimmon, Assistant GM on VGK Twitter

Well before the season began (on 07/24/18) we took a look at the entire Golden Knights system, including draft picks, free agent signings, and the Pacioretty trade and identified this age gap.

Since then, things have only gotten worse as the Pacioretty for Tatar and Suzuki trade made the Golden Knights older, Pirri has been the only call-up to have an impact (he turns 28 in April), and young guys like Reid Duke, Tomas Hyka, Jake Bischoff, Zach Whitecloud, Dylan Coghlan, and others haven’t had an impact.

Age Range# of PlayersPlayed in NHL in 18-19
≤20210
21-2382
24-26177
27-291110
≥2988

*Table includes all players in VGK system. Included: Nikita Gusev. Not Included: Vadim Shipachyov, Philip Holm, Teemu Pulkkinen, David Clarkson

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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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Two Golden Knights Say VGK Played Well, Two Others Completely Disagree; The Divide Is Not Ideal

There hasn’t been nearly enough of this thus far. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights are now 1-3-0 in their first four games of the season. Two points in four games is not going to make anyone happy. However, there is a bit of a sense that Vegas has been playing a little better than the scores have indicated at times.

Specifically, last night in Washington, the Golden Knights created plenty of goal scoring chances and got bit by the post a few times. To me, it was a well-played game for Vegas on the road against the best team in hockey. On most nights, especially at home, that level of play will win games, even with the few mistakes that were made. One Golden Knight and the Jack Adams award winner agree.

Maybe the score wasn’t relative to the game that was shown. We had a lot of posts, maybe three or four. We had the puck a lot. I thought it was probably one of our better games so far. It’s a good sign. We are getting chances, we are getting pucks to the net. We’re going to score at some point. -Marc-Andre Fleury

I thought we played a real good game 5-on-5, we got lots of scoring chances, their goalie played real well, so I liked a lot of our game but we gave them too many odd-man rushes and too many power plays. -Gerard Gallant

However, that sentiment was not shared by everyone in the locker room.

I don’t think this was our best game. We played like a team with no identity and if we are going to try and trade chances with the Capitals we aren’t going to win. It wasn’t our best and there are some things we can tighten up and I think awareness is something we can do a much better job with. -Reilly Smith

I just think as a whole we aren’t playing our game. We are taking too many penalties. It’s a long year but we have to figure out things quick. Our goal from this road trip is to be a .500 team and when we are playing like this, that’s not going to happen. We definitely have to work some things out and find our game. -Shea Theodore

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