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The Jon Merrill The Golden Knights Hoped For Has Finally Arrived

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

When the Golden Knights took Jon Merrill in the NHL expansion draft from New Jersey a couple of years ago, they basically were betting on the come.

Merrill had a little NHL experience. But the former University of Michigan defenseman could do a lot of things. He could skate. He could move the puck. He could take the body. He had good size. Basically, there were enough tools in the box for general manager George McPhee to take a shot.

And he didn’t cost a lot either. According to CapFriendly.com, Merrill was scheduled to make only $1,137,500 for 2017-18, so it was well within GMGM’s budget.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But Merrill didn’t get a chance to show he was ready to be an NHL regular. In 34 games last season, he averaged just over 16 minutes of ice time, had one goal and two assists. Many fans thought he wouldn’t be back for 2018-19.

However, he had a lot going for him. There was the salary. He was only 26. He was a good soldier and was liked by his teammates and coaches. It was more a matter of opportunity.

And when Nate Schmidt was suspended for the first 20 games of the season, Merrill got his chance. Coach Gerard Gallant paired him with Nick Holden, the free agent the Knights had acquired over the summer and who had essentially replaced Luca Sbisa.

But the pair struggled to find chemistry early. They were vulnerable in their own end. They made questionable decisions in when to pinch to keep the play alive in the offensive zone. And the skeptics figured Merrill would be the scapegoat and would be sent to the minors or just waived outright.

Yet, he stuck around after Schmidt returned Nov. 18. He didn’t see a lot of ice time and was a healthy scratch for 17 games of an 18-game stretch. But he never stopped working and assistant coach Ryan McGill, who works with the defensemen, kept Merrill engaged and didn’t let his confidence sag. At some point, another opportunity would present itself.

And it did. On Dec. 17, Colin Miller sustained an upper body injury against Columbus. He has been out ever since. But unlike Schmidt’s suspension where Merrill may have played somewhat cautiously, he has been aggressive and sharp. Gallant reunited Holden with Merrill as the third D pairing (Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are the top pair with Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore the second pairing) and voila! They’ve connected and have been a big part of the Knights’ recent success. The team won seven straight and have won eight of their last 10. The Knights have 60 points, one less than second-place San Jose and two behind first-place Calgary.

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The Golden Knights Keep Finding Ways To Win, Even Without Key Pieces

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

Remember when I talked to Bill Foley a few weeks ago and asked him about Colin Miller? Remember his response?

But he’ll be back pretty quick. I just talked to him and he should be back soon. -Foley

“Pretty quick” has turned into “Quite a while” for the Golden Knights’ defenseman. He is an important part of this team and for him to be out of the lineup taxes everyone else on the VGK blue line.

Yet the Knights continue to win. They beat the New York Rangers 4-2 Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena for their seventh straight win. They’re tied for first place with Calgary in the Pacific Division and are at the top of the Western Conference race with 58 points heading into Thursday’s huge game with San Jose at T-Mobile. The Sharks trail the Knights by a point.

And it’s not just Miller that VGK has been missing. They’ve had to do without Max Pacioretty, William Carrier and Reilly Smith along with Miller. Pacioretty is back and he has taken Smith’s spot on the top line with William Karlsson (Happy belated 26th birthday Wild Bill!) and Jonathan “Bleepin Spider Monkey” Marchessault. Who knows how long Smith will be out? So let’s see how Patches fares with his new linemates. He looked pretty good Tuesday, working hard as always, standing up for Karlsson after he was hit from behind by Tony DeAngelo in the second period.

And while Smith’s absence is big, the Knights have enough depth to compensate for his stint on IR. My bigger concern is Miller. He is missed on the power play. He is missed when it comes to joining the rush. He is one of the team’s best skaters and he can recover for his partner, or himself and get back in the play.

Miller has not played since sustaining an upper-body injury Dec. 17 at Columbus. Tuesday was the 10th game he missed. He has skated sporadically on his own at City National Arena in the last week but there’s nothing to indicate he’s close to rejoining the lineup.

When you see him taking a turn in practice in a grey defenseman’s practice sweater, that’s when you’ll know Miller is close to getting back to playing in games.

Yet it feels like he’s not missed. So how are the Knights winning without a valuable cog in their lineup?

It begins and ends with Marc-Andre Fleury.

No. 29 continues to play at an elite level and he can cover for his teammates’ miscues. He’ll tell you he’s just doing his job. But it’s more than that. He’s inspiring confidence in his teammates. They know they can screw up occasionally and have Fleury cover for them. It has been that way since Day One of the franchise.

Even backup Malcolm Subban has done very good things when he’s between the pipes. When your goalies are playing well, it gives everyone a little more boost of energy because you don’t want to let them down.

And let’s give some credit to Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt, who have alternated filling in for Miller. Merrill has played in seven of the team’s last eight contests and he has proven to be relatively reliable playing with Nick Holden. The two struggled together when they were paired together early in the season when Nate Schmidt was sitting out his 20-game suspension.

But Schmidt has played extremely well since his return in late November and having him out there logging the heavy minutes he normally does helps the entire defense corps. Merrill and Holden are back together and they seem more comfortable as a pairing and maybe the fact Holden has settled in has something to do with it.

Deryk Engelland said it’s all about everyone just doing their job. If you’re inserted into the lineup, whether you’re a defenseman or a forward, you’re expected to fit in.

I think we’ve kept things simple and playing as a five-man unit, like we did last year. The guys have done a really good job filling in (for Miller) and we’ve done that all season. When guys have gone out, it’s given other guys a chance to step up and play more minutes. -Engelland

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Las Vegas Is An NHL Town; Can It Be A College Hockey Town?

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

Late in my chat with Bill Foley a couple of weeks ago, we got around to briefly talking about high school hockey in Las Vegas and how it was important to launch the sport in town to help grow the game.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the opportunity to talk college hockey.

This weekend, four NCAA Division I teams — Western Michigan, Connecticut, Air Force and St. Lawrence played at T-Mobile Arena in the 2nd annual Ice Vegas Invitational which was won by WMU, 4-1 over Air Force (Uconn beat St. Lawrence 6-3 in the third place game). It was a nice event and even though it was sparsely attended (Just 1,800 on Saturday), it will hopefully be a forbearer for the future.

My hope is we’ll have the NCAA Frozen Four championship here and perhaps UNLV will one day be a participant once it goes Division I.

Pipe dream you say? A realistic possibility, says me.

Let’s start with bringing the Frozen Four to Vegas. With the NCAA willing to host championship events in cities that have legalized sports betting — Yeah, Vegas qualifies! (LOL) — the possibility exists that a Frozen Four could land here.

With the hotels, casinos, restaurants, clubs, shopping and temperate weather, Las Vegas would be a great host city. Fans would love to come here for the weekend and root their teams to the title. The locals, at least the smart ones, would be part of a likely sellout crowd. The Golden Knights would obviously be on the road for what would correspond to the final week of the NHL regular season. But that’s easily done.

Who doesn’t love a major sporting event in Vegas? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Unfortunately, they would also be out of town the second week of March as the Pac-12 basketball tournament takes over the T. So two of the final four weeks would see the Knights on the road, and if they are in a battle for a playoff spot or division title, being away from home could potentially prove problematic.

But the overall good of the game would trump any inconveniences. College hockey has been a proven breeding ground for future NHL players. Just look at the Golden Knights’ current roster — Nate Schmidt and Erik Haula (Minnesota), Alex Tuch (Boston College), Max Pacioretty and Jon Merrill (Michigan), Brad Hunt (Bemidji State) and Paul Stastny (Denver) all played collegiately. Having the Frozen Four would no doubt motivate local kids to pursue the game at a higher level and try to get to the NHL through the college route.

Which brings me to UNLV.

As most of you know, the Rebels have been skating as a club program for over 15 years. They currently play at the Division I level of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. They sell out City National Arena and they have a strong following, both on campus and in the community.

You may also know the program is aspiring to go varsity, and do it soon. They were making some headway with then-president Len Jessup and then-athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy. They had secured some of the $15 million the team thought it would take to go varsity, including providing funding for a women’s sport, most likely lacrosse, though hockey wasn’t completely out of the question.

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The Real Paul Stastny Has Arrived

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

When James Neal opted not to re-sign with the Golden Knights back in July, the team lost one of its smartest players.

But not to fret. The Knights acquired a player with a very high hockey I.Q. when they signed Paul Stastny.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The veteran center knows how to play the game. He does things the right way. He understands the subtleties of hockey and he makes his linemates better, which is what any playmaking center is supposed to do.

But when he got hurt in Buffalo back on Oct. 8 and missed 30 games, everyone forgot all those characteristics. He was out of sight and out of mind.

He has been back for 10 games now and with his return, the Knights have returned to the top of the Pacific Division standings. He is centering the second line and despite an ever-changing cast on his flanks, Stastny is producing as are his linemates.

The initial plan was to have Stastny center for Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch. But he has also played with Erik Haula, Reilly Smith and Brandon Pirri. Currently, the line is Stastny, Tuch and Pirri. Pirri has six goals and three assists. Tuch, who has 14 goals, the latest an empty-netter to seal Tuesday’s 2-0 New Year’s Day shutout of the Los Angeles Kings, has registered at least one point in five of his last six games.

Stastny said it’s all about communicating.

It’s not that hard to adjust (to playing with different players). You talk on the bench and make sure everyone is on the same page. -Stastny

Pirri, who has bounced around the NHL and has played with a lot of good players, said Stastny is really good at adjusting his game to fit his linemates’.

His character is so good. He makes my life and Tuchy’s life so much easier. He tells you where he’s going to be and he gets you the puck. He’s a playmaker and all you have to do is get open and he’ll get it to you. -Pirri

But it’s not just the obvious that makes Stastny so effective. It’s the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that he does over the course of a game.

Here are two examples:

Midway through the first period Tuesday, the Knights had lost possession in the Kings’ zone. No big deal, right? You try and win back the puck and you start over. Stastny did just that by getting to a loose puck, then making a subtle but sweet backhand pass to Ryan Carpenter who turned it into a quality scoring chance.

Jack Campbell made the save on Carpenter. But because Stastny knew where to be on the ice, he was able to get to the puck, then knew what to do with it.

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The Approaching New Year Doesn’t Mean A New Start For The Golden Knights

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

LOS ANGELES — The calendar turns the page to 2019 on Tuesday and for most of us it’s a chance for a fresh start, an opportunity to change our lives and routines and improve our overall lot.

However, if you’re an NHL team, it doesn’t quite work that way.

By now, the 31 teams have already made their bed, so to speak. And barring collapses or rebirths of epic proportions, the teams at the top and the teams at the bottom of the standings figure to remain in place over the second half of the season.

The idea that Tampa Bay is going to crater seems highly unlikely. The Lightning have dealt with their fair share of injuries yet they remain the NHL’s elite team. Toronto, which is second overall in the NHL and has the misfortune of playing in the same division as Tampa Bay, also doesn’t appear to be in any danger of an imminent collapse. But boy, wouldn’t it be something if the Maple Leafs did indeed nosedive and somehow miss the postseason? The reaction from Leafs Nation would be insane.

Instead, the most rabid fans are already planning a Stanley Cup parade down Yonge Street in Toronto.

What about the Golden Knights, you ask? Patience, SinBinners. I’ll get to your beloved team in a moment.

At the other end of the spectrum, the likelihood the improved Kings can rally and make the playoffs is slim. Even with the better effort they’ve given Willie Desjardins since he took over for John Stevens, the Kings appear to have dug too deep a hole to climb out of. Especially since Calgary continues to play at a high level and the Flames have responded well to first-year coach Bill Peters.

Ok, so now let’s talk about the Golden Knights.

Vegas is weathering the storm of injuries and have positioned itself to be a postseason participant. They have been doing it with key pieces missing (you know who they are) and the fact is the Knights are managing to fill the void with some very nice individual efforts.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Cody Eakin had a strong first half as he filled in for Paul Stastny and Erik Haula on the second line. Will Carrier and Ryan Reaves have given the bottom six some unexpected scoring. Alex Tuch has emerged as a quality power forward. William Karlsson has found his mojo after a slow start.

The return of Nate Schmidt helped the entire team. Nick Holden’s play has gotten better as he has gotten more comfortable.

Brandon Pirri is making the most of his opportunity since being called up from Chicago (I’m not counting the Christmas “demotion” which was basically George McPhee using the rules to his advantage).

And of course, Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like an All-Star, which he should be when the rosters are announced in a week or two.

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Do The Golden Knights Miss Colin Miller? You bet!

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

When Nate Schmidt returned to the Golden Knights’ lineup last month after serving his 20-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, everyone assumed everything would be fine in the VGK universe.

Of course, everyone was assuming that Colin Miller would always be in the lineup too.

That was a safe assumption considering Miller had never missed a game, regular or postseason. He, along with William Karlsson, were the Knights’ Iron Men. Gerard Gallant could put their names in the lineup in indelible ink and not worry.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But Miller got hurt Dec. 17 against Columbus. He sustained an upper-body injury and he hasn’t played since. The Knights lost to the Blue Jackets that night and have struggled with Miller sidelined since. They didn’t look good in beating the Islanders last Thursday, squandered third-period leads to Montreal Saturday and Los Angeles Sunday and in doing so, left two valuable points on the table. Those two points would have looked pretty good this morning as you peruse the NHL standings.

Vegas has 44 points, one behind second-place San Jose and just three behind Pacific Division-leading Calgary. Yes, they’d be in the postseason if the playoffs started today. But given the way things are shaking out, every point matters. And those two points are going to have to be made up on the road somewhere — maybe at Nashville or Winnipeg — where the Knights will not be favored by the oddsmakers.

So what’s the point?

This team needs Colin Miller back on the blue line, pronto.

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The Creator Speaks – On A Load Of Subjects

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

Bill Foley looked tired. And indeed, he was.

The chairman and CEO of the Golden Knights and the man who brought the NHL to Las Vegas had gotten home late from Thursday’s exhilarating 4-2 come-from-behind win over the New York Islanders at T-Mobile Arena.

He was about to spend 90 minutes outside “The Arsenal” team store at City National Arena Friday afternoon, signing copies of the team’s official book that recapped its magical inaugural season. And the line was long. After all, how many fans get to meet the owner of the team they root for?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But that’s what makes the man Ken refers to as “The Creator” so special. He loves interacting with the Golden Knights’ fan base. He’s so down-to-earth that even though he’s a billionaire, he can relate with those who sit in the balcony at the Fortress and who have invested more than money in this team.

I found that out early on when I first interviewed Foley back in 2014. Friday, we sat down in a conference room adjacent to his office at CNA, an office, which by the way, is fairly spartan. Not a lot of memorabilia or pictures. Very simple, perhaps an ode to his West Point days in the 1960s.

We talked for just over 16 minutes (you can listen to the entire audio of our conversation below) and we touched on a wide range of topics.

Remember, this is a man who had to bury his son in August after 31-year-old William died. He is still grieving and he admitted he’ll never get over his loss.

You can replace an injured player or a player who is under-achieving. But you cannot replace a family member who died way too early.

But he said hockey and the Golden Knights have been cathartic. And for those couple of hours when the Knights are playing, he can allow himself to focus on the team and the game.

It’s a great distraction. -Bill Foley

Normally, this would be a regular column. But Foley had so many interesting things to say, I figured why not let you hear and read everything?

So here’s my Q&A with the Top Knight from Friday afternoon:

SinBin: How would you assess the state of the Golden Knights on the ice at the moment?

Bill Foley: “Honestly, I believe we’re in a really good spot. We’re 22 away and now 15 at home. It’s the biggest split in the league. I think the next closest is the Avalanche who are 20 and 15. So we got through that horrendous period of five at home, 17 away.

“One of the goals was to get a point a game. We needed 17 points and we got 20, so we got through that. And we did it with a lot of injuries. (Max) Pacioretty is out again for a bit. (Erik) Haula’s month-to-month …”

SB: Did you see that brace on his knee?

BF: “Yeah, it’s terrible.”

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Pirri Picks Up Where He Left Off

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

It’s like Brandon Pirri never left.

“I’m happy for him getting the opportunity and he comes in there and scores a huge goal for us.” -Gallant (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

You may recall when the Golden Knights brought up the veteran center late last season and he responded with three goals in two games. Thursday, Pirri was back in the NHL, playing in T-Mobile Arena for the first time in a regular season game. Once again, he delivered, scoring Vegas’ first goal after trailing the New York Islanders 2-0 in the second period.

The goal was the wake-up call the Knights needed as they scored four unanswered to rally and beat the Islanders 4-2.

Why was it working for Pirri?

Things happen a little quicker up here (in the NHL). So I’m just trying to keep things simple. -Brandon Pirri

Pirri came up from the Chicago Wolves after leading the American Hockey League in scoring. He was paired initially with Paul Stastny and Alex Tuch. But Gerard Gallant decided to shake things up in the second period, moving Tuch to the first line and dropping Reilly Smith down to the second line.

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William Carrier – Goal Scorer: Has A Nice Ring To It, Doesn’t It?

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.**

When you look at the Golden Knights stats, all the familiar names are at the top.

There’s William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. There’s Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch. Max Pacioretty’s name is up there too.

But you probably weren’t counting on seeing Cody Eakin with 11 goals. And it’s highly unlikely you figured Ryan Reaves would have six goals at this point.

Yet, there’s one name that sticks out when we’re talking about lighting the lamp: William Carrier.

In just 36 games, the rugged left wing has seven goals. That’s more than his entire NHL career going into this season.

Carrier scored all of one goal last season — back on Oct. 27, 2017 in a 7-0 rout of Colorado. He only played in 37 games due to a series of injuries that had him in and out of the lineup.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When Carrier takes his first shift Thursday against the New York Islanders at T-Mobile Arena, it will match his number of appearances from a year ago.

And consider when Vegas selected Carrier from Buffalo in the expansion draft, he had scored just five goals for the Sabres his rookie season of 2016-17. So it wasn’t like we were talking Auston Matthews here.

But George McPhee sees things through a different lens than the rest of us. He knew Carrier was a fast skater. He could win footraces to loose pucks. By doing so, he enhanced his ability to create scoring chances.

There was a stat that came out Tuesday that Carrier led the NHL in wrap-around opportunities and that’s due in part to his speed. But also it has something to do with strength. Carrier’s a strong guy and he’s hard to knock off the puck.

But Carrier also has softer hands than everyone thought. He has decent touch near the net and while no one will mistake him for a sniper like Marchessault, he knows what to do when he gets the puck on his stick. He is shooting at a career-best 10.8 percent (seven goals on 65 shots).

He has found a comfort level playing on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s line. And whether it is Reaves or Tomas Nosek skating on the other wing, Carrier has worked well with both, even though Reaves and Nosek are polar opposites when it comes to style of play.

The line’s been playing pretty good. We complement each other really well and we’re looking to score. -William Carrier

But seven goals?

I think a lot of it is maturity. I’m a year older. I know what to expect and I’m more comfortable out there. I think I’m having a little more puck luck this year. Last year, I was getting great chances but the puck wasn’t going in for me. This year, it is. -Carrier.

Bellemare has a theory as to why he and Carrier work well together:

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It Was Only A Matter Of Patience For William Karlsson To Heat Up

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.**

When the Golden Knights step onto the ice at Madison Square Garden today, a familiar face will be at the top of the stat sheet.

Yes, that’s William Karlsson’s name on the first line of goals and points.

Karlsson leads Vegas with 13 goals and is tied with Jonathan Marchessault with 26 points. He’s made a few subtle adjustments and he’s starting to find the back of the net. I don’t know if he’ll get to his high-water mark of 43 goals and 78 points from a year ago, but the fact he’s putting the puck in the net with more regularity of late bodes well for the Knights in their quest to secure a spot in the postseason come April.

Karlsson heating up is mirroring last year. He had just three goals in October of 2017 and at this juncture a year ago, he had 15 goals thanks to a big November which saw him score 10 times. So maybe it was just a matter of patience… again.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Rare is the circumstance that a team does well despite its number one line failing to produce. The Knights are getting that production from their top line and give Gerard Gallant credit for not breaking up Karlsson, Marchessault and Reilly Smith early in the season when they weren’t dominating. He had unwavering faith in his top trio and he didn’t panic when Karlsson struggled early on.

At first, I thought maybe it was an equipment issue that was the cause of Wild Bill’s early struggles in October. Maybe he had changed sticks and the move didn’t work. Or maybe his old stick had run out of magic from a year ago.

I think it was more of lacking some puck luck and teams defending him better and trying to take away areas of the ice where he liked to have the puck passed to him so he could unleash his deadly one-time shots that handcuffed unsuspecting goaltenders last season.

And like most good players, Karlsson adjusted. He’s working the corners more, then eluding checks to get free. Smith, who has an uncanny knack for holding the puck long enough, and hitting open teammates with an on-the-tape pass, knows where to find Karlsson. Same with Marchessault, an underrated passer given his sniping ability.

You can bemoan Smith for not having more than six goals, but his team-leading 17 assists is indicative of how important his contributions have been to the line, which has accounted for 31 goals and 44 assists for 75 points in 34 games.

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