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Round Robin Adjustments – vs. St. Louis Blues

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Complete series: Dallas, St. Louis, Colorado

We’ve broken down two out of the three round-robin teams (Colorado and Dallas) the Golden Knights will be facing, so let’s finish it off with the St. Louis Blues.

vs. St. Louis: (2-1) 4-2 L, 5-4 W OT, 6-5 W OT

Let’s start with this, all three games between Vegas and St. Louis were highly entertaining. It’s hard to forget former Golden Knight David Perron hugging current Golden Knight Max Pacioretty’s leg, which then led to seven different roughing penalties. Vegas was fortunate to win the two OT games because of two improbable comebacks. In both victories, the Golden Knights trailed the Blues after two periods of play. They will need some of that never-give-up mentality in the round-robin, especially with Jordan Binnington in net. However, it’s unlikely St. Louis will blow many more three-goal leads.

Areas of Adjustment

  • Keep your heads on straight

The Golden Knights will have to improve their discipline against St. Louis. Not only for the fear of the Blues strong power play, but also because St. Louis can successfully agitate teams. They pestered their way to the Stanley Cup final last season, and they clearly enjoy annoying the Golden Knights.

Against St. Louis, Vegas averaged only six minutes in penalties per game, however in their second matchup the Golden Knights spent 12 minutes in the box. Granted many were matching penalties but when the Blues power play hit the ice they took advantage. St. Louis scored the opening and overtime forcing goals on the power play. Take those away and Vegas probably wins the game in regulation. Vegas turned the tables on St. Louis in their third matchup, scoring four times on man-advantages including on in OT. Their four power-play goals were the most scored in one game for the Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights are the better team at even strength so if they keep from being dragged into the muck, they should be able to handle the Blues.

  • Contain Offensive Defensmen

It’s no secret St. Louis has elite weapons on the blue line. Three of their top five season leaders in shots were defenseman, Alex Pietrangelo led the entire team with 225 shots on net. In the three meetings with the Golden Knights, the Blues got 23 shots and 10 points from defensemen. Vegas will have to get in the way of some of those shots or make it tough altogether for St. Louis’ D-men to get one off.

One way the Golden Knights can frustrate the Blues defensemen is by blocking shots and by creating high-zone pressure. Quite like the strategy Vegas used against Pete DeBoer’s San Jose Sharks in their 2018 postseason series.

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Round Robin Adjustments – vs. Dallas Stars

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Complete series: Dallas, St. Louis, Colorado

Continuing with our Round Robin adjustments, next we examine the Dallas Stars and the challenges the Golden Knights face. Dallas ended the shortened season with a solid 82 points, but a low goal differential of +4. The Stars scored the second least goals in the Western conference but also allowed the second least in the NHL. The two reasons for this are their defensive style and outstanding goaltending, both which have shown up against the Golden Knights.

vs. Dallas: (1-1) 4-2 L, 3-2 W OT

In both games this season, Dallas scored the opening goal of the contest. As mentioned above, the Stars are a low scoring team that can hold on to a lead better than most so that first goal feels like a much bigger hole against Dallas than anyone else in the Western Conference.

Record when Dallas Scores First: 23-5-4
Record when Leading After 1st Period: 17-2-1
Record when Leading After 2nd Period: 23-1-2

As you can see the Stars do a good job of locking down the opponents’ offense when holding a lead. However, the Golden Knights are also outstanding when scoring first, and lost out on a measly six points in 35 games when they held a lead after two periods.

Record when Vegas Scores First: 26-6-2
Record when Leading After 1st Period: 19-3-3
Record when Leading After 2nd Period: 31-2-2

The numbers show that Vegas is in fact a better club holding a lead, and they allow almost a half goal more goal per game than Dallas. The Golden Knights winning percentage is .764 when they score first to the Stars’ .718 which is why the game’s first goal is crucial. This is especially important if the goaltending holds an edge over the shooters in the round-robin stage which we believe it may.

Penalties were an issue again for the Golden Knights when they played the Stars back in November. Vegas awarded Dallas two power play opportunities in the first period, one in which Alexander Radulov scored the opening goal. The Golden Knights were called for three early penalties and the game was essentially lost after the first twenty minutes.

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“We’re Built To Play”; In Front Of Fans Or Not

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It’s going to be different. It’s going to be quiet. It’s going to be weird.

But according to Mark Stone, it’s going to be just as intense as ever when the games finally get going in front of empty seats at a hub city somewhere in North America.

No matter what the surroundings or what the setting is, I think the intensity is going to be there. -Stone

Vegas fans are so used to seeing their team play in front of 18,000 screaming fans inside of a building with a sound system that makes jet engines sound like lullabies. They’re also used to players both home and away explaining how important to fans are to the success of the Golden Knights.

But the fact of the matter is when you take it all away, as awkward as it will look visually, hockey is still hockey and the best players in the world will be competing for the same prize they’ve dreamed of winning since they were young boys.

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Round Robin Adjustments – vs. Colorado Avalanche

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Complete series: Dallas, St. Louis, Colorado

It’s only three scheduled games, but the round-robin sets up to be a difficult week for the Golden Knights. Colorado, Dallas, and St. Louis are highly competitive teams that each have had their success against Vegas this season. In seven combined games, the Golden Knights winning percentage is .428 (3-4-0), and all three of their victories came in overtime. Thus, the Golden Knights collected six points in that seven-game span but gave out 11.

Over the next week, we will breakdown where things went wrong against each of the three round-robin teams and identify the areas in which the Golden Knights can adjust to correct the issues. Today we start with the Avs.

vs. Colorado: (0-2) 6-1 L, 7-3 L

Vegas was overmatched in both games against the Avalanche. In their first meeting, the Golden Knights allowed seven goals on 40 shots on net. The most goals and shot total from an opponent all season. In their second matchup, Colorado scored six goals and took 38 shots on net, the second most goals against, and third most shots allowed by an opponent.

The Avalanche’s special teams were also a problem for Vegas. The Golden Knights totaled 17 PIMs in their 7-3 loss against the Avalanche on 12/23. Putting aside Deryk Engelland’s five for fighting, Vegas was called for tripping, cross-checking, delay of game, and two high-sticking penalties. It was the Golden Knights third-most penalty minutes served all season and it hurt them. The Avs took advantage scoring two power play goals and starting 56% of the faceoffs in the Golden Knights defensive zone. It wasn’t just Colorado’s power play that gave Vegas trouble. In total, the Avalanche scored three power play and two shorthanded goals this season against the Golden Knights.

Even more concerning is in six periods of play vs. the Golden Knights, the Avalanche scored two or more goals in five of them. So goaltending will need to be a big factor for Vegas, no matter which goaltender is in net. Oh and by the way, neither Marc-Andre Fleury nor Robin Lehner were able to hold the Avalanche from scoring.

Fleury vs. Colorado: 0-2, .713 GAA, .828 SV%
Lehner vs. Colorado: 1-1, 5.59 GAA, .822 SV%

Areas of Adjustment

  • Clean it up

It all starts with the penalties. Both games against Colorado were played under Gallant, when the penalty kill was actually more successful than it has been under DeBoer. However, no matter which PK strategy Vegas uses, Colorado has a high probability of shredding it. The Avs ability to enter the zone with speed will give the passive forecheck PK fits. The simple solution is to stay out of the box, but that’s easier said than done against a high-tempo team. The key will be to avoid the foolish penalties. No offensive zone penalties, delay-of-games, or too-many-men calls. If Vegas can avoid those, the three or four they give in the D-zone shouldn’t be the difference in the game.

Maybe as importantly, when the Golden Knights have the man-advantage, they absolutely cannot concede as they have twice this season against Colorado. It’s one thing to let power plays go without scoring, but giving up shorties can and will sink the Golden Knights.

Finally, clean exits of the zone will be crucial. In the first two games, the Colorado forecheck ate up the Golden Knights breakouts at times. That turned into quick offense for the Avs and Vegas falling into holes they couldn’t get out.

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DeBoer’s Deployment Strategy

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Last night was the biggest game the Golden Knights have played since Pete DeBoer took over as head coach. It wasn’t a “must-win,” but it was certainly one that had a lot more consequence to lose than any of DeBoer’s previous 20.

I once heard a scout explaining why he loved scouting the OHL playoffs. It wasn’t because he wanted to see how the players would perform under pressure, but because of the information that could be gathered by how the coaches used each player. Coaches want to win and they’ll inherently do what is best to help their team do it. If that means playing the best player 28 minutes, so be it. If it means sticking someone else on the end of the bench only to see four shifts in the whole game, it is what it is. Ice time is a direct reflection of trust and trust is the best compliment a coach can give a player.

It’s an overly simplified idea, but it’s surprisingly useful and can be applied to every level of the game. That’s why last night I was so interested in usage, which ended up leading me down a rabbit hole to see how DeBoer rolls his players out on a nightly basis.

In Calgary, the Golden Knights and Flames played 54:16 of 5-on-5 time. Brayden McNabb led all defensemen with 20:58, while Nick Holden brought up the rear with 13:07. DeBoer played his top-four defensemen more than 20 minutes apiece and neither Holden nor Zach Whitecloud crossed the 14-minute mark.

As for forwards, he leaned on his top-nine. The 1st line played around 15 minutes, 2nd played about 14:30, and the 3rd saw about 14. The 4th line played about nine minutes, yet they were able to tally the all-important opening goal.

It’s not all about time though. Deployment can be even more important. Where is the puck when each player starts their shift? Against the Flames, there were 22 offensive zone draws, 23 neutral zone draws, and 12 defensive zone draws.

Remember, any time there’s a faceoff there’s a stoppage in play, so it gives a coach an opportunity to make a line change.

Nate Schmidt and McNabb were on the ice for seven of the 12 defensive zone draws. No other player was out there for more than four. On the flip side, Alec Martinez, Shea Theodore, Holden, and Whitecloud all took 10 of the 22 offensive zone draws, leaving just two for Schmidt and McNabb. Clearly, the Golden Knights have determined that Schmidt and McNabb are the go-to pair when the puck is in the Vegas end.

That’s not surprising. It’s with the forwards that it’s a bit more interesting. The 4th line of Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, and William Carrier led all forwards with eight offensive zone draws. 37% of the offensive zone draws went to the line least known for scoring. Meanwhile, arguably the Golden Knights best offensive players, William Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, and Nic Roy, were out there for just two of the 22 offensive zone draws. Yet, the line starting in their own zone the most created more shot attempts, more shots on goal, more high danger chances, and more expected goals, while allowing fewer across the board (weighted by minutes played) than the 1st and 3rd lines, while being basically right on par with the 4th line.

This had me wondering, is this normal? Is DeBoer constantly putting the top-six in defensive roles and the 4th line in an offensive one?

The answer is, yes he is.

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DeBoer Starting The Fourth Line To “Drag The Group Into The Game”

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Prior to the start of the game, the Coach of the visiting team is required to name the starting line-up to the Official Scorer. Then, the Coach of the home team, having been advised by the Official Scorer the names of the starting line-up of the visiting team, shall name the starting line-up of the home team.

I cleaned it up a little to make it less awful to read, but that’s directly from the NHL’s rule book, Rule 7.1. This happens about 10 to 20 minutes before puck drop and for the most part, it’s insignificant.

But every once in a while there’s a bit of a game within the game being played by one of the coaches, and that’s been the case for the new coach of the Golden Knights over the last three games.

The starts weren’t good prior to me getting here, and the first two or three games that I was here. Particularly the Boston game, I thought we didn’t start playing until the 10-minute mark. -Pete DeBoer

Last night against Tampa Bay, DeBoer sent out Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, and William Carrier. In Nashville, he started Nosek, Reaves, and Nic Roy. And in Carolina, he went with Roy, Reaves, and Carrier.

So, the 4th line, sorta. In all three games, the official lineup was announced as Nosek, Roy, and Reaves on the 4th line with Carrier playing on the 3rd line. Yet in two of the three Carrier was in the starting lineup with the 4th line. Both games, that was the only shift Carrier took with Reaves, Nosek, or Roy. Nonetheless, DeBoer essentially played a 4th line to start each game.

In response, Tampa Bay countered with their dominant 1st line (Kucherov, Stamkos, Point), while both Nashville (Sissons, Blackwell, Watson) and Carolina (Martinook, Williams, Fleury) came back with their 4th lines.

Vegas won the opening draw in all three games, instantly got the puck in deep, and held the opposition without a shot attempt. Against Tampa, Carrier created a dangerous chance, the only one by either team in the three opening shifts.

In all three games though, the starters did their job, exiting the ice in a better position than they started. To start the game the draw is in the neutral zone with neither team having position (obviously, that’s the point of the opening draw). When they left, each time the line of Paul Stastny, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault came on either already in the offensive zone or with a free clear from the D-zone as the opposition changed lines as well.

No goals, no shots on goal, but positive shifts all three times from the 4th line starters.

One thing about those guys is they’re ready to go, and they drag the group into the game. I think they’ve done a great job the last three games. I thought we’ve had great starts, and that’s a credit to those guys setting the tone. -DeBoer

In 22 road games this season under Gerard Gallant, the Golden Knights didn’t start the 4th line, or any combination resembling it, a single time. In fact, in 118 road games coached by Gallant, his 4th line center never took the opening draw.

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The First Of The Tweaks: Penalty Killing With Puck Pressure

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Since the calendar flipped to 2020 the Golden Knights penalty kill has been… how do I put this politely?… a steaming pile of horse… let’s just say it’s been bad, very very bad.

Vegas had allowed a power play goal in seven straight games, they had killed off just nine of 18 over a seven-game stretch, and thanks to some research from AT&T Sportsnet, we know they ranked dead last in killing penalties over Gerard Gallant’s final seven games. It’s probably not the only reason, but there’s no question the Golden Knights poor penalty kill lent a hand in his firing.

In comes Pete DeBoer, who just two years ago was the coach of the NHL’s 2nd best penalty kill unit. In DeBoer’s four full seasons in San Jose, the Sharks killed penalties at a rate of 81.7% and his teams never finished the year below 80%. Vegas currently sits in 22nd place at 78.9% and their 52.6% over the last eight games is downright appalling.

One of the first things DeBoer worked on with the Golden Knights was making a change to their style of penalty killing. In fact, using just a few practices and likely some video work, there are two already significant changes that have been implemented in the way the Golden Knights kill penalties. Both were used against Montreal and both involve puck pressure.

Well, for the first change, it’s actually a lack of pressure.

Under Gallant, the Golden Knights would always send at least one forechecker, sometimes two, into the attacking zone to rush the opposing team’s breakout. It was an aggressive style of penalty killing hoping to force a mistake up the ice and lead to an easy shorthanded chance. The drawback to this style is that if the breakout beats the forecheckers, the Golden Knights are heavily outnumbered at the blue line leading to easy, sometimes even unchallenged, zone entries.

Under DeBoer, the Golden Knights will not send any forecheckers up when killing penalties. Instead, they’ll deploy three players across the blue line and one slightly further up to force challenged entries (which looks like this or this). This was a staple in the Sharks penalty killing system under DeBoer, and in the game against Montreal, the Golden Knights used it to successfully kill the one penalty they took.

Here’s how that looks in action.

Eakin does not chase into the offensive zone. Instead, he circles back to set up in the neutral zone.

The moment Smith loses the puck, he backs out and resets to the neutral zone.

The idea under DeBoer’s system is to make the entry across the blue line as difficult as possible while foregoing any chance to steal the puck in the offensive zone and score a cheap shorthanded goal.

But, of course, eventually the team on the man advantage will gain the zone. That’s where the second change in system comes in.

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The Golden Knights Have Real Flaws Which Are More Important Than Imaginary Ones

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The Golden Knights lost again. Again they fell behind in the 1st period, again they watched the lead grow to a number they wouldn’t be able to overcome, and again they salted away a pair of points at home they really should have won.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion as to what’s going wrong, but personally, I’m sick of the intangible excuses that are being made for this team. Tonight’s game was not about a lack of effort, a sense of complacency or any other unmeasurable factor people want to throw around. Instead, tonight was a full display of all that is wrong with the Golden Knights.

It starts with forward depth. This team doesn’t have enough of it. When Cody Glass and Jonathan Marchessault are out they don’t have the horses to fill their roles. And it would be a problem if there were any two of the top nine forwards missing.

Because of it, they’re forced to move Alex Tuch up to the 1st line to play out of position and on a line he has never fit on despite playing 13 prior games with Karlsson as the center. Some line combinations don’t fit, especially when you are playing one player out of position on his off-wing. That’s okay, but when a team is built in a way in which they literally don’t have another option outside of William Carrier, who has been exclusively a 4th liner until 2 weeks ago, it becomes a problem.

That then bleeds down to the 2nd line. The best 2nd line the Golden Knights can make is Paul Stastny between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. It’s a line that has proven to work time and time again, including an unreal start to the playoffs last year, but isn’t truly an option currently because it leaves the bottom six far too bare. So, that forces Chandler Stephenson, to fill a role higher in the lineup that most teams would prefer. Stastny moves down in an attempt to put a bit more skill and vision with a pair of wingers who have proven they can’t be relied upon to score.

Finally, you are left with a 4th line that can certainly do the job of a standard 4th line, but must be expected to do more because there’s not enough scoring above them.

When they need an extra player, they turn to Nicolas Roy, Valentin Zykov, or Keegan Kolesar. All fine players, but none can be expected to score at the NHL level, especially when playing alongside other non-scorers Cody Eakin, Ryan Reaves, William Carrier, and Tomas Nosek.

This is a risk the front office took when they chose to go down a path this offseason of offloading talented forwards for a prospect and a bushel of picks as opposed to attempting to bite the bullet and unload some overpaid role players. When healthy, the team has plenty of offense, when not, they’re short.

Which leads to the next problem. Defensive scoring. With Nate Schmidt having a bit of a down year to this point, the only legitimate offensive threat is Shea Theodore. He may end up outscoring the rest of the Golden Knights blue line combined. If the forwards were putting up three or four goals a night, it would be fine to have a defense focused on defending, but while missing players, the team needs some chip in from the defensemen. At the moment, they don’t have the guys to do it. Nic Hague may eventually become more of an offensive weapon, but while he’s getting his feet wet in the NHL, making sure his defensive game is under control is more important. Brayden McNabb, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill, and Nick Holden are all acceptable NHL level defensemen, but between them, there’s one season of more than 30 points and they’ve played a combined 35 years in the NHL. So expecting to get anything more than they’ve already given to this point is unrealistic.

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What To Do With Marc-Andre Fleury While He’s Not At His Best

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Something’s not quite right with Marc-Andre Fleury. Over the past 20 games or so it’s impossible to argue anything other.

He’s allowed four or more goals in three straight and 10 of his last 19 starts. His save percentage in the last 20 games is .894, a mark he’s never hit for an entire season. He’s posted just one shutout in his last 22 games, and maybe most importantly he’s allowing at least one goal pretty much every night that we say “he should have stopped that one.”

The passing of Fleury’s father undoubtedly has something to do with the decline in recent performance, but no one, including Fleury himself, would be able to explain how long it will affect him. Clearly, based on early-season performance (he was selected as an All Star), age is not the issue, which leads most to believe that this rut is temporary.

The question now is how long will it last and what should the Golden Knights do while it’s going on.

This is one that no one has a correct answer for as it’s uncharted waters for everyone involved. So, instead of making a suggestion, here are the pros and cons of a few of the potential options the Golden Knights have.

Stick to the original plan
Continue playing Fleury 4 of every 5 or so and rest him on back-to-backs

Pro: Often times the best way to overcome something is to attempt to return to normalcy. To this point, it hasn’t quite happened for Fleury, but with a player as talented as him, it’s fair to expect him to bounce back to form at some point. Staying with the original plan shows confidence in him and sends the message that there’s full belief from the organization that he’ll bounce back.

Con: How long can you stick with normalcy before admitting to a problem? Since returning on December 10th, Fleury has allowed 37 goals in 11 games and posted a save percentage of .887. 20 games? 30 games? Any time a change is made, it’s easier to compare results. If no change is made and the results continue, the issue becomes wasted time. Maybe things will work themselves out without any drastic measures being taken, but if they don’t, games and days will be lost.

Fight it head-on
Keeping playing Fleury every game

Pro: Every goalie says the same thing when it comes to playing their best, “the more I play the more comfortable I get.” So, the idea would be to completely ignore the results and simply believe that he’ll eventually overcome it and get back to his normal dominant self. Playing him every night is the fastest solution and it’s likely the one with the highest probability of success.

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McNabb’s Penalty Kills Saves The Day

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It’s not often that a player without a goal or an assist is named to the three stars of the game in a 5-4 contest. But that’s exactly what Brayden McNabb did on Thursday when he was named 3rd star in the win over Philadelphia.

McNabb posted a -2 rating, took just one shot, and was only on the ice for one of the Golden Knights five goals vs. the Flyers, yet there he was named among the three best players of the game for both teams.

McNabb earned his spot with his work in the dying seconds of the game. With the Golden Knights clinging to a 5-4 lead, a pair of penalties forced Vegas to have to kill off a 43 second 6-on-3 followed by a 45 second 6-on-4 in order to win the game.

It’s at the end of the game too and we’re up a goal it’s just a huge moment in a hockey game. -Brayden McNabb

McNabb made not one, but two massive plays in the first 20 seconds of the 6-on-3.

First, after a shot deflected perfectly to Shayne Gostisbehere, McNabb sprawled out to block a shot that very likely would have found its way past Marc-Andre Fleury.

In that situation it’s part of my role and any time you have a chance to get in front of a puck you do it, and you want to do it because Flower bails us out all the time so you want to make sure you can help him out as much as possible. -McNabb

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