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DeBoer’s Deployment Strategy

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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”

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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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“Our Game Has Taken Off Since” VGKD 2.0

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

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

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

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

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

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

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

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

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Pacioretty’s Slick Skills Surprising Goaltenders

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It’s fair to say Max Pacioretty is on fire. Over his last four games, he’s totaled 8 points (5 goals, 3 assists) and was easily named the NHL’s Player of the Week. It’s not surprising by the points he’s collected, because that’s what Pacioretty does, but it’s the fashion in which he’s scoring. His flashy deke move clinched an overtime victory in Dallas, and a nearly identical move gave Vegas a cushion against Vancouver. So, what’s gotten into him?

It didn’t really work as much in the past, maybe I’m faking the shot a little bit more. I had been shooting a lot of pucks this year so goalies are expecting the shots a little bit more. I’m trying to mix things up and it’s worked twice in a row.- Max Pacioretty

His arcade-style goals were scored on goaltenders built like monsters. Ben Bishop is 6’7 and Jacob Markstrom is 6’6, two of the biggest players in the NHL. Pacioretty had no problem getting them to bite on his move. Did their giant sizes force #67 to hold his shot and go for a filthy fake out?

No, not really. A lot of the times I come down the left side I shot the puck and realized after how far out the goalie was. In St. Louis, one I ended up scoring on the rebound but then I had another one coming down the left side where Binnington was so far out I had to find a way to get him to move side to side. So, it was something I thought about after the St. Louis game. – Pacioretty

We’ve seen show-stopping dangles from Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch, Reilly Smith and of course William Karlsson. But it’s pleasantly surprising coming from a sharpshooting winger like Pacioretty.

He’s got a chance to get pucks on goal every game. Obviously, those two goals, the deking goals you don’t see a whole lot of those from Max but he’s shooting the puck so well so he’s trying to surprise the goalie.- Gerard Gallant

This season, Pacioretty is 2 for 2 channeling his inner Gretzky, so how much can Golden Knights expect to see?

I can’t go to it every time but it keeps the goalies a little but honest. -Pacioretty

In his second season as a Golden Knight, the 12-year-veteran is on pace for career highs in points and assists, so it’s clear he’s feeling confident with the puck.

We may not see as many highlight rushes to the net but we’ll sure be reading his name on the box score plenty the rest of the year.

Jonathan Marchessault’s New Stick Helping In More Ways Than One

Marchessault’s new stick. (Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The stick for a hockey player is like the car for a taxi driver, a knife for a chef, or a phone for a blogger legitimate journalist. If the tool is not operating at peak performance the person using it can’t either.

Late last year Jonathan Marchessault felt his stick wasn’t living up to expectations. So, about two weeks before the playoffs he made a change. Swapping out the CCM brand for a Bauer.

For me, it’s all about the lightest stick and the Bauer is the lightest for me and I love it. -Marchessault

He kept that stick throughout the Sharks series (where he scored what should have been the biggest goal in team history, until it wasn’t), through the preseason, and well into this season.

But a month ago, Marchessault felt that his stick was starting to let him down again. With just five goals in his first 29 games, you’d think it was because he wasn’t putting the puck in the net,

My shot has always been good, it’s just a matter of sometimes you just get lucky. -Marchessault

Or in his case, unlucky. Instead, it was a different aspect of the game he was trying to sure up in changing sticks once again mid-season.

It’s not because of my shot but because of the stick battles that I would lose. When you go in a battle and your stick is soft, it whips. -Marchessault

He still uses the same Bauer stick, but he has upgraded the flex and the grip on his stick to make it stiffer. It seems to be working.

I’m winning more puck battles, trying to get more steals. The NHL now is all about turnovers and the way your forecheck so this is helping with that. -Marchessault

Marchessault’s old stick. (Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

He’s risen to 5th on the team in takeaways with 18 and his defensive point shares number has jumped above the likes of Paul Stastny, Cody Eakin, and Tomas Nosek.

Whether it was intended or not, the goals have started to come with it as well. Marchessault has four in his last four games along with six points in his last six. Plus, he just looks like a more confident player on the ice. He’s taking better care of the puck and his forechecking has been as ferocious as ever.

It’s a little thing, changing the flex on your stick, but it can have a huge impact, even in areas it wasn’t supposed to help.

Mark Stone Says Top Guys Need To Capitalize And It’s Not Happening Enough Recently

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Mark Stone has three goals and three assists in the last 17 games.

Paul Stastny has three goals and no assists in those same 17 and he’s gone 21 games since his last assist.

William Karlsson hasn’t scored in nine straight games.

That’s three players the Golden Knights expect to score who simply aren’t and especially at home.

For us guys at the top of the lineup, we have to capitalize on our opportunities. -Mark Stone

It’s hard to point at any of those three, or really anyone in the Golden Knights top six and say “that guy is playing poorly.” None of them are and in fact, at times, each of guy in that group has had games where they are Vegas’ best player. However, there’s no question that the team needs more scoring from their best players and it starts with Stone.

I put pressure on myself whether we are winning games or losing games. I need to contribute. Not just points, but on the penalty kill and be good defensively, but of course, I’m an offensive guy, I need to capitalize. -Stone

Last night against the Rangers, the Golden Knights had the game in their grasp. They created 23 scoring chances in the 1st period while allowing just four. 13 of those 23 were considered high-danger by and yet, Vegas came away with nothing.

A couple chances the other way and suddenly the Golden Knights were staring at a big 2-0 hole.

You look at some of these games and I’m one of the main guys who could have broken that game open today. Our line had four or five high-end shifts, we need to capitalize on the scoring chances. -Stone

It’s been a problem all season for this team. They are 2nd in the entire NHL in expected goals scored, yet rank 17 in actual goals. They lead the league in scoring chances, yet have just a 50.7% scoring chance goals percentage. They’ve created the 2nd most high-danger chances in the league, yet are shooting just 16.3% on them good for 25th in the NHL.

We’ve got to have that killer instinct to get that first goal and get our croud into it. -Stone

It’s about finishing, and the Golden Knights aren’t doing it enough and according to Stone, it’s on the top guys in the lineup.

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