One of the most used cliches in hockey revolves around each team playing “their game” as opposed to adapting to their opponents. You’ll hear it from coaches, players, management, heck, even media and fans will jump on board insisting if their team plays the way they always play the opposition won’t matter.
Since Pete DeBoer took over as head coach of the Golden Knights the term “our game” has become a staple in his rhetoric before and after games. But does anyone really know what that “game” is?
Are they an offensive team? Defensive? Fast? Heavy? High-event? Low-Event? Puck possession? Rush reliant?
For the most part, the Golden Knights’ “game” is winning. DeBoer’s Golden Knights have amassed a 55-19-4 record, getting there in a variety of ways. Along the way, they certainly have developed into one of the NHL’s best defensive teams, as evidenced by the 2021 Jennings Trophy.
However, in both seasons with DeBoer behind the bench, the Golden Knights went out in a similar way. Against both Dallas and Montreal, Vegas fell into a scoring drought against a team committed to defending the center of the ice.
Which got me to ask, does the Golden Knights “game” not match up with this style of opponent, or do the Golden Knights not really have a defined “game?”
There are a million ways to define a hockey team stylistically, especially one like the Golden Knights. But there is one way to truly hone in on each players’ role inside of a team, and that’s by looking at usage. Every time play is stopped, the head coach and his assistants have a choice to make, which line and which pair are they going to put on the ice next. When you need a goal and the draw is in the offensive zone, who goes? When you are protecting a lead and the faceoff is in front of your own goal, who do you lean on?
These decisions help define a player’s role on a hockey team. Most players in the NHL have a specific skill set that lends either to being more adept offensively or defensively. Then there are the Golden Knights who seem to twist and turn with these decisions depending on who they are playing on any given night.
I went back over the past six playoff series and the regular season to try and figure out the offensive and defensive roles on this team. I broke each series down individually and used the 2021 regular season as a whole to give us seven data points on every Golden Knight.
Does each player start more or less than the team average in offensive zone draws? This will help show us which players are more relied upon for their offensive contributions and which are for defense.
For example, the Golden Knights took 215 faceoffs against the Minnesota Wild. 122 of those, or 56.7%, were taken in the offensive zone. Thus, any player with an offensive zone faceoff percentage higher than 56.7% is considered “UP” and anyone below is considered “DOWN.” Here’s the chart of each player for the past six series and the regular season.
What should jump directly off that chart for you is the fact that very few players are consistent across all six series and the regular season. There are actually just two players on the entire roster with the same result on all seven.
Shea Theodore is always given more offensive zone starts than the team average and Brayden McNabb is always given fewer. Those are defined roles and both players are excellent in them.
But look at the forward groups. The VGK 1st line was down in the regular season, but up for many of the playoff series. The Misfit Line was down last year and up this year. Then there’s the bottom-six, which is a mish-mash of everything.
There’s not a single forward on the roster that has a defined offensive or defensive role. Not Mark Stone, not Max Pacioretty, not Alex Tuch, not Tomas Nosek or William Carrier. Everyone’s role seems to change depending on the opponent.
Against the Avalanche, VGK leaned on the Misfits and the 3rd line to provide the offense. Then, against Montreal, the 3rd line was swapped with the 1st. Meanwhile, the 4th line, who are often described as the “role players” on the team, sometimes are given more offensive starts and others more defensive starts.
I understand this is an overly simplified way to look at this, but the point is clear even using just the eye test. The Golden Knights adapt their roles depending on who they are playing.
At times, it’s worked (see COL and CHI), but others it’s led to seven-game series that should have been wrapped up in five (MIN and VAN), and a pair of series losses to similar teams in similar fashions (MTL and DAL).
I’m not saying it can’t work, but what I am saying is that the Golden Knights don’t play the same game against every team they face. Roles change, responsibilities change, and in the end, the results have changed.
Most of the focus this offseason has been on VGK’s need for an elite scorer, but this exercise has me wondering if maybe they need a few defensive stars to free up the scorers they do have.
Either way, moving forward, the Golden Knights certainly have to figure out who they are, because at this point, they are a very good team that can’t get over the hump. That’s not good enough for me, nor should it be for The Creator, the front office, or Pete DeBoer.