The book on the Golden Knights was written last year. The rough draft was penned by the Vancouver Canucks and the Dallas Stars crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s to finalize the copy. Now, the Minnesota Wild have picked it up and are attempting to turn it into a New York Times’ best seller.
What does the book say? Force the Golden Knights to beat you without scoring on the rush and shooting from the outside. Vegas won’t get traffic in front, they won’t hit passes through the seam to open up a collapsed defense, and they won’t clean up rebounds if any are left behind.
Since Game 4 in the Vancouver series last season, the Golden Knights have now scored a total of 12 goals in their last nine playoff games. Three of the games have gone to overtime meaning Vegas is on a pace of scoring one goal every 45:37 of hockey. Meanwhile, they have crossed the 30 shot threshold in eight of the nine and amassed at least 40 shots in four of the nine.
Simply put, Vegas’ prolific offense that led them to 3.39 goals per game this season and 3.15 last year has dried up completely against the last three teams they’ve played in the postseason, all of which deployed the same defensive structure.
The question now is, can they fix it?
Just keep pushing. I thought we had enough good looks tonight to score a couple goals. It’s not like they smothered us defensively. -Pete DeBoer
We’ve got to bear down on our chances. I think we had quite a few looks. Our power play had some chances to score. We’ve just got to bear down. I think we’re kind of getting jammed up a bit. These guys are good. They’ve got plenty of guys in front of their net trying to block shots. We’ve got to find a way to break them down a bit. -Mark Stone
This all sounds good and well, but it also reads like a carbon copy of what we were hearing back in September when they were unable to right the ship.
Stone’s next answer started to hit at the root of the problem.
Well they’re blocking a lot of shots. They have five guys tight. That’s the way they play. They try to box out the middle of the ice, keep you to the outside. I think we can do a better job kind of penetrating that a little bit more… I think we can get our game moving some pucks more if they want to block shots. -Stone
Take a look at the Golden Knights’ shot chart from Game 1. There are some chances from directly in front, but a majority of the 42 shots on goal came from the outside.
The Golden Knights can keep telling themselves they are outplaying their opponent, but the Wild, like the Stars and the Canucks before, are perfectly content with the style of play Vegas is throwing at them.
Defensively, anytime I left anything in front of the net, we collapsed and we were boxing out. They didn’t get a lot of second opportunities either. I really liked our game tonight. We just have to carry that forward. -Cam Talbot, Wild goalie
To stop playing into their opponents’ hands, the Golden Knights have to work harder in two areas.
First, they must find a way to attack the net before the defense is ever truly set up. Maybe the Golden Knights’ best chance in Game 1 came off a play in the neutral zone by Shea Theodore. He picked off a pass and hit William Karlsson who caught the Wild out of position as they tried to change. Other than that chance though, the transition game was reliant on defensemen getting up in the rush. Pietrangelo, Theodore, Hague, and Whitecloud each had moments where they were part of the rush and helped generate chances before the Wild could collapse. Any time Vegas can get those chances, they must take them and then sell out to get the second chance on the back end of it, even if it means the potential of giving up something dangerous the other way.
Second, it’s all about stretching out the defense by using movement both on and off the puck in the offensive zone. Right now, the Vegas offense is quite simple. They rely on the cycle game to gain complete possession of the puck, and then they play low to high in order to allow the defensemen at the point to make the offensive decisions. In Game 1, most of those decisions were to either fire the puck on goal (where Vegas rarely created enough traffic) or recycle the puck to allow the forwards to get back to work.
Vegas needs more activation from the blue line. Pietrangelo and Theodore are both excellent puck handlers who can activate up the wall and create confusion. If they can beat the winger guarding high, defensemen must come over and help out, which will spread out the defense as a whole and allow for more rebound chances.
Or, Vegas need forwards to come out towards the blue line to stretch out the defense. Normally, the Golden Knights position one forward along each half wall and then the other one heads to the front of the net. It’s worked all year against defenses less focused on collapsing into their goalie. Instead, they may need to either overload one side or bring a forward up high to change the look Minnesota is giving them defensively.
I think we’ll look at the tape. Try to find some more offense. Obviously, five-on-five and on the power play. The game tonight, it’s a one-goal game. We’ve got to find another goal tonight somewhere, somehow, at some point prior to it getting to overtime. We’ll look for some answers there. -DeBoer
Whether they are my answers or not, hopefully, they find them and quickly. It’s clear the Golden Knights plan on continuing to play the heavy puck possession game while the Wild are happy to sit in and deny Vegas in transition. If the series continues down that path, Vegas must have more tools in the bag than they’ve had in their previous nine playoff games.
Otherwise, we’re going to start hearing about puck luck and hot goalies, and nobody wants that.
19 games into the 2021 NHL season, William Carrier and Ryan Reaves have combined for a total of two points while being on the ice for 372 minutes.
The two have a combined -7 rating, have cost the Golden Knights 0.7 points in the standings according to Hockey-Reference.com’s point shares stat, and each post a Corsi For Percentage under 49% (the team number is 51%).
To put it politely, they haven’t been good offensively to start the season. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but this should. No player on the Golden Knights has started a higher percentage of shifts in the offensive zone than Ryan Reaves. Reaves has started a massive 57.6% of his shifts in a positive position while his linemate, Carrier, isn’t far behind at 55.3%, good for 4th on the team for forwards.
So, Reaves and Carrer start closer to the opposing goal more often than anyone on the team, yet have failed to score a single goal, have been on the ice for just four goals (three for Carrier), and have allowed seven. They are below 50% shares in every advanced metric including Corsi, Fenwick, shots, expected goals, scoring chances, and high danger chances. In other words, they give up more than they create, by every measurable, despite starting in more advantageous positions than anyone else on the team.
But wait, there’s more! It gets worse… WAY worse, when we look at the seven most important games of the season.
Vegas has played St. Louis, Colorado, and Minnesota a combined seven times in the first 19 games. In those games, Carrier and Reaves have combined to go scoreless and pointless, while registering a -5 rating and allowing three goals while being on the ice for zero goals for. Again, not good.
In those games, the pair started an absurd 81% (Reaves) and 84% (Carrier) of their shifts in the offensive zone. The Golden Knights took 91 defensive zone draws in those seven games, either Reaves or Carrier were on the ice for six of them! That means one of those two were on the ice for just 7% of defensive zone draws while they accounted for 20% of Vegas’ offensive zone draws.
I went back and looked for every draw analyze the situation on each of those six draws. On three of them, Reaves was caught on the ice due to an icing call, Carrier joined in one of those three. Another, Carrier was sent out in a 4-on-4 situation with 39 seconds left in the 3rd period of a game Vegas led 3-0. Another, Reaves and Carrier had just hopped on the ice, were out there for eight seconds and there was a stoppage, they stayed on for the subsequent draw. That leaves one draw where Pete DeBoer purposely put Reaves and Carrier on the ice in the defensive zone. One out of 91.
Yet, despite starting more than 90% of their shifts in the offensive or neutral zone, Reaves and Carrier managed to attempt just nine shots on goal in more than 60 minutes of ice time and they still put up below 50% numbers in every advanced measure as well.
This to me is absurd.
Pete DeBoer is purposely using his worst offensive players in the most advantageous situations.
Normally, you’d want to place your best offensive players in these situations in order to give them the most opportunity to score. However, DeBoer is doing the opposite and there’s really only one explanation that makes any sense.
He does not trust Reaves and Carrier can get out of their own zone if they start there.
Just once, in seven important games, did DeBoer purposely place Reaves and Carrier on the ice to take a defensive zone draw. Yet they still managed to allow 20 high-danger chances, 32 scoring chances, and three goals while out there in those games.
It’s clear DeBoer believes they aren’t capable of starting in their own zone so he protects them with massive numbers of offensive and neutral zone starts, and they still can’t outplay the opposition. They are either the worst, or in the bottom five, on the team in every category while being afforded the most positive situations and playing against the weakest competition.
A change is needed.
600 games of Reaves and 200 games of Carrier should be enough to prove they aren’t ever going to be legitimate scoring threats in the NHL. So, if they can’t be leaned on to keep the puck out of their own net, they shouldn’t be in the lineup at all.
If the plan is to give 80% offensive zone starts to fourth liners, it’s time to find some who can score.
Luckily, it’s only a quarter of the regular season that top defenseman Nate Schmidt will miss action. But, while that story continues to unfold, Vegas’ other top defender Shea Theodore also remains unsigned and the possibility of a holdout is real.
With one defenseman guaranteed to miss a large chunk of time and another sitting in contract purgatory, what are George McPhee’s options? He can ride it out with organizational depth like the team did last season when Marc-Andre Fleury was injured. The GM could make a move for a defenseman, and not necessarily Erik Karlsson.
Maybe, McPhee will wait it out and hope a desirable defenseman will pop up through waivers. Or, he can reach out to an available old chum.
It’s hard for the other team to match lines. A lot of teams only have one superstar line and then it kinda goes down a bit, but for us, on any given day we have lines that can step up and chip in any which way. -Luca Sbisa
In 30 regular season games, Luca Sbisa averaged 19:31 TOI, and averaged 2:22 shorthanded minutes per game. Many of those games he was paired with Schmidt and drawing the opposing teams best players. Although Sbisa was injured for much of the 2017-18 regular season, he added defensive impact when he hit the ice. Some credit the Swiss defenseman for helping Schmidt convert to Vegas’ top d-man.
Also, the veteran Sbisa was a strong, protective teammate that held a presence on the ice. With Schmidt’s guaranteed 20 game absence, signing Sbisa could be a move Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant would appreciate.
The 28-year-old UFA was heavily used early on in 2017-18, and after returning from injury, the coach used him in the lineup, including the Stanley Cup Final. At this time, Gallant could use a familiar veteran like Sbisa to help right the defensive ship. The former Golden Knight knows the organization, system, players, and city. Most importantly the coaching staff is comfortable playing Sbisa.
Depending on Sbisa’s demands, the Golden Knights should be able to re-sign the left-handed defenseman to a deal comparable to what Jon Merrill and Deryk Engelland make per season.
This late in the game they might even be able to get him on a one-year deal. It could be well worth the low money risk for a recognizable insurance policy like Sbisa. Not only will he fill the burden of Schmidt’s suspension, Sbisa would also secure a roster spot in preparation for Theodore’s possible holdout. He’s not a replacement for either but Sbisa could effectively fill important minutes for twenty or more games.