When the Golden Knights are playing at their best it starts in the defensive zone, or more specifically, how quickly they are getting out of the defensive zone.
For Vegas to be consistently successful, they need the game to be under their control in all three zones. From generating large numbers of chances based on extended offensive zone time, to having the proper setup through the neutral zone, to breaking the puck out of the defensive zone, each piece relies upon the next.
Last night against the Florida Panthers, the Golden Knights saw both ends of what it looks like when the breakouts are going well and when they are not.
For almost a 20-minute stretch from the middle of the 2nd period to the 12-minute mark of the 3rd the Golden Knights could not consistently break the puck out of their defensive zone. It led to mountains of chances for the Panthers and one of the longest shot droughts Vegas has experienced all season.
It culminated in a 5-on-3 power play for the Panthers that could have buried the Golden Knights in what appeared to be a winnable game. VGK’s penalty kill stepped up and from that moment on, the breakouts improved which started the ball rolling towards a three-goal 3rd period and Vegas’ 8th comeback win of the season.
We got better when we played a little bit more north-south because they are a very aggressive team. We forced their D to pinch down on us to keep a puck alive because when they don’t, now you are in foot races for odd-man rushes. -Bruce Cassidy
If you look back to the 2020-21 NHL season you’ll recollect just how dangerous the Golden Knights were. They outscored their opponents by 1.21 goals per game and ended the season with a remarkable +63 in scoring differential. Vegas was a legitimate Cup favorite and was destined to face the Colorado Avalanche for Western conference supremacy. One reason why the Golden Knights had so much success throughout the shortened 56-game season was the support they received from the blue line.
With the addition of Alex Pietrangelo, VGK’s defense in 2021 was among the top scoring clubs in the NHL for points from the men who man the points. Between the group, Vegas’ d-men posted 142 points. Lead by Shea Theodore (8 Goals, 34 Assists), several Golden Knights defenders had career highs in points per game.
So, is it possible to duplicate their blue line scoring in the upcoming 2022-23 season?
We’ve broken down how new coach Bruce Cassidy has a slightly different mindset than previous coach Pete DeBoer when it comes to defensive involvement. Of course in Cassidy’s system blue liners will have the opportunity to score but not as much as they did in the past.
14-year veteran Alec Martinez not only registered his highest points per game average (0.60) but was also a dangerous power play weapon. The two-time Stanley Cup winner scored 3 PP goals in 2021, the most he scored in seven previous seasons. Martinez even lead the Golden Knights struggling man-advantage with two PP goals in the 2021 postseason.
Most fans expect Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore to actively help out offensively but can the rest of the defensive unit step up like they did in 2021? With the lack of natural scoring forwards, even under Cassidy, Golden Knights’ defensemen should have ample opportunities to pitch in. To qualify for the postseason VGK may be forced to rely on crucial points from the point.
What’s the saying? Oh right, it takes a village to win a Cup.
Each year NFL and NCAA football experts publicly predict the fate of every franchise or program in the country. Many have made a living off their accuracy. I’m an enormous college football fan and found Phil Steele to be an incredibly knowledgeable analyst. Steele’s must-read annual season preview is jam-packed with valuable information. Historically, he’s been successful in forecasting whether teams will improve or decline from their previous season. Steele and his fellow prognosticators like to use certain formulas to lead them to their conclusions.
Some ways to project a team’s rise or fall is through certain factors, even unlucky factors. These can be costly turnovers, execution breakdowns, and yep, even injuries apply. For fun let’s use Steele’s formula to predict if the Golden Knights will improve next season.
The Turnover Battle
One fumble or interception can critically change a football game. Obviously, we cannot compare the severity of football turnovers to a giveaway in hockey. Sure, a giveaway (GvA) can lead to a scoring opportunity but NHL players aren’t benched for surrendering a puck to make a line change.
Last season Vegas turned the puck over 8.20 times per game. They were 16th in the league with a total of 681 giveaways in 2021-22. A stark difference from the previous season.
Although Vegas turned the puck over at a higher rate than half the league, it wasn’t a drastic change from franchise averages. In fact, the organization’s best team had more giveaways than last season’s non-playoff lineup. Overall, the Golden Knights are 10th in the league for the least amount of giveaways since 2017. That alone suggests improvement to Vegas’ puck protection problems.
Tight Game Outcomes
Another metric to project improvement is a club’s record in one-score games. The college football galaxy usually balances itself out and teams that lose close games go on to win more of them the following season. The same can happen in hockey, or at least with the Golden Knights. Last season Vegas lost the seventh most one-goal games and won the 12th most one-goal games. Roughly 30% of VGK’s season was decided by one score. Since 2017, the Golden Knights are fifth in the NHL with 89 one-goal victories. Historically, Vegas has won the majority of tight games. That should reappear.
It doesn’t matter which sport, unexpected injuries will topple any team. The Golden Knights had never been as depleted as they were last year. Injuries to Mark Stone, Reilly Smith, Alec Martinez, and others gutted the roster and were a huge reason for the team missing the playoffs. We should anticipate injuries but it’s safe to say it won’t be like last season. Based on their five-year history, Vegas fans can expect a healthier lineup in 2022-23.
No matter what formula you use or how ridiculous the exercise was to get the conclusion, all signs point towards the postseason for the Golden Knights. Fans should expect exciting and successful hockey. Vegas should have better outcomes in tight games and fewer injured players. If all comes to fruition, the Golden Knights will most certainly compete for a top seed in the Pacific Division. They may struggle to score but Vegas is talented enough to make a run. With a healthy Martinez, Smith, and Stone the Golden Knights are a much more intimidating team. It’s just too bad they can’t sign some of the blue-chip prospects from Alabama or Georgia.
Over the next two months, the Golden Knights will tweak their roster in hopes of creating a legitimate contender. Every maneuver the club decides to make will need to keep the salary cap in consideration. Yesterday Ken shared his predictions, now here’s mine.
TRADE – Alec Martinez and a 5th round pick traded to the Detroit for a 4th round pick
There’s just no way around it, the Golden Knights need to shed salary. Trading Martinez to Detroit makes sense for both teams and the player. The Wings have space and could use an elder statesman to direct their young d-core, and mentor Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider. Let’s not forget to mention Martinez was born and bred in Rochester Hills, MI. It’ll hurt the Golden Knights but in a cap world space is much more important than an expensive veteran with miles. This also allows some flexibility for a possible multi-year deal with Nic Hague.
TRADE – Laurent Brossoit and a 4th round pick to Dallas for 5th round pick
Brossoit is another easy candidate for some cap relief. Logan Thompson made his case to become Robin Lehner’s backup and proved he can handle the pressure of being a number one. This allows the Golden Knights front office to undo their unnecessary spending of $2.5M last summer. It might seem like an odd destination considering new Stars coach Pete DeBoer had some sharp comments after one of Brossoit’s performances in Vegas. However, there’s space and a fit for a veteran backup to support up-and-comer Jake Oettinger.
The Golden Knights are not afraid to quickly erase their mistakes. As aggressive and encouraging as that is it usually ends up costing them a hefty price to do so.
Sort of like losing a deposit after terminating a timeshare you foolishly signed up for the day before. Of course, it sounded great at the time. The vacation club, the free drinks and lunch, the tour of the facility, heck they even threw in three free nights at Excalibur! How could you possibly say no to the guy pressuring you as if his life depended on your enrollment?!?
It seems likely the Golden Knights will once again be wheeling and dealing for cap space this summer. Under their current situation, Vegas will need to rid themselves of several contracts this offseason.
It may be ridding themselves of contracts they recently signed (Martinez, Brossoit) one they traded for last Summer (Dadonov), or even a few that now look like overpays from the past (Karlsson, Pacioretty, Lehner). Whatever direction they head it won’t end well from a return on investment standpoint for the Golden Knights. Whether it be shipping expendable prospects, retaining salary, or most detrimental, trading away another draft pick with another unwanted player.
It’s been eerily quiet since the Golden Knights season finale. There hasn’t been a peep from any of Vegas’ players, coaches, or executives since their postgame press conferences on Friday night. It’s almost as if The Creator and his staff are choosing the next Pope.
Without any knowledge of the conversations being held it’s impossible to guess which direction Vegas is heading. Whatever it may be, it was apparently obvious to many lineups across the NHL.
I had a few teams tell me today that Vegas was always a very together team. Through good and bad. This year was the first year they really saw them as a frustrated team. Doors slamming in games, players showing frustration or snapping at each other occasionally during games. I don’t want anyone to take that I think the Vegas Golden Knights all despise each other because I don’t know if that’s true. –Elliotte Friedman, 32 Thoughts Podcast
It’s no secret, Golden Knights fans witnessed their team’s frustration almost weekly. That’ll happen with extensive injuries, poor performances, and a struggling power play. However, we can’t hear the doors slamming or snapping on the bench. Mark Stone and other team leaders keep their locker room tight but it’s hard to believe it felt the same without the captain for most of the year. Add in injuries to Max Pacioretty and Alec Martinez and the chemistry had to have taken a hit.
When you’re losing and your season is slipping away that’s normal. Teams noticed it more this year. Was that just as frustration of the injuries and the season slipping away or is there any chance the fabric of this team has been changed and they have to address that. I don’t know. Teams noticed it this year, more than ever. –Friedman, 32 Thoughts Podcast
Friedman’s advice to the Golden Knights is to address the goaltending situation. Over the weekend, the Sportsnet reporter continued to stress that Robin Lehner’s frustration and season ending injuries were sensitive matters.
The number one thing they have to deal with is Lehner. People are telling me wait. This is not over. There’s still more to go here. What’s everyone going to say? This is going to take some skill and handling. There are the possibilities of aftershocks. Is this something that the league and the Players Association are going to have to get involved in? Depending on where all of this goes. –Friedman, 32 Thoughts Podcast
It doesn’t take a spyglass for an opposing team to hear or read about the tension between Lehner and the coaching staff down the stretch. It was on full display after Vegas’ late-season loss against the New Jersey Devils.
Is there a way to deal with this so that it can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction mentally, and physically, and emotionally without a series of aftershocks that further damage the franchise. If it’s not dealt with in a proper way it’s going to get worse before it gets better. –Friedman, 32 Thoughts Podcast
The Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight, unfortunately without the Golden Knights. On the bright side, missing the cut allows Vegas more time in the offseason. A head start helps examine prospects, target free agents, trades or anything else they feel they need to get sorted out. The next few days will reveal what the organization’s plans are going forward. Lehner, DeBoer, slamming doors, and teammates snapping are areas that need immediate attention.
Injuries have dominated the storyline for the Golden Knights this season and they are a huge reason why the team is where it is in the playoff picture with 11 games to go.
Recently though Vegas has started to see a few key pieces return to the lineup and with them has come a growing confidence that they can push through and claim one of the final playoff spots.
I think when a player comes back it’s a boost for the team. The team does a little bit extra to try and make it good for you. -Robin Lehner
This has been on full display for the Golden Knights recently. From the three-goal comeback against Chicago in Alec Martinez’s return to the shutout in Seattle when Brayden McNabb stepped back into the lineup to the overtime win in Vancouver in Lehner’s return.
The challenge is to keep it up. Not only for the team to continue playing at a “boosted” level, but also to get consistent performances from those who have been out of the lineup and are likely not fully healthy.
I feel I’m close, but this time of year I need to be better than my 100 percent. It’s time to raise the bar. All of us. We need to win and there’s no other option. Just being good is not good enough right now. -Lehner
Lehner likely speaks for most players in the Golden Knights’ lineup. Rarely is any player completely healthy at this time of the season, but with a year like Vegas has had it’s to be expected that most guys are less than 100%. Adding Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone back into the mix will only muddy up these already muddy waters as well.
It’s going to be up to Pete DeBoer to find the balance necessary to get everything out of his players without asking too much from those who aren’t physically capable of it.
We have the luxury of not having to load up anyone on defense with the group we have back there. Up front we’re not as deep with the group we’ve got out we don’t have an option but to load up some of those guys. We can’t leave any bullets in the gun for playoffs until we clinch a ticket to make sure we are there. -DeBoer
Vegas does have the benefit of time between games for the rest of this week but then the schedule tightens up substantially for the final six games.
Decision-making will be paramount down the stretch because one wrong move could be fatal for a team that needs every win they can possibly get.
This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on usually on Sundays. Today, Kevin lays out what he believes is the correct course of action for the Golden Knights at this deadline.
The trading deadline is Monday and in the first four years of the VGK’s existence, it was a joyous time. We were like children waking up on Christmas morning to see what Santa left under the tree.
There was no question that the Golden Knights were going to add at the deadline in any of those four seasons. The question was how big would they go?
This season figured to be no different. But then, the Knights have gone 11-14-4 since Jan. 1 and just completed an 0-5 road trip largely against the dregs of the league. The win against Florida last night was great, but it doesn’t change what has happened over the course of the last three months.
This time, the trading deadline arrives and the Knights are a team in disarray, no longer a Stanley Cup contender and perhaps a team that may play its way into the draft lottery.
The deadline will still come, and it’s clear the VGK need a lot of work — for next season. The bulk of that can be done in the summer, but this trade deadline can give it a start.
Here are moves I would make if I were Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon to help fortify the team for a run at the 2023 Stanley Cup:
1. Shut down Alec Martinez for the remainder of the season: There is something seriously wrong with the guy, and it goes well beyond getting cut in the face by a skate in November. Nobody in the game is tougher than Martinez, and the fact he’s not playing five months later is an ominous sign.
This season is lost; even if they somehow miraculously sneak into the playoffs, they’re not winning the Stanley Cup this year. So shut down Martinez for the remainder of the year and hope he comes back in September fully health.
Tonight the Golden Knights will face an electric Florida Panthers team that won’t have trouble scoring. In their last ten games, the Panthers have 40 combined goals scored. Vegas on the other hand, has a total of 25. It well could be another one of those nights. We’re all hoping it’s not.
This is not how Vegas operates. Vegas isn’t fond about making excuses. Maybe management would look at it and say ‘we got thirty million dollars worth of players that are wearing suits.’ I don’t know if the owner looks at it that way. -Jeff Marek on 32 Thoughts Podcast
Of course, fans would rather the Golden Knights compete for a Stanley Cup this postseason but it seems like a hopeless dream at this point. Vegas has been devastated with injuries and there’s no doubting that. The Golden Knights’ goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals may have unfortunately been upended by the injury bug. It’s an excuse, but some would argue it’s a darn good excuse.
Look at how much money you’ve got in injured reserve or long term injured reserve. Between all of those guys you’re over $30 million dollars out of the lineup. -Elliotte Friedman on 32 Thoughts Podcast
Most injuries are uncontrollable and an unfortunate element of professional sports. Sadly, some teams cannot make up for impactful players getting hurt and missing significant amounts of time. It’s unlikely the Golden Knights will never be fully healthy this season. Even if the club makes a remarkable run to the finals it won’t be enough time for each injury to completely heal. Don’t get me wrong, if Mark Stone and Alec Martinez are available in the playoffs they will dress. They may not be 100% healthy but they will play their tuchuses off.
Realistically, it probably wouldn’t be enough to eliminate Calgary, Colorado, or Tampa Bay in a seven-game series. So, what’s wrong with planning ahead?