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Pairing With Pietrangelo – 5 Options For The Golden Knights Blue Line

Adding Alex Pietrangelo changes the look of any defensive unit in the NHL. It’s no different for the Golden Knights who through the years have seen quite the morphing of their blue line.

Vegas will head into 2020-21 with just one remaining starter from their inaugural game in Dallas, two from the Cup Final roster, and three from last year’s Opening Night.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

2017-18 Opening Night

Sbisa-Schmidt
McNabb-Engelland
Garrison-Miller

2018 Stanley Cup Final Game 1

McNabb-Schmidt
Theodore-Engelland
Sbisa-Miller

2018-19 Opening Night

Theodore-Engelland
McNabb-Miller
Merrill-Holden
*Schmidt Suspended

2019-20 Opening Night

McNabb-Schmidt
Merrill-Theodore
Holden-Engelland

How they run it out for 2020-21 is still to be determined, but the options are fairly minimal. Three of the six projected starters are absolutely locked into one side of the defense with a fourth basically a foregone conclusion. The three are Pietrangelo (right), McNabb (left), and Whitecloud (right). Theodore is the fourth, he played 90 of 91 games on the right side last season, including the playoffs.

That leaves just a few moveable pieces thus limiting the combinations Pete DeBoer has to work with. Here are each of the possible options, starting with the one most likely to be used by the Golden Knights when they open the 2020-21 season.

Option 1
McNabb-Pietrangelo
Martinez-Theodore
Holden-Whitecloud

This combination leaves two pairs intact from the playoff run and slots Pietrangelo in with a good fit in McNabb to play first pair minutes. Martinez has shown to be a great option with Theodore and the Holden/Whitecloud pair have held the fort on the third pair. The main question with this grouping would be how much McNabb holds back Pietrangelo’s offense. At times, Schmidt’s offense was neutered a bit playing with McNabb as they found themselves hemmed in the defensive zone against the opposing top line. Pietrangelo is an upgrade over Schmidt which should help that issue, but he wasn’t brought to Vegas to spend a majority of his shifts trying to exit the zone. The Golden Knights want offense from Pietrangelo, and if it’s not coming in bunches with McNabb by his side, they won’t hesitate to switch things around. Probability: 80%

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A Case For And Against Trading Each Of VGK’s Top-Six Forwards And Top-Four Defensemen

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The Golden Knights are likely headed for an offseason of change. It might be just a little if they can solve the goalie situation without breaking the bank or it might be a lot if they land the big fish in free agency. Either way, the possibility of moving one of Vegas’ top-six forwards and/or top-four defensemen is much higher this offseason than it was last summer.

Here’s a case for why they should trade each one of them, followed by a case against it. (Alex Tuch is substituted for Mark Stone due to Stone’s full no-movement clause.)

Max Pacioretty
$7 million (3 seasons remaining)

Case for: You want cap relief, here it is. Shedding Pacioretty’s $7 million would basically allow for a one-for-one move to make the big-ticket free-agent splash. Pacioretty may not return nearly as much as you’d probably like after the dismal end to the playoffs, but he has a history of scoring and former captains aren’t easy to find. He’s likely on the declining side of his peak and his injury issues are concerning. If someone is willing to buck up a 2nd round pick and eat the entire $21 million in cap space over the next three years, Vegas absolutely has to listen.

Case against: The biggest problem the Golden Knights had in 2019-20, and especially in the playoffs, was scoring and the solution is to trade the team’s leading scorer? What world are we living in here? The guy is coming off a 32 goal pandemic shortened season and was clearly banged up during the playoffs. When he’s healthy, he’s the best scorer Vegas has. He’s also worked incredibly well with VGK’s most important forward, Mark Stone. I’ll repeat what I said before, if scoring is the issue, you do not trade your leading scorer.

Jonathan Marchessault
$5 million (4 seasons remaining)

Case for: The case for trading Marchessault must start with his play in the postseason. He’s not the best defensive player in the world, he’s been known to take a penalty or two that he shouldn’t, and he isn’t exactly the physical specimen you look for in a hockey player, but all of that is overlooked because he can do the hardest thing to do in hockey, score. When he doesn’t, he has to be considered when thinking about change. The cap number would help free up some space for Vegas to make the splash they are hoping for in free agency and his production under DeBoer hasn’t matched what it was under Gallant which causes concern for the future. Plus, he’s played a lot less under DeBoer showing a lack of trust that Gallant had. This postseason Marchessault averaged 16:33 per game, in 2018 he averaged 19:25. The return would likely be worthwhile which could help in making something else happen down the line.

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“Heavy” Becoming Vegas’ New Label

Throughout their series, the Blackhawks used the word ‘heavy’ 31 times to describe the Golden Knights in press conferences.

Blackhawks captain Jonathon Toews uses “heavy” to describe two things. Vegas’ size, and their ability to hold the puck once they possess it. It’s no secret, the Golden Knights are big and most of their players are hard to bump off the puck. Which was apparent right from the start of the series.

Mark Stone is 6’4″, 219 pounds but also has the puck super glued on his stick. Alex Tuch is 6’4″ as well, and his skill, speed, and size make it difficult for a defender to strip the puck. Max Pacioretty is 6’2, with the lethal combination of power and a rocket shot. These are examples of being a heavy team, and playing like one.

They play a different game then the Oilers. They’re a very structured, simple team. They play a heavy game. You got to tip your hat sometimes, they play well as a squad. -Calvin de Haan, CHI Defenseman

Blackhawks defenseman Calvin de Haan used the word to describe differences between the Golden Knights and a faster, skill-based team like the Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton has Connor McDavid, but what they didn’t have was the team structure and physicality Vegas has. The Golden Knights get scoring from multiple players, not just two, they defend, and rarely veer from their gameplan.

We know they’re an excellent team. They’re a heavy team, they get on the forcheck and try and hold you down… We gave them some easy ones, easy chances. They score 3-1 and during that stretch we just weren’t very good.-Jeremy Colliton, CHI coach

Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton called the Golden Knights a heavy team after three of the five games. Again, it wasn’t just their size, it was Vegas’ forecheck. When the Golden Knights push the puck with pressure they make teams feel like they’re being weighed down. All twelve forwards have that ability allowing Vegas the fortune to use all four lines.

Then there’s the natural use of the word.

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Martinez’s Versatility Allows VGK To Go Unconventional With Their Defensive Alignment

We don’t have a VGK Martinez picture yet. Please accept our sincerest apologies for this one where he’s wearing a hideous outfit. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights lineup on Thursday, Alec Martinez’s first game, included six defensemen that all shoot with the same hand. Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Nick Holden, Jon Merrill, and Martinez all shoot with their left hand.

In the NHL this season, of the 294 defensemen to make an appearance, 175 of them, or 60%, shoot left-handed. So, it’s not abnormal that Vegas has a bevy of them, but icing an entire lineup lacking a single right-hand shot defenseman is far from common.

The Golden Knights have used a roster with all lefties four different times this season. I looked as hard as I could, and I can’t find a single other team that has done it once this year. (Because I know you’re wondering, they were a winless 0-3-0 before Thursday)

This season, the Golden Knights have only used two defensemen that shoot with their right-hand; Deryk Engelland and Zach Whitecloud. They’ve played a combined 56 games. The next closest team with the fewest number games by right-handed defenseman is Arizona with 93. Every other team has over 100 with many over 200.

The reason the Golden Knights have been able to get away with it is because of how many players they have that are comfortable playing on both sides. Since joining the Golden Knights, Schmidt, Theodore, and Holden have all seen significant time playing both sides and Martinez may have more experience doing it than all three combined.

He’s a left-shot, from what I understand he’s very comfortable on the right and he’s very good on the right. That versatility’s nice. Having a guy, even though he’s not a right-shot that’s very comfortable on the right is important. -DeBoer

The Golden Knights wasted no time putting that skill to use. In Martinez’s first game, he was paired with Jon Merrill with Martinez playing the right. Not even a period deep, he scored a goal playing the left partnered with Shea Theodore. Later in the game, he killed penalties on the right with both Schmidt and McNabb, and as a power-play expired he played a full shift on the left of Holden.

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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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Golden Knights Utilizing Zone Starts To Deploy Right Defenseman At Right Time

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

One of the most overlooked stats in hockey is zone starts. NHL coaches go to great lengths to get the correct players on the ice at the right times, but when examining stats, very rarely will you see a nod to a player’s zone starts.

When judging defense we like to use stats like +/-, Corsi, goal percentage, and defensive point shares. However, it’s important to consider deployment when taking all of this into account.

It’s become especially crucial when breaking down the statistical seasons of the Golden Knights blue liners. Looking at the numbers without zone starts involved it appears as though Shea Theodore has emerged as Vegas’ best defenseman. He leads all defensemen in goals, assists, points, shots, offensive point shares, defensive point shares, Corsi, Corsi relative, expected goals, expected goals percentage, and expected +/-.

There’s no question that Theodore has become the Golden Knights’ most effective offensive weapon from the blue line. That’s why the coaching staff have used him in a role much different than that of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb.

The Golden Knights are 2nd in the NHL in percentage of faceoffs in the offensive zone. In Golden Knights games this season, 35.6% of draws have been in the offensive zone, 32.7% in the neutral zone and just 31.7% in the D-zone. Vegas has taken 648 offensive zone draws to only 577 in the defensive zone. That means the Golden Knights baseline zone start percentage is 52.9%.

In other words, any player getting less than 53% offensive zone starts is being deployed in a defensive role, while anyone above is in an offensive role. Here are the Golden Knights primary defensemen’s offensive zone start numbers this season.

oZS%
Hague 65.5%
Theodore 58.0%
Engelland 54.9%
Merrill 51.8%
Holden 49.8%
Schmidt 47.7%
McNabb 47.3%

The difference between the top of that list and the bottom is massive. Hague and Theodore are drawing offensive zone shifts more than 6% more than the team average while McNabb and Schmidt are finding themselves starting in the D-zone around 6% less than the average.

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Pick A Pair: The Best D-Pair Match For Every VGK Defenseman

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When the Golden Knights take the ice on October 2nd there will likely only be one change along the blue line. Out went Colin Miller and in comes the winner of the rookie defenseman battle between Jimmy Schuldt, Nic Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff, and Dylan Coghlan.

However, the way they line up may have to change with the new makeup of the defense. With Miller in Buffalo, the Golden Knights are left with just one right-handed defenseman among the guaranteed mix. That leaves plenty of options in how Gerard Gallant and Ryan McGill will set the pairs.

Here’s an attempt to breakdown what each defenseman does best and who they might match up best with.

(Each player is listed with their best match as a partner, other options they could succeed with, and players to avoid. The match is to maximize that player’s skills, it is not necessarily to create the best pair. Other options are ranked in order from best option to worst. Players to avoid are listed in no particular order.)

Nate Schmidt

Schmidt is the swiss-army knife of the Golden Knights defense. He really does it all and it allows for him to be partnered with pretty much anyone. As a mobile puck-mover, he can be paired with a stay-at-home player or he can be put with another puck-mover to create a dynamic pair. Schmidt is able to contribute offense, but he’s also one of the most reliable players the Golden Knights have in their own end. Schmidt has played on both sides, and played with Engelland and McNabb for the majority of last season. However, they have paired him with Theodore on multiple occasions, including in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. It’s never really gone well, but there’s been a willingness to try it.
Best Match: McNabb
Other Options: Schuldt, Engelland, Merrill, Theodore, Hague, Whitecloud, Coghlan, Bischoff, Holden
Avoid: None

Brayden McNabb

The defensive stallwart, McNabb almost has to play with a skater. That being said, McNabb has really been at his best with Schmidt as his partner. Late in the year last season, they put him with Theodore, and while Shea thrived it often led to McNabb being caught in vulnerable defensive positions which was highlighted by the OT goal that ended Vegas’ season. Throughout the two year history, the Golden Knights have really only used McNabb with Theodore, Schmidt, and Engelland and one of those pairs was a nightmare. McNabb has spent the entirety of his Golden Knights career playing on the left side.
Best Match: Schmidt
Other Options: Theodore, Schuldt, Coghlan, Whitecloud, Hague,
Avoid: Engelland, Bischoff, Merrill, Holden

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The Stone Age Impacts Golden Knights Defense

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When the Golden Knights acquired Mark Stone at the NHL trade deadline back on Feb. 25, it was assumed the offense would perk up as Stone had 28 goals in the bank from his time in Ottawa.

But who knew the defense would be the unit that has come alive?

Collectively, the Vegas blue line corps is playing some of its best hockey of the year. And while it may be a coincidence that it has come since Stone’s arrival, the changes Gerard Gallant made a few weeks ago, moving Deryk Engelland with Nate Schmidt, playing Shea Theodore with Brayden McNabb and giving Jon Merrill a regular spot in the lineup, seemed to have worked.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The defense accounted for both goals in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Calgary at T-Mobile Arena. More important, the Knights have allowed just nine goals in the six games Stone has worn the steel grey No. 61.

Obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury’s play in the crease has been a big part of that. But don’t discount the job his D-men are doing in front of him.

The Knights are winning more battles in their own end. They’re more active in using their sticks to take away the cross-ice pass. They are making smarter decisions in breaking out of their own end. They are pinching in the other team’s end more judiciously and not getting caught in as many odd-man rushes the other way. They continue to block shots at a high rate. They seem to be communicating better.

All of that was again on display Saturday here in Vancouver at Rogers Arena against a Canucks team which Vegas handled a week ago, 3-0, and 6-2 Saturday for their sixth straight win. The Knights scored a franchise-record five first-period goals and there was no looking ahead to tonight’s big game at the Scotiabank Saddledome and the rematch with the Flames.

And as many predicted, Stone finally scored as a Golden Knight as he opened the scoring 1:32 into Saturday’s contest.

Gallant said you never know what’s going to happen when you change your lineup. But these moves appear to have worked so far.

It was just shaking things up. When you’re losing, you’re not happy. So we made a few changes with the D and so far it’s worked. I like the way they’ve been playing. -Gallant

You ask the defensemen what’s turned things around, you get different answers.

I think change can be good sometimes. You get a little stagnant with the way you play. I just think that it’s about trending. If you continue to play well, you want to make sure you keep doing those things that help you win. Colin Miller and Jon Merrill have been playing fantastic for us. When you have that kind of depth on your team, that’s important. -Schmidt

Theodore said the defensemen are reacting better to the puck and making the right play more consistently.

I think we’re just quick to pucks and we’re not giving them as much time and space in the corners. Usually when you give teams with good skill players time down low they’re going to make plays. I think our centers have been coming in and killing those plays and that’s been big for us. -Theodore

Engelland said it has been a collective mindset that has seen the team’s defensive uptick.

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Roles Are Reverse but Vegas’ Veterans Don’t Mind

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Last year there wasn’t a question who the hunted was. The Golden Knights sat comfortably in first place for most of the season. Technically, Vegas was the hunted… but not really. Up until the postseason, there weren’t many times that another Pacific Division team threatened Vegas’ throne. This season the roles have reversed and the hunter resides in Nevada.

Yeah I guess it is a little bit different. We were surprised. I think we had a lot of games where teams maybe took us lightly and didn’t know what to expect. This year we’ve earned their respect and teams know how we play. -Brayden McNabb

This season Vegas is chasing Calgary and San Jose, and find themselves fighting their way to get back in the race. Which was why Wednesday’s victory in a playoff preview against the Flames was a big mental victory. The Golden Knights know every night they’re going to face a team’s best effort, so it was a motivating win against a top team like Calgary.

I think we’re noticing it from pretty much every team. A lot of teams came in last year and didn’t expect much playing against us. This year teams are coming in with a little more urgency. They’re ready for us. -Reilly Smith

Pacific Division Standings this date last year: 03/09/18
Vegas (43-19-5) 91 Points
San Jose (36-22-9) 81 Points
Anaheim (34-23-12) 80 Points
LA (37-25-5) 79 Points
Calgary (34-25-10) 78 Points
Edmonton (29-34-4) 62 Points
Vancouver (25-34-9) 59 Points
Arizona (21-34-11) 53 Points

Pacific Division Standings today: 03/09/19
Calgary (41-20-7) 89 Points
San Jose (40-19-8) 88 Points
Vegas (37-26-5) 79 Points
Arizona (33-29-5) 71 Points
Edmonton (30-30-7) 67Points
Vancouver (28-31-9) 65 Points
Anaheim (27-33-9) 63 Points
LA (24-35-8) 56 Points

Calgary is close to Vegas’ point total pace from a season ago, but their lead is nowhere near the cushion the Golden Knights had back on March 9th, 2018. Thus making it much more difficult for the Flames to win the Pacific Division this season.

The question is, will it matter?

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Brayden McNabb Is Getting Back On Track

**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

I’m not a huge analytics guy. But when it comes to discussing how good Brayden McNabb has been for the Golden Knights, perhaps I need to Corsi-fy and Fenwick-ish my analysis of the 6-foot-4, 28-year-old defenseman.

Nah. I’ll just trust my own lying eyes.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

And what I see is a smart, honest hockey player who works well with his partner, helps out his goalie, makes wise decisions when to join the rush and isn’t afraid to sacrifice his body.

In other words, I like Brayden McNabb.

So do his coach and his teammates. He’s exactly what the Golden Knights need at this point of the season and moving forward into the postseason.

He has played in all 66 games. He leads the team in blocked shots (121). He is third on the Knights in hits (168) after Ryan Reaves and Will Carrier. He averages just under 20 minutes a game in time on ice. He is an excellent penalty killer pairing with Deryk Engelland.

He also has three goals and 14 points heading into Sunday’s game against Vancouver at T-Mobile Arena a the Knights continue to try and put some distance between themselves and Arizona for the third spot in the Pacific Division.

I think the longer you’re in this league, you get comfortable with everything. You know the system. You know your teammates. You learn when to join the rush and when to hang back. I’ve become smarter and I don’t take as many chances as I used to when I first got to the league. -McNabb

Gerard Gallant loves honest hockey players, guys he can just send over the boards and not be surprised at what they do. In McNabb, he’s got a player who’s as honest as the day is long.

I don’t know there’s much improvement from last year to be honest with you. He’s done the same job as last year and I loved him last year.

He’s a great penalty killer. He shuts down the other team’s top players and I like what he brings to our group. -Gallant

McNabb admits he’s not perfect. He had a tough stretch in mid-February where he was taking penalties, getting beat in his own end and simply not playing well. But he has turned it around. His last three games have seen a return to making good decisions, staying out of the box and doing his job. Not coincidentally, the Knights have won all three and are solidifying their third spot in the Pacific.

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