When Pete DeBoer came on as head coach of the Golden Knights one aspect of the game we expected to see change was the way the team was going to try and generate offense. Where Gerard Gallant teams thrived in transition and on opportunistic chances, DeBoer wanted to bring a much more reliable style of offense to the fold.
One piece of that is generating offense from the back to the front. The concept is to work the puck in deep and then send it low to high back to the defensemen. From there, the defensemen can make a number of decisions about what to do with the puck, but if a shot lane is there with traffic in front, that’s the preferred choice.
This was majorly successful with Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson in San Jose, it worked with Andy Greene and Marek Zidlicky in New Jersey and it worked with Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan McCabe with the Panthers. Now, with Vegas, Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo are among the top five players on the team in shots per game and the Golden Knights lead the West division (and the NHL) in points from blueliners.
There is one concern with this strategy though, and that’s when shot attempts from defensemen are blocked or don’t hit the net. Blocked shot attempts have a chance to quickly lead to rushes the other way while missed shots force forwards to work to recover the puck and can lead to easy breakouts.
A bit of excellent research from JFreshHockey shows us that a few Golden Knights are struggling at the skill of hitting the net from the point.
If I told you before the season the Golden Knights defensemen would score a total of 29 goals in 38 games you’d be pleasantly surprised. If I then told you they were scoring 0.68 goals per game and only two from Alex Pietrangelo you’d call me a loony.
Since this season is 26 games shorter, offensive numbers from defensemen stand out a little more. Not only are goals from defensemen necessary, but assisting and generating them as well. This season the Golden Knights are getting it all from their blueline.
Most of the eight defensemen to suit up this season are far beyond their pace for career years. All but two have eclipsed their points per game average. If this were a normal 82-game season it’s plausible the majority of the Golden Knights defense would cruise past their previous high campaigns.
When you add the total goals from each defensemen’s best offensive season the number is just 20 goals short of what they’ve amassed in only 38 games played this year. Lately, Vegas D-men have been so effective it’s made up for the slump Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone are currently in. Which is good sign for postseason droughts. Especially, when youngsters Zach Whitecloud, Nic Hague, and Dylan Coghlan are getting involved offensively.
Currently, the Golden Knights defensive unit is the highest-scoring in the NHL. When the Golden Knights get contributions from the blue line or bottom-six it softens the pressure around the stars. Which allows them to get to work and do their jobs. Also, it makes Vegas a much more potent club in the postseason.
Scoring 0.68 goals per game from the blue line will help win many regular season games, but that additional offense is even more vital in the playoffs when games tend to tighten up. It’s unrealistic to rely on Vegas defensemen to score at their regular season pace. They might bail out the top six on certain nights but Vegas can’t survive if the defense is relied upon for three or four postseason games.
Only Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore average more than 0.30 points per playoff game. Sure, Alec Martinez has one of the most memorable Cup-clinching shots of all time but he’s never been relied on to produce offensively. That’s not his role.
The best-case scenario would be Pacioretty, Stone, and other top-six forwards consistently driving offense in the postseason. In that situation, any point from the blue line would be an added bonus. Momentum changing, insurance type goals or series clinchers.
Whenever games do indeed resume for the Golden Knights it’s probable they’ll be without their entire top pair on defense. Brayden McNabb was placed on injured reserve last week and then Alex Pietrangelo appeared on the COVID list and said he was experiencing mild symptoms.
Thus, when Vegas hits the ice again, they’ll need replacements for two of their top four skaters in ice-time.
Before we get into the replacement options, and there are quite a few, we need to take a look at where the Golden Knights sit against the cap with McNabb on LTIR and Pietrangelo out.
By rule, LTIR can be used for those who test positive for COVID, but that automatically rules the player out for 24 days and 10 games. To this point, Vegas has not used that option with Pietrangelo, which means his $8.8 million salary continues to count against the cap, even if he can’t play. McNabb was placed on LTIR which allows the Golden Knights to exceed the cap by $2.5 million, but performance bonuses are likely going to continue forcing Vegas to choose between Cody Glass and a sixth defenseman.
So, let’s say they do indeed go with six defensemen. The clear first options would be the two defensemen that have been on the taxi squad for the entire season, Nick Holden and Dylan Coghlan. If that’s the plan, the lineup will likely look like this…
Martinez-Theodore Hague-Whitecloud Holden-Coghlan
However, there are other options, and a few good ones at that. In the AHL, the Golden Knights have a pair of defense-first players that might fit better in the absence of Pietrangelo and McNabb. Those two acount for nearly 60% of the defensive ice-time on the penalty kill. While Holden can fill one of those roles, Coghlan is not the ideal option. That would leave either Hague or Theodore to fill-in, which is do-able, but not optimal.
So, Carl Dahlstrom and Jake Bischoff both have to be considered as feasible options. Here’s what we’re looking at if they go with one of those two along with Holden.
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.
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%
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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
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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McCrimmon said he had lengthy discussions with Ryan Reaves about his place among the VGK forward group. That in part led to them dealing Reaves to New York where McCrimmon said he thinks Reaves may earn an extension.