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Why Didn’t Colin Miller Play Game 1?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When a series goes seven games, it’s the nature of the beast for the losing team to look back at every play, every call, and every decision to come up with answers as to what went wrong.

Of course, it’s been harped on time and time again that the call on Cody Eakin was blown and it cost the Golden Knights a chance to still be playing today. However, there’s no denying the fact that Vegas lost three other games in the series that could have nullified that gaffe.

In Games 5 and 6, Vegas played well and close games just didn’t fall their way, but Game 1 was a much different story. When the series got underway in San Jose, the Golden Knights seemed to take a moment to really get going. By the time they did, it was too late and they instantly dug themselves a hole in the series they would eventually climb out of, only to fall right back in.

Over the course of the first six games, head coach Gerard Gallant made one lineup change. That was putting Colin Miller, who was scratched in Game 1, back into the lineup for Nick Holden.

It was a peculiar decision to bench Miller in the first place, and one that would only get weirder as questions would later be answered about the lineup move.

Miller played all 102 games last season, 65 of the 82 in the regular season this year, and all of the previous seven heading into playoffs. Also, Miller took part in 13 of the 14 prior meetings between the Sharks and Golden Knights, scoring three goals, putting up five assists, and recording a +4 rating. Vegas won nine of the 13 games Miller played against San Jose and lost the one he didn’t.

This was the reasoning for scratching Miller after Game 1 from the Golden Knights head coach.

That was… Like I told you the other day, we play 20 hockey players and there’s some good players that are not playing tonight so we decided he’s not going to play tonight. -Gallant

Is he healthy? – SinBin.vegas

Yes, everybody’s healthy. -Gallant

However, it clearly wasn’t that simple.

Miller took warmups prior to Game 1 against the Sharks. No other player (with the exception of Jimmy Schuldt days after he joined the team) skated in warmups and then didn’t play for the Golden Knights in 2018-19. In 2017-18 it happened only a handful of times and in every instance, it was precautionary to cover for a player who might be injured and unable to play.

As Gallant confirmed, no one was injured. Miller skated alongside the scratches in morning skate the day of Game 1, so the decision was clearly not made in the spur of the moment before the game.

To make matters even more confusing, Miller was instantly placed back in the normal rotation on the off-day between Games 1 and 2. He played in every game the rest of the series, and Gallant made an interesting comment when asked about Miller prior to Game 4.

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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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What Colin Miller’s Return Means To The Golden Knights – Both Short-Term And Long-Term

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

The return of Colin Miller to the Golden Knights’ lineup should lift the spirits of every VGK fan.

Even if you don’t think he can save the Knights’ listless power play, getting the 26-year-old defenseman back on the ice is huge, both in the short term and especially long-term.

Miller missed 13 games after being injured Dec. 17 at Columbus. He confirmed after Saturday’s 7-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins that he had a concussion and given the length of time he was out, that makes sense. As we learned with Marc-Andre Fleury last year, you don’t cut corners with concussions. You let the brain heal, you get your bearings back and only then, when you are ready, do you return to the ice.

It’s crazy, four weeks feel like a year off. It’s definitely a different injury. It’s one of those things you have to deal with. It’s my first one in the pros. It’s a frustrating process because it’s such a slow process sometimes. You just have to make sure your body’s right. -Colin Miller

It was a very good performance. He logged just under 19 minutes of ice time, had two assists, was a plus-3, took six shots though only one was a shot on goal, blocked a shot and had a couple of hits. Best of all, he had no issues after the game.

Yeah. It’s just that when you’re off for that long you’re going to have a little bit of hiccups getting back into that. You know then the game starts to come together. -Miller

Yes, Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt did a good job filling in for Miller for more than a month while he recovered. And for Merrill, it appears he’s going back to the press box as a healthy scratch for now. He’ll handle it professionally and he showed he is worth keeping around.

So why is it really important that Miller is back?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

He is one of the team’s best skaters and can move the puck out of his own end with his wheels. He also knows where his forwards want the puck and he is adept at getting it to them in the right spots.

He also brings some continuity back to the blue line. Gerard Gallant paired Miller with Nick Holden and that means he’s part of the third defensive pairing and it means he doesn’t deal with the opposition’s top forwards as often as Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb do. Though with the Penguins, he found himself dealing with Geno Malkin and Phil Kessel, two top forwards. So with Miller’s return, the third pairing has bolstered the overall lineup.

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Could VGKs Lack of Defensive Scoring Be A Future Problem?

Stop worrying about 3rd line scoring, start worrying about blue line scoring. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It’s no secret, the Golden Knights are getting very little offense from there defense. Overall, the low production from their blue line could be a concern going forward. Sure, power play specialist Colin Miller appears ready to return to the lineup but even with him it may not be enough.

I think sometimes we’re complicated things too much. My job and Millsey’s and Schmitty’s, the guys that are back there, we have to do a better job controlling it. Instead of setting up a play and try and seam it, we just have to get pucks through. -Shea Theodore

At first glance, 97 combined points from the Golden Knights defense doesn’t look that bad, but when you look around the league it’s a very low total.

Points from Vegas defenseman in 2018-19

Theodore 21 Points (5 Goals, 16 Assists)
Miller 17 Points (2 Goals, 15 Assists)
Schmidt 16 Points (4 Goals, 12 Assists)
Holden 13 Points (3 Goals, 10 Assists)
McNabb 12 Points (1 Goal, 11 Assists)
Hunt 7 Points (2 Goals, 5 Assists)
Engelland 6 Points (1 Goals, 5 Assists)
Merrill 5 Points (1 Goal, 4 Assists)
97 Total Points from VGK defenseman
19 Goals, 78 Assists

In just the Pacific Division alone, defensemen are putting up Norris trophy type numbers.

Top 5 Defensemen in Points

Brent Burns SJ: 52 Points(9 Goals, 43 Assists)
Mark Giordano CAL: 48 Points(9 Goals, 38 Assists)
Morgan Reilly TOR: 47 Points(13 Goals, 34 Assists)
Erik Karlsson SJ: 43 Points(3 Goals, 40 Assists)
John Carlson WAS: 43 Points(6 Goals, 37 Assists)

Up in San Jose, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson’s combined offense is roughly the same as the entire Vegas defensive unit. Calgary’s captain Mark Giordano has been heavily involved all season, and on pace for a career-high offensively. When you go through the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference, Vegas has the lowest threat from the blue line.

San Jose: 143 Points (Goals, Assists)
Nashville: 125 (Goals, Assists)
Calgary: 116 Points (Goals, Assists)
Winnipeg: 104 Points (Goals, Assists)

San Jose and Nashville are loaded with blue line scoring, what’s new right? Predators have even been down one of their weapons PK Subban to injury. Like Vegas with Miller, Winnipeg’s blue line lumber, Dustin Byfuglien has also played limited games this season. So, you have to wonder if the Jets are searching for defensive help for the postseason.

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Do The Golden Knights Miss Colin Miller? You bet!

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

When Nate Schmidt returned to the Golden Knights’ lineup last month after serving his 20-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, everyone assumed everything would be fine in the VGK universe.

Of course, everyone was assuming that Colin Miller would always be in the lineup too.

That was a safe assumption considering Miller had never missed a game, regular or postseason. He, along with William Karlsson, were the Knights’ Iron Men. Gerard Gallant could put their names in the lineup in indelible ink and not worry.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But Miller got hurt Dec. 17 against Columbus. He sustained an upper-body injury and he hasn’t played since. The Knights lost to the Blue Jackets that night and have struggled with Miller sidelined since. They didn’t look good in beating the Islanders last Thursday, squandered third-period leads to Montreal Saturday and Los Angeles Sunday and in doing so, left two valuable points on the table. Those two points would have looked pretty good this morning as you peruse the NHL standings.

Vegas has 44 points, one behind second-place San Jose and just three behind Pacific Division-leading Calgary. Yes, they’d be in the postseason if the playoffs started today. But given the way things are shaking out, every point matters. And those two points are going to have to be made up on the road somewhere — maybe at Nashville or Winnipeg — where the Knights will not be favored by the oddsmakers.

So what’s the point?

This team needs Colin Miller back on the blue line, pronto.

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Christmas Break Odds And Ends

The Golden Knights have the next three days completely off, meaning no games, practice, and no media availability. They currently sit in 3rd place in the Pacific Division with 44 points in 39 games. That’s one point behind the 2nd place Sharks and one ahead of the 4th place Ducks.

There are a few topics I wanted to discuss but none of them garnered a full article. So, we cram them all into one and call it a day. Here we go.

Brandon Pirri Re-Assigned to AHL

Gone now, but for how long? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Following the overtime loss to the Kings last night the Golden Knights re-assigned Brandon Pirri to the Chicago Wolves. In doing so they also took Max Pacioretty off IR.

Just looking at the moves, this would lead most to believe that Pacioretty will return Thursday and will be slotted back into his normal place in the lineup. That may happen, but it also may not, and Pirri might wind up right back on the 2nd line despite being re-assigned a few days earlier.

Per NHL rules, if a player clears waivers, which Pirri did on October 4th, they must play 10 games or be on the active NHL roster for 30 days before they are eligible for waivers again. Pirri was recalled to the Golden Knights on December 18th and played in games on the 20th, 22nd, and 23rd before being re-assigned on the 23rd. Thus, he’s played three games and spent five days on the roster.

By optioning him back to the Wolves during this three-day break, the Golden Knights still have six available games and 24 days before he must re-clear waivers. The clock is cumulative, so even if this stint with the Golden Knights is over, it restarts if he is called back up again.

What all of this is trying to say is that there’s a practical reason to send Pirri down to the AHL even if VGK intends to play him on Thursday. It may or may not happen, but unlike most situations when a player is returned to the AHL, this one does not necessarily mean his time with the Golden Knights is up.

Struggles Without Main Defensemen

It was well-documented how much the Golden Knights missed Nate Schmidt during his 20 game suspension. They went just 8-11-1 and were much closer to the basement of the Pacific than they were the top.

VGK proving they can’t be without 6 or 88. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Over the past two games, they’ve gone 0-0-2 at home while missing Colin Miller due to an upper-body injury.

Deryk Engelland has missed six games this season, the Golden Knights are 3-2-1 in those games.

Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, and Nick Holden have played in all 39 games

When Miller and Schmidt are both in the lineup, Vegas is 12-4-1. When one or the other is missing they are 8-11-3.

Defensive depth is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, whether that be via trade or by giving some of the young AHL prospects a chance. Either way, something needs to be done because no team makes it through the playoffs with just six defensemen.

Long Shifts

Vegas has 13 players, including nine forwards that average 0:50 or more per shift. There are only 118 NHL skaters that average 0:50 or more

The Golden Knights have 10 players in the top 100 in the NHL in this category.

Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch lead the team with 0:56 average per shift while Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, Paul Stastny, and William Karlsson all average at least 0:53.

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Nate’s Back, But Who Should He Play With?

Welcome back Nate! Now, save the season. No pressure bud. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Nate’s back! But now he needs a partner, and finding the right option not only for Schmidt, but also for the rest of the blueline is easier said than done for the Golden Knights.

Last year eventual Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant paired Schmidt with either Luca Sbisa or Brayden McNabb for a majority of the season. As the season went on Schmidt played most of his time on the top pair with McNabb. Now, as Schmidt is set to return the question is, should he go back with McNabb or is there a better option?

If the Schmidt/McNabb pair is indeed once again reunited, not much else will change in the lineup. Colin Miller will slide down to play with Nick Holden and Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland will remain together.

McNabb-Schmidt
Theodore-Engelland
Holden-Miller

However, an argument can be made that Miller and McNabb have been the best and most consistent pair, and maybe they shouldn’t be split up. Thus Schmidt would have to find a new home. Since Nate plays on the right side, there are really only two options for who he can play with, Theodore or Holden.

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Golden Knights Defensemen Power Rankings

Brannstrom is on his way to forcing McPhee and Gallant into keeping him around. (Photo by Brandon Andreasen)

We are now over a week into training camp and have seen a pair of preseason games in which 32 different skaters have taken the ice for the Golden Knights. The impending suspension of Nate Schmidt and the possibility of Shea Theodore missing games with the contract negotiations has the blue line wide open heading into October 4th.

I like carrying eight defensemen and we’ve done it because some of the young guys weren’t really ready to be called up, so we wanted to carry eight. We’re carrying eight again next year. The good news is, we’ve got guys that can be called up this year. -George McPhee

Of course, there are still nearly three weeks of practice and six preseason games to sort it all out, but let’s take a look at how we think it shakes out as we speak.

This is a ranking of each defenseman in the Golden Knights system by the current level of play. This does not take into account things like suspension, holdout, waiver exempt status, contract, or likelihood to make the roster. These are my rankings, not necessarily how I believe the team would rank the players. (Nonetheless, admittedly, a lot of my beliefs come from decisions made by the front office and coaching staff on players.)

1) Nate Schmidt

Nate is in a class of his own on the Golden Knights blue line. He’s the only player currently even close to being considered a 1A defenseman, and even that can be debated either way. However, with the suspension, he’s unavailable for 20 games, so he won’t be an option for the Golden Knights come October 4th.

2) Brayden McNabb

Looking back on the contract, McNabb was an absolute steal for George McPhee. With Schmidt’s absence, McNabb will step into the role as the Golden Knights top defenseman. He’ll be relied upon to stop the opposing teams’ best players night in and night out for the first month and a half and will be the key penalty-killing defenseman as well. McNabb is much maligned at times, but the guy is a legit high-end shutdown defenseman and when paired with the right player, he and his partner can shine.

3) Colin Miller

Yes, Miller is rated above Theodore, and not because Theodore is not in camp, but because Miller is the more complete player at this moment. Give it a few years and Theodore will probably soar past him, but right now Miller has become acceptable (and probably even more than that) in his own end and he’s an absolute weapon in the offensive zone. He boasts the hardest shot on the team and he’s bound to have a mega offensive season playing a much more prominent role than a year ago.

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Where Does The Blue Line Stand Now With Schmidt Out Of The Picture?

It’s the obvious question to ask following the stunning news of Nate Schmidt’s 20 game suspension, what now? It gets even worse when you consider the possibility of Shea Theodore missing games, but for the purpose of this article (and because this isn’t the time of year for doom and gloom), we’re going to assume Theodore is on the ice on October 4th.

According to offseason quotes by George McPhee, the Golden Knights are expected to keep eight defensemen on the roster out of training camp. With Schmidt out, the roster has a total of 15 available players to fill those eight spots. Five names can probably be safely cast aside as longshots to make the roster (Zac Leslie, Dylan Coghlan, Jimmy Oligny, Jake Bischoff, and Nic Hague) leaving 10 players to fill the eight places.

Don’t be surprised if Gallant leans heavily on Engelland with Schmidt out. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It really comes down to Brad Hunt, Jon Merrill, Griffin Reinhart, Zach Whitecloud, and Erik Brannstrom fighting for three spots and one starting role. The odds on favorites are Hunt and Merrill with them splitting time as the six starter spot to go along with Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb, Colin Miller, Shea Theodore, and Nick Holden.

Engelland and Miller are the only two right-handed defensemen of the group of five highly likely to crack the starting lineup, but Holden has played most of his career on the right side. Thus, in theory, there are the beginnings of each of the three pairs.

That leaves Theodore, McNabb, and Hunt/Merrill as each’s partner. Last year Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant used both Theodore and McNabb with Engelland quite a bit. Assuming he returns to those familiar pairings, we’re left with four potential sets of pairings.

Option A
McNabb-Engelland
Theodore-Holden
Merrill/Hunt-Miller

Option B
McNabb-Engelland
Theodore-Miller
Merrill/Hunt-Holden

Option C
Theodore-Engelland
McNabb-Miller
Merrill/Hunt-Holden

Option D
Theodore-Engelland
McNabb-Holden
Merrill/Hunt-Miller

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Blueline Needs To Chip In To Replace Departed Offense

Theodore scored the first playoff goal in team history. Might need a lot more of that in Year 2. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When you think of scoring and the Golden Knights, rarely do names like Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, or even Shea Theodore come to mind. Aside from the occasional Colin Miller blast, the Golden Knights weren’t exactly known for offensive from the blueline. Last season, Golden Knights defensemen scored 37 goals. Good enough for 18th most in the NHL.

Nashville: 56 Goals
Columbus: 51 Goals
Arizona: 50 Goals
Philadelphia: 50 Goals
Tampa Bay: 48 Goals
Florida: 44 Goals
Anaheim: 42 Goals
Minnesota: 42 Goals
St. Louis: 42 Goals
Colorado: 41 Goals
*18. Vegas: 37 Goals

Thankfully, the Golden Knights never needed to rely on blueline scoring. However, more output would help the team return to the playoffs. Colin Miller led all Vegas blueliners with 10 goals and 41 points. He was handsomely rewarded with a new $15M contract extension.

As it stands right now, Vegas defensemen are projected to score around 40 goals in 2018-19. Not far off from last season’s totals.

2017-18 VGK Defensive Scoring
Colin Miller: 10G, 31A
Nate Schmidt: 5G, 31A
Shea Theodore: 6G, 23A
Deryk Engelland: 5G, 18A
Brad Hunt: 3G, 15A
Brayden McNabb: 5G, 10A
Luca Sbisa: 2G, 12A
Jon Merrill: 1G, 2A
Totals: 37 Goals, 142 Assists, 179 Points

When you subtract Luca Sbisa’s contribution and add Nick Holden’s offense, it’s a virtual wash.

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