Brayden McNabb is among the best defense-first defensemen in the NHL, and certainly one of the best on the Golden Knights. He’s played more than 600 regular season and playoff games in the NHL, so it’s fair to say he’s seen just about every type of player, offensive system, and situation a defenseman can face.
Following the season, I asked McNabb a question that generated an answer I found telling, even if he didn’t mean it to be taken the way I’m about to take it.
The question was simple, “what makes a team hardest to play against for you as a defenseman?”
If they play fast. If they are putting the puck in and forechecking us and you are getting slammed into the boards every time they do that I don’t care who you ask no one really likes that. Teams that move around in the O-zone, make it difficult by making you make hard reads and making it confusing. -McNabb
It all makes perfect sense and nothing in his answer should be surprising to anyone.
But it made me think…
Do the Golden Knights do any of it?
“Play fast.” At times, sure, I’d argue that the Golden Knights played a fast brand of hockey this season, specifically in transition. When they were turning pucks over in the neutral zone or defensive zone, they sprung into the attack quickly and would often demolish teams on the rush.
In the offensive zone though, fast is not a word most would use to describe the VGK offensive style. They were much more methodical, placing a high preference on puck possession as opposed to quick passing.
Next is forechecking with physicality. This was rarely a part of the Golden Knights’ game this season at all. Vegas was not a heavy dump and chase type team and when they were forced to do it, throwing bodies was not exactly the preferred method of retrieval. Instead, Vegas would send the first player into the zone trying to force the puck along the boards to where the second forechecker would usually be. They’d then try to turn the puck over and hit their third forward coming through the center of the ice, or recycle the puck to eventually generate shots from the point.
Vegas ranked in the bottom third in the NHL in dangerous shot attempts generated directly off the forecheck this season.
Now, this isn’t to say the VGK forecheck was ineffective, it’s just showing that what McNabb described as the hardest to play against was not what the Golden Knights were doing offensively. Instead, Vegas finished the year as one of the most effective cycle teams in the league and a huge part of that was their ability to retrieve the puck in the offensive zone and turn it into sustained pressure.
This shows up most in the 2nd period of games when the defensive zone is further away from each team’s bench. Vegas outscored teams by eight in the 2nd and outshot their opponents by more than 100.
All in all, I’d call the Golden Knights’ forecheck effective, if not highly effective, but, it was not causing defensemen to be “getting slammed into the boards every time.”
Finally, “making it confusing.” This is where I believe the Golden Knights were at their worst. Vegas’ offense was extremely predictable and it lead to few goals set up from defensive disorganization. Activating defensemen was about the only creative tool Vegas had in the bag.
Colorado consistently runs a play where the center (usually Nathan MacKinnon) retreats to the high slot to collect the puck. This creates tough reads for defensemen who have to decide whether or not to chase the center to the blue line or sit back and allow a dangerous forward time and space. Tampa uses a system that constantly attempts to find 3-on-2s. Whether by overloading a side of the ice with all three forwards or using a pinching defenseman, they are looking for numbers advantages that force defensemen to make tricky decisions.
Vegas’s system puts heavy stress on defensemen’s skating as they are often chasing the puck around for upwards of a minute in the defensive zone, but there are rarely situations where a player has to make a choice of who to defend. A simple man-on-man style will keep up with the Golden Knights, as long as fatigue doesn’t set in.
As I mentioned before, McNabb was not asked about the Golden Knights’ offense, nor do I believe his answer was in any way directed at shortcomings in the way Vegas attacks. Really, it could have been any defenseman on any team answering the question and I’d be breaking it down the same way. However, the three examples he gave instantly set off alarm bells in my mind.
Vegas isn’t exactly fast, they aren’t physical on the forecheck, and they don’t confuse defensemen. What makes life hard on one of the better defense-first defensemen in the league, a 10-year veteran, the Golden Knights do very little of.
Brayden McNabb isn’t saying it’s a problem.
But I am.