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Loaded Lines, Stocked Blueline, VGK Now Class of West

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Vegas Golden Knights VGK opening night

The Vegas Golden Knights are about as stacked as you can get. No matter how the top six forwards shake out when the season starts, either line could be a number one on any NHL club. Defensively the Golden Knights landed the top free agent prize in Alex Pietrangelo to further bolster a tremendous blueline. And in net, the tandem of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury is among the NHL’s top three. The Golden Knights roster is among the best in the NHL.

It seems like no one is saying it so I will: Vegas is the class of the West.

Look at any list of top this or that, and there’s a VGK player, maybe two on it. They have goal scorers, setup men, defensive specialists and more. They’re deep everywhere, although I admit potentially young down the middle after William Karlsson. They really have all the makings of a team that should see itself in the Stanley Cup Final again this year.

What Happened In The Bubble?

It’s so odd. I spent a good amount of time watching Dallas in the bubble. At no point did they look like a team that was going to end up in the Stanley Cup Final. Yet they plodded along, getting just enough scoring and just enough goaltending to get the job done. It certainly helped that Vegas’ scoring completely flamed out in the later rounds and allowed the Stars to squeak by. But even now I can tell you Dallas is a good team with a good collection of talent, but I can’t say they’re better than Vegas.

Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the scoring dried up at the wrong time. Several sticks went cold in tandem, and the team just couldn’t find the production to win another series or two. If they received average production against the Stars, Vegas very likely would have been playing for the Cup. Instead they were left questioning what could have been.

The Reaction

Vegas has been single-minded in its pursuit of a Stanley Cup, going into win-now mode ever since the Inaugural Season when that team surprised everyone and came up just short of a title. Though much of the original Golden Knights roster is gone, the VGK has never stopped improving. Adding Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Robin Lehner and now Alex Pietrangelo has cost both valued prospects and solid NHL players. You don’t just trade away Paul Stastny or Nate Schmidt without a plan – or the confidence that you can replace their contributions. Some might call it ruthless, but the Golden Knights issue no apologies about wanting to win now.

Even the firing of Gerard Gallant came as a surprise to many in hockey circles. Sure the team was going through a rough patch but it was still a shock given all the Golden Knights had accomplished to that point. Yet Pete DeBoer came in and got the team right back on track, derailed only by the coronavirus shutdown.

I’ve talked to some people who feel that the Golden Knights have overreacted to getting bounced by the Stars with all the personnel moves. I disagree. They’re in a window that will only last for a finite amount of time. Taking advantage of that window sometimes requires difficult decisions involving fan favorites. No one likes to see a guy traded when they just bought his jersey. But credit to GM Kelly McCrimmon for making some difficult decisions that other general managers might have shied away from with little fallout.

Potential Obstacles

One thing that could crop up and present an obstacle is an unsettled feeling in the room. It’s one thing to make deals to improve your team, it’s another to break up team chemistry or rattle locker room confidence by making everyone feel like they’re 30 seconds from being dealt. Humans don’t like uncertainty. We like to know our situation and establish a routine around it. Not knowing how far these shakeups can go could be a real distraction.

If these things had happened during the regular season or even playoffs, I could buy that. But in an unusual off-season any disquiet among the players should settle by the time we get back to business. Yes, it appears this Golden Knights roster needs one more move to get under the cap, but I’d expect them to find a way to use some IR space to do so. This team is the one you’re going to see next season.

Another obstacle could be the mounting tension in goal. Personally it appears Fleury and Lehner are fine, which is great. But off the ice, Fleury doesn’t want to sit. He’s paid as a number one and wants to be one. It’s still not clear what the relationship with Fleury and DeBoer will be like once we get back to games. Fleury has always been a good teammate. It remains to be seen how things will be handled internally, but externally the cracks won’t show. Hopefully there’s an answer here to satisfy all parties.

Top Competition

Dallas is going to have a target on its back all season, and Vegas will be aiming for them early and often. Other teams that (in a traditional conference alignment) Vegas will have to look out for include a motivated St. Louis Blues, the new-look Minnesota Wild, a Calgary Flames team that finally has that stud goalie and perhaps even a reinvigorated Winnipeg Jets. But none of these teams (notice I left out the Oilers who are still a mess in goal) match up with Vegas. The Golden Knights should thank Dallas for the premature exit, because the Stars will start the season marked. Trust me, it won’t take long for that bullseye to switch to the VGK.

End Result

By the time we reach the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I expect we will see Vegas atop the West and ready to make another deep run. Once the second center battle is settled the lines will really get a chance to settle into a groove. Pietrangelo’s addition makes the team better in both ends of the ice, and bolsters an already-dangerous power play even further. Both goaltenders are legit 1A goalies and give the team a chance to win every single night. Plus now Shea Theodore will have more room to roam offensively on the second pair and could potentially make an even bigger impact. The ripple effect will elevate the team’s play to a new level this year.

Is it too early to say this is the year? Maybe. But it’s not too early to say this is the best Vegas Golden Knights roster so far.

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Erik Vegas

if Glass doesn’t shine we are screwed at Center. ya’ll skipped what every other outlet is saying.

Tom Callahan

I actually don’t think they are screwed if Glass doesn’t shine. Stephenson has shown chemistry with Pacioretty and Stone previously, and his production would be brought up by both of them. Is that a factor of them elevating his game? Yes. That pair will prop up an average center. Win some draws, get them the puck, and you’ve done your job. That’s why Karlsson won’t center these two.

Charlie Anderson

No mention of the Avs huh? I’d be trying to forget about them too if I was in VGK’s corner…

[…] Sikura. Both players have NHL experience. And there are many players within the organization who look to make the jump to the NHL this year. One other player I haven’t mentioned is Jack Dugan, who looks to turn […]

Analysis

Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo shine in Golden Knights’ win over Ducks

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This is what Pete DeBoer envisioned when he put his top two defensemen together.

It’s like the perfect cheat code in “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out,” if there was such a thing. You give Little Mac an opening, he’s going to make Iron Mike pay.

Yes, the purpose of putting Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo together was part of a grand plan to get the Vegas Golden Knights going offensively. That move was probably the third bullet point on a laundry list of items to wake up a team that was in need of production.

Two games in, and the 27-7 pairing has come as advertised. Pietrangelo had a goal and an assist for his first multi-point game since Jan. 20, and Theodore had a two-assist game for the first time this season.

“The way they like to change things up around here, I think it’s good for the chemistry,” Theodore said. “Being with him, he’s such a good player.”

The Golden Knights escaped with a 3-2 victory Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks. William Karlsson scored his second goal of the game with 1:37 left in overtime for the win. Theodore’s second assist came on the game-winner.

And while that goal will go down as the important tally in the House of Mouse, the first two stole the show.

Vegas controlled the game for the majority of the first period. Even after Rickard Rakell scored the game’s first goal 10:09 into the first, the ice seemed tilted in the Golden Knights’ favor.

Part of that momentum was generated by the fourth line. Normally a group DeBoer starts games with, the trio of William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Reaves set the tone as they occasionally do. The Golden Knights’ opening shift lasted 55 seconds, with 50 of it from the offensive zone.

On their sixth shift of the period, the fourth line was in the offensive zone with Theodore and Pietrangelo.

The play starts with Kolesar and Reaves keeping the forecheck alive without the puck. Reaves forces a turnover at center ice and dumps the puck in, with Kolesar giving chase.

Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler’s pass to Rakell along the endboards is intercepted by Pietrangelo, to which he gathers it in the trapezoid below the goal line.

There are a total of nine skaters in the frame when Pietrangelo has the puck. The only player open is Theodore, who hasn’t even crossed the blue line yet. Yes, Pietrangelo found Theodore perfectly in this crowd.

As soon as Theodore receives the puck, it’s a quick pass back to Pietrangelo. With Anaheim already scrambling, Pietrangelo fires a laser with Carrier screening John Gibson perfectly in front.

“[Theodore’s] obviously got great vision, we all know that. We’ve watched that really grow over the last year. I don’t think that goes in unless Will’s in front of the net, screening the goalie,” Pietrangelo said. “We’re finding each other when we need to find each other, but we’re also shooting when we need to. If we can put pressure on teams with the way we can move the puck, it’s certainly something we need as a team.”

On the second goal, a neutral zone breakdown aided in this, but it’s why the Golden Knights gave $61.6 million to Pietrangelo.

Give credit to Jonathan Marchessault, who Pietrangelo and Karlsson said was calling for the puck. Jakob Silfverberg dumped the puck to Pietrangelo with Karlsson on his tail.

Pietrangelo said one of two things were going to happen here: Either he hit Karlsson on the tape and he walks in on Gibson, or nothing materializes and the Golden Knights set up shop in the offensive zone.

It’s a picturesque pass from just above the goal line nearly 150 feet away. Karlsson beat three Ducks coming from the neutral zone, channeled his inner Bobby Orr and scored while falling down.

“With the way we play with our speed, we’re always looking for those opportunities, especially if it’s a neutral zone breakdown like that was,” Pietrangelo said. “I don’t think I make that play unless they’re calling for it. Great finish by him, that’s for sure.”

It’s only two games, but it’s hard not to like what Pietrangelo and Theodore have done together.

Against the Colorado Avalanche last Monday, the pairing was 13-16 in shot attempts while on the ice. Keep in mind, a majority of that 19:27 they played at 5-on-5 was defending Colorado’s top line with Nathan MacKinnon and co.

On Saturday, the Golden Knights out-attempted the Ducks 24-18 with Pietrangelo and Theodore together, a 9-8 edge in scoring chances (8-4 through the first two periods), and 3-5 in high-danger chances.

Anaheim had eight high-danger opportunities in the third period, so keep that in mind.

Through two periods, it was stellar. The Golden Knights eased up in the third and allowed Anaheim to tie it, and eventually get a point.

Having Theodore and Pietrangelo on the ice at the same time unlocks a lot of possibilities offensively, and enhances Pietrangelo’s full capability when he has the puck. That first goal was the perfect example of that.

“Obviously two elite offensive-thinking defensemen,” DeBoer said. “When you’re defending against two guys like that, you have to respect both of their ability to make plays and or beat you with their feet. You get a little more room, and I think that was the case on that goal. They created some room for themselves just with what they’re able to do.”

Who knows what’s going to happen when Brayden McNabb returns from long-term injured reserve? The possibility is there for the McNabb-Pietrangelo pairing to return, but right now might not be that time.

Two games in with this new lineup; two wins. It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.

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Golden Knights Gameday

Golden Knights Gameday: Golden Knights vs. Ducks

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Vegas Golden Knights Gold Jersey Gameday

Tonight the Vegas Golden Knights return to the ice for the first time since Monday night when they travel to California to play the Anaheim Ducks at 7 pm PT.

Vegas Golden Knights (11-4-1) vs. Anaheim Ducks (6-10-4)

The Vegas Golden Knights return to the ice after the postponement of Thursday night’s game against the San Jose Sharks due to a COVID-19 protocol listing of forward Tomas Hertl.

First and foremost, the sending-down of goalie Oscar Dansk, defenseman Dylan Coghlan and forward Patrick Brown shows where the Golden Knights are in regards to their roster. Goaltender Robin Lehner and defenseman Brayden McNabb appear ready to return from injuries, while Tomas Nosek is back from his time on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list.

In Lehner’s absence, Marc-Andre Fleury has been carrying the load capably in net. Fleury has started seven straight games in his absence due to an upper body injury, and while George McPhee did say earlier this week he’d like to see a rotation develop again it’s not clear when Lehner will start.

Something else that’s not clear is the lines for Vegas tonight. Head coach Pete DeBoer won’t tip his hand until warm-up, and there could be several moving parts at play. Even on defense where McNabb could slot back in on the top pair it’s not quite clear if that’s the plan yet.

Whatever the lineup, Vegas is fresh off splitting a four-game series with the Colorado Avalanche in which the top two teams in the Honda West Division split two games apiece. The series was by far the toughest test for Vegas so far, and the Golden Knights looked good winning 3-0 on Monday.

Conversely, Anaheim has not won since shutting out the Vegas Golden Knights 1-0 back on February 11th, going 0-4-1 since. The Ducks have surrendered 19 goals in those five games while scoring only an average of two per game. Some of the big names have been disappointing for the Ducks this season, including big free agent signing Kevin Shattenkirk who has only contributed five assists so far. In fact, no Ducks player has more than ten points on the season except Max Comtois (8-5-13) who has fared well against the Golden Knights this season with four goals and five points in four games.

Keep An Eye On

Vegas Golden Knights

Mark Stone has four assists and five points in four games against the Ducks this season despite Vegas being shut out in the last outing against Anaheim. Stone has been the spark plug for the Vegas Golden Knights, leading the team in assists (13) and points (17). In a game where Vegas could get the Ducks to fold early if they get out in front, his line will be key.

Anaheim Ducks

It’s hard not to single out Max Comtois for Anaheim. He scored the first three goals of the season for the Ducks, all against Vegas. Comtois leads the team in points both against the Golden Knights and overall. On a team begging for production from just about anywhere, his ability to stay hot against the Golden Knights will be incredibly important.

Tom’s Notes:

Vegas Golden Knights

  • Jonathan Marchessault has a three-game point streak (2-1-3).
  • Alex Tuch has three goals in his last two games.
  • Vegas is 8-0-1 when scoring first this season, while the Ducks have given up the first goal in nine of its 20 games this season, winning only once when that happens (1-6-2).
  • Vegas also has not lost a game when leading after any period this year. They’re 5-0 with a first period lead and 6-0 with a second period lead.

Anaheim Ducks

  • While Max Comtois leads the Ducks in points this season, he’s also converting his shots at an incredible 23.5 percent rate.
  • The Ducks penalty kill has been surprisingly good this season, ranking sixth overall in the NHL with an 85.2 percent success rate.
  • Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk will play in their 700th NHL games tonight.

 

 

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Analysis

Brayden McNabb nearing return for Golden Knights – how should he be deployed?

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Vegas Golden Knights, Brayden McNabb Marc-Andre Fleury

It’s only a matter of time before the Vegas Golden Knights get defenseman Brayden McNabb back.

The Golden Knights’ top defensive defenseman has been on long-term injured reserve since Feb. 1 (retroactive to Jan. 26) and is nearing the 10-game/24-day cutoff of when he can be activated.

McNabb will need time to get up to game speed, per coach Pete DeBoer, but he’s inching closer to where he can begin practicing.

“I got an update today that he’s getting much closer,” DeBoer said Friday. “I think he’s still got a final X-Ray or image in order to confirm full healing, and then he’ll get reintegrated into the group. Obviously, then, he has to get up to speed for not skating in over a month. I don’t have a specific time, but that’s the information I have.”

Logistically, having McNabb back should be an upgrade. He’s been Vegas’ top stay-at-home stalwart since the inaugural season and, at the very least, you’d like a 6-foot-4, 216-pound human being patrolling your blue line.

The last two seasons, however, have been a struggle for McNabb. His 2.77 goals-against per 60 is the worst mark on the Golden Knights and hardly an uptick from his 2.78 last season. The hope was McNabb would rebound from his rough go in the Stanley Cup Playoff bubble (2.8 GA/60), but it hasn’t been an ideal start.

Compare that to Years 1 (2.17) and 2 (2.59), you wonder if McNabb’s days as a top-pairing guy are over.

If we’re along that line of thinking, the next question: Where do you play McNabb when he gets back?

To be clear, McNabb has value to him. It just might not be when pairing him with Alex Pietrangelo.

Eye-test wise, Pietrangelo has played fine, but not to the apex of a seven-year, $61.6 million contract. Keeping Pietrangelo with Shea Theodore, however, sounds a lot more enticing for both top defensemen.

There’s only a one-game sample size for 27-7, but you keep them together if it gets Pietrangelo going.

Zach Whitecloud has played his way to a deserved promotion. Not only has been stellar defensively at 5-on-5 (1.39 GA/60, 1.68 xGA/60), but he’s worked for his offense; Whitecloud has started 5.8 shifts per 60 in the defensive zone; not that far off from McNabb’s 5.87, and Whitecloud has five points to his credit.

While Whitecloud and Nic Hague have been a solid third pairing, I too would like to see more than a one-game sample size with Alec Martinez.

That leaves Hague with McNabb, and that’s an intriguing pair. You’d have to go back to the 2019 preseason to find film of Hague and McNabb playing together, but they played well together. Albeit, new coaching staff and everything since then, but McNabb on the third pair limits his deficiencies.

Also, good luck trying to shoot at 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6 defensemen when they’re playing together.

No disrespect to Dylan Coghlan, but the 23-year-old would be the odd man out. There’s still some time for his game to grow and him observing for a bit wouldn’t be the worst idea.

I wouldn’t be too quick to jump the gun on moving on from McNabb just yet. Until this month, McNabb missed only seven games in three seasons. He’s been as reliable as anyone on the Golden Knights and absolutely deserves a chance to show his worth.

We’re a quarter into the season, and DeBoer hasn’t hesitated to shake things up; evidence of jumbling the lines and pairs in Monday’s 3-0 win against the Colorado Avalanche.

McNabb has always been lauded for doing the little things right. Doing those things, in a reduced role, might benefit all parties.

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