The timing of putting this together came in waves.
The Vegas Golden Knights were about to have three games postponed due to a player and three coaches entering COVID protocol.
Of course, that player would be Alex Pietrangelo, so this makes the timing all that more hilarious.
The Golden Knights’ prized free agent is seven games into his Golden Knights’ career; seven games into a seven-year, $61.6 million contract that Vegas hopes will be a worthwhile investment toward a Stanley Cup in this weird season.
Whether or not Pietrangelo comes off the COVID-19 protocol absence list in time for Vegas’ return to action — Friday at home against the Los Angeles Kings — remains to be seen. However, there’s no doubt that Pietrangelo is still learning the nuances of a brand new system after spending 12 seasons with the St. Louis Blues.
Seven games without a preseason seemed like ample time to go back and see the good and bad in Pietrangelo’s start with Vegas. We fired up the tape, watched all seven games and took notes on all 185 shifts Pietrangelo has taken with Vegas to this point.
“Any time you’re in a system for 750 games, it becomes habit,” Pietrangelo said last Tuesday. “I think for me, moving forward here … just feel more comfortable. I’m starting to feel more comfortable, starting to find my way, starting to find more ways to create more opportunities, which is part of my game.
“For me, specifically, continue each day to pay attention. You’ve got to break the old habits. You want to play to your strengths, but at the same time, you want to fit into what the coaches want to be successful.”
Pietrangelo leads all Golden Knights skaters in average ice time at 25:37; a shade over two-and-a-half minutes more than Shea Theodore (23:00). It’s apparent Pete DeBoer, known for having world-class defensemen at his disposal before, wants to get the most out of his new acquisition.
The former St. Louis captain and Stanley Cup champion has four points (one goal, three assists) with the Golden Knights.
“I think any time you come to a new team, new language, new teammates, there’s an adjustment period. I think he’s adjusted faster than most players,” said DeBoer. “World-class player. The most impressive part for me is how open he is to coaching and learning our new system and some of the things that haven’t been familiar to him over his time in St. Louis. It’s all new.
“Open-minded and coachable to everything we’re talking about, which is the most impressive thing when you have a guy with his pedigree.”
The first thing you’re probably wondering is, “185 shifts? Likely a whole lot of nothing.” To that, I say … yes, there was a decent amount of film with no purpose. You have to be thankful for the fast forward function in today’s age of streaming.
By no means has Pietrangelo been perfect, but there have been instances where he has come as advertised.
It took two minutes into the season opener against the Anaheim Ducks to find out just how different Alex Pietrangelo is from any defenseman the Vegas Golden Knights have had.
That’s not a slight to Nate Schmidt — whom Vegas traded to clear the necessary cap space for Pietrangelo — or any of the current Knights defensemen for that matter, but Pietrangelo’s instincts are otherworldly.
Pietrangelo’s breakouts have stood out the most. This one gets double brownie points because it was his first Vegas point, and it came with the fourth line. The possession started with a draw in the offensive zone that Ryan Getzlaf unsurprisingly won. The Ducks go on the counter-attack in a hurry, cycle around to where we get to this clip.
The moment Pietrangelo gathers the puck, Ryan Reaves and William Carrier are on their way. The threat of Pietrangelo’s offense starts the moment his pass hits Tomas Nosek. The meat-grinder line does its work and puts Vegas up 2-0.
Offense, and generating offense, is Pietrangelo’s calling card. Only reigning Norris Trophy winner Roman Josi (13.71) had more individual expected goals in 2020, per Evolving Hockey.
And when you get plays like this, you forget he’s 6-foot-3.
The Ducks did a great job converging on Nicolas Roy as his backhand went wide, but this is a great example of what can happen when two of your top-four defensemen can enter the rush with that kind of skill. Pietrangelo has a knack for this. Give it time and a play like this can turn into something special.
We haven’t seen Pietrangelo unlocked on the power play yet, given that it’s been a collectively terrible effort for Vegas on the man advantage. Twenty-two of Pietrangelo’s 52 points came on the power play last season. Not only is it his vision that makes him dangerous, but Pietrangelo has a quick yet powerful shot. It doesn’t require a large wind-up like the norm of blue-liners.
There’s also the matter of his passing. Spoiler alert: It’s good.
As he plays more and gets more comfortable in DeBoer’s scheme, the possibilities are endless.
It hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been roses either for Pietrangelo, particularly with defense partner Brayden McNabb. It was supposed to be an upgrade from the McNabb-Schmidt combo. So far, the duo has allowed more shots while on the ice (69) than when on (67). In a shock to no one, Pietrangelo’s best partner has been Theodore (40-31).
The moment those two pair for an entire game will be a sight.
A part of Pietrangelo’s struggles has come to whom he and McNabb have skated with. The fourth line and the top pair have skated together for 12:01, according to Natural Stat Trick, allowing eight shots and generating six.
It’s not just the fourth line Pietrangelo has struggled with. When Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Chandler Stephenson skate with Pietrangelo and McNabb, they have allowed four more scoring chances (13-9) and four more shot attempts (14-18).
Factor in no preseason and not a lot of time to get acclimated, you might get results like this.
Pietrangelo does a great job initially eliminating the scoring chance on Anaheim’s counter-attack, staying with Sam Steel, and deflecting Troy Terry in front. The problem is the finish from Max Comtois, with Pietrangelo giving up too much room away from the short side. It doesn’t help that your third line collides along the end boards and turns it over in the defensive zone. Alas, it’s the little things.
That’s not the end-all, be-all. Pietrangelo has been solid in his zone, showing poise in breaking up odd-man rushes and using his stick wisely. The second game at Arizona — the 1-0 Vegas victory — was Pietrangelo’s best defensive game (14-7 with McNabb in attempts, and the two combined for seven scoring chances). Right now, overall, he and McNabb have not been the answer.
With McNabb (lower body) on long-term injured reserve until February, intrigue will rule the roost on who’s paired with Pietrangelo when he clears COVID protocol.
Another eye-popping area has been Pietrangelo’s turnovers at the blue line. He doesn’t turn the puck over often; his 45 giveaways last season were mid-table for defensemen who played at least 1,000 minutes.
But you know where we’re going with this.
Against his former team, no less, Pietrangelo was put on a poster by Jordan Kyrou. Take nothing away from the young Blues forward. He made a grown-man move to make this happen. The turnover, however, came moments after Vegas cut the lead to 3-2. Thankfully for the Golden Knights, they earned a point in a game they dominated. But, again, the little things such as this are why they only earned one point.
Sure, this is nitpicky, but it’s what happens when mass postponement takes place. Over. It’s fair to pinpoint an $8.8 million AAV player while still understanding the threat he brings.
Through 185 shifts, Pietrangelo has been good with a chance to be great. That time will come in the playoffs. Unfortunately, it may be a few games before we see him in action again. When he comes back, it may take a bit to work back into game shape.
But there’s a reason why the Golden Knights signed Alex Pietrangelo, and that reason will be on display come May.
Danny Webster is the newest reporter and columnist at Vegas Hockey Now. Follow him on Twitter @DannyWebster21.
After 14 months since fired by Sharks, Pete DeBoer returns to San Jose
You can’t paint a more bizarre picture than what transpired Dec. 11, 2019.
The San Jose Sharks just returned from Nashville after a four-game road trip. The Sharks lost 3-1 to the Predators, their fifth consecutive defeat.
Pete DeBoer and assistant coach Bob Boughner carpooled from San Jose International Airport. Boughner dropped DeBoer off at home.
Walking through the door, DeBoer was likely readying himself to get his struggling 15-16-2 club ready for an upcoming seven-game homestand.
Instead, 10 minutes in from entering home for the first time in eight days, DeBoer got a phone call from Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. He wanted to meet DeBoer at his house.
He came in, sat on DeBoer’s couch, and told the man that took his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 that he was fired.
The two hugged at the end, and it was over.
“It was a bittersweet ending, but it was done in a really humane way,” DeBoer said. “It’s not always done like that.”
That same day, Boughner — DeBoer’s best friend from high school — became the Sharks’ interim coach.
Fast forward two months later, the Vegas Golden Knights lose 4-2 at the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 14. The next morning, it’s DeBoer replacing the fired Gerard Gallant.
The hockey world flipped on its axis that brisk January morning.
DeBoer returns to San Jose, and will face the Sharks for the first time Saturday when the Golden Knights visit SAP Center for the first game of a back-to-back.
“I was just saying to our coaching staff that I hadn’t been to the visiting locker room [at SAP Center] since I was with the [New Jersey] Devils; you’re looking at seven, eight years ago,” DeBoer said.
“I’m looking forward to getting back,” he continued. “I wish it was under normal circumstances but get a chance to see some great friends and some great people that work around that rink and around the team.”
None of what will occur Saturday will seem normal. It’s not just the fact that DeBoer is facing San Jose for the first time.
The Sharks are playing their first home game of the season. Yes, the Sharks are playing as the home team for the first time in this condensed schedule, and are playing at SAP Center for the first time since March 8, 2020.
San Jose played its first 12 games of the season on the road. The Sharks were going to play their first “home games” Jan. 31 and Feb. 2 against the Golden Knights, but in Glendale, Arizona.
Due to COVID-19 protocols in Santa Clara County, the Sharks confining to a temporary holding pattern in Arizona while traveling to games was the setup.
So none of this is normal. Not even when the puck drops at 1 p.m. Saturday will it be normal. DeBoer will be behind the Vegas bench watching Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl as opposition.
“We had a lot of good times together,” said Couture, the Sharks’ captain. “It’s tough to cheer for them with them coaching the Knights, but those are two guys [DeBoer and assistant coach Steve Spott] you pull for and want them to be successful no matter where they go. Not tomorrow night when they play us. We want to beat them, we’d love to beat them, but definitely miss those guys.”
“You know you’re hired to get fired eventually.”
The storyline of players facing former teams for the first time is always the storyline. The Golden Knights are the prime example of that dating back to their inaugural year, rallying behind players facing the teams that cast them aside.
For coaches, it’s different. Their tenure isn’t as enveloped in grandeur as a player’s.
“This business is a tough business, and you know you’re hired to get fired eventually,” DeBoer said.
But deep down, there’s still that want to show that the former team made a mistake for the wrong move.
Much has changed since then, with a global pandemic and all. This is the first time the Golden Knights and Sharks will face each other since Dec. 22, 2019.
DeBoer is the man hoping to lead Vegas to a Stanley Cup, while Boughner is trying to bring San Jose back from rough times.
“Any time you get fired, I think it’s humbling and a little shot to your ego,” DeBoer said. “You’re told that what you were doing wasn’t good enough. I think for me, taking this job, starting from Day 1, you’re out to prove that the formula you use and what you do can work.
I don’t think it’s about the game [on Saturday]. That started on Day 1 on my new job with Vegas. That’s always something that motivates you.”
But DeBoer made clear that if anyone were to replace him in San Jose, it’d be Boughner.
When you’re the best of friends…
The friendship between DeBoer and Boughner goes back to high school. Their time as rambunctious teenagers was apparently a wild time because the stories are not family-friendly.
Both grew up in Ontario — Boughner from Windsor, DeBoer from Dunnville — and both played junior hockey in the Ontario League. DeBoer played with the Windsor Spitfires, while Boughner with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
DeBoer calling Boughner and asking him to join his staff was one of the first things he did when taking the San Jose job.
“He came with me in the first year in San Jose and really took a leap of faith, left a really good job where he owned the team and ran the whole show in Windsor, moved out to San Jose without his family,” DeBoer said.
Boughner was named the head coach of the Florida Panthers in 2017, ironically enough replacing Gallant. When he was fired in 2019, DeBoer was the first to call him to come back to San Jose.
It’s not certain if DeBoer can actually predict the future, but from the moment the two reunited, the writing was on the wall.
“At that point, and I’ll be honest with you, I thought that eventually I would’ve hoped that he would’ve got the chance to replace me if it ever came to that,” DeBoer said. You’re not thinking that in the day you hire him, but it was definitely in the back of my mind if I was to move on at some point.
“He had head coaching experience. Doug knew him, the players knew him. I can’t say I’m surprised he replaced me, and I’m happy he got the opportunity.”
Boughner said he didn’t anticipate a chance was coming that December morning.
“It’s such a shock and such a blur, because not only you feel terrible for the situation you’re in and feel terrible for close friends,” he said, “but the other side of it is you have to get your act together because you’re going behind the bench the next day, running practice and running a game.
“At the end of the day, I knew Pete would land on his feet. He’s a great coach and he’s in high demand, and I knew he wouldn’t be out of work long. I was thankful to get the opportunity, but no one really wants to get an opportunity in that situation.”
The Golden Knights will try to get back into the win column after losing 1-0 to the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are in need of a bounce-back after losing 6-2 to the Los Angeles Kings.
Don’t expect any surprises. Both coaches understand the other very well. It’s a rivalry that may not be shining in the NHL limelight for now, but tensions are sure to be high with storylines aplenty.
“I’m proud of my time there,” DeBoer said. “I wouldn’t change the path that I’ve gone on and I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the people there.”
Danny Webster covers the Vegas Golden Knights for Vegas Hockey Now. Follow him on Twitter @DannyWebster21.
Progressing: Whitecloud Takes Next Step with Golden Knights | VHN+
The left-shot one-timer from Denis Gurianov beats Robin Lehner through his pads. The Dallas Stars mobbed each other in celebration. Just as they reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, the NBC camera panned to Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud.
Seconds after Gurianov’s goal ended the Golden Knights’ season in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, there was Whitecloud sitting in the penalty box, right glove pressed against his helmet, mind-scrambling after a fluky delay of game call put the Golden Knights shorthanded.
It was a crushing end to a successful NHL inauguration for Whitecloud, who signed a two-year extension 10 days into the league’s pause due to COVID-19. It proved to be a wise business decision for general manager Kelly McCrimmon, as he found out in the Edmonton bubble.
Normally, what happened that night at Rogers Arena on Sept. 14 would affect many a young player.
Enter Whitecloud, 24, wise beyond his years the moment he signed with Vegas as a college free agent from Bemidji State in 2018.
“You let that kind of sit in your mind for a week or two at the end of the season, but the one thing that I learned from that situation is that one situation doesn’t define who you are as a person, doesn’t define who I am as a player,” Whitecloud said. “It’s a mistake. Mistakes happen in every single game, and furthermore in everyday life. Those things are going to happen.”
Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer called the penalty “a shitty situation” and Whitecloud had no reason to hang his head.
“I think the way he took (the season-ending) was part of the growth,” DeBoer said on Friday. “He became a real important part of our team last year in the bubble and felt a lot of responsibility for helping us win.”
One would think something like that would motivate a player, especially in Whitecloud’s situation, because the penalty kill became his calling in the bubble.
Whitecloud led the Golden Knights in shorthanded time on ice during the round-robin with 11 minutes, 8 seconds; no other Vegas player reached 10 minutes. During Game 7 of the second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, Whitecloud had a team-high 7 minutes, 25 seconds of PK time and was on the ice for nearly four minutes of the five-minute major called on Ryan Reaves at 16:30 of the second period.
One of DeBoer’s tasks he took upon himself when he replaced Gerard Gallant in mid-January was evaluating the prospects in AHL Chicago.
Two names continuously came up: Whitecloud, and fellow defenseman Nicolas Hague. By Feb. 1, Whitecloud surpassed veterans Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill on the depth chart.
With the door open, Zach Whitecloud kicked it down.
Whitecloud has already seen a near-six-minute increase in ice time (from the 14 minutes, 19 seconds in 16 games last season). Part of that has to do with the Golden Knights going with a 13-forward, 5-defenseman rotation for three of six games, but even with rotating partners, Whitecloud has arguably been Vegas’ most consistent player.
“When I first came up, you go through those plays that you don’t want to, per se, mess up. Now I play to make those plays and if I mess up, it happens,” he said. “If I can counter those mistakes I can, not necessarily make up for them but just defend right away and keep moving forward on the next shift.”
Zach Whitecloud Progression
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights have outshot opponents 96-83 at 5-on-5 with Whitecloud on the ice. In all but one game (Friday’s 5-2 loss to Arizona), Vegas has generated more with No. 2 on the ice.
When Vegas has gone the traditional 12-6, Whitecloud has been paired with Hague. Sunday against the Coyotes, Whitecloud and Hague were on the ice for 16 shot attempts while allowing six.
But where Zach Whitecloud has improved vastly is his confidence with the puck. He’s not going to garner Norris-like attention like teammates Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, but DeBoer’s trust in his young defenseman has allowed him to jump in the rush and make plays like this.
“Playing with confidence is key to making good smart plays and quick plays,” Whitecloud said. “That experience coming down the stretch at the end of last year helped me build that coming into the summer. I think that comes with being around the guys a little more, too, being more comfortable. The more responsibility you get as a player within a system and a team, you get to start making more plays.”
Added DeBoer: “I think he’s picked up on the confidence of knowing now that you can play at this level and not just play but play well. That’s what you’re seeing.”
Even if Whitecloud doesn’t turn into a 30-point defenseman any time soon, his development has given the Golden Knights plenty to think about with the future of the defense core. There’s no question Whitecloud would be a top-4 option right now, but that $725,000 cap hit allows Vegas such flexibility.
He’s going to get plenty of opportunities to make up for not being on the ice in an elimination situation. So far, through six games, he’s making up for it in a big way.
“I was torn to not be able to do the job for my teammates and put them on the kill like that, but at the end of the day, those things happen and you move forward in life,” Whitecloud said. “You live with it, and you learn from it, and then you come into this season and you just keep trucking forward and take it day-by-day.”
Danny Webster is the newest columnist and reporter for Vegas Hockey Now. He is the Golden Knights beat writer for NHL dot com. Catch him on Twitter @DannyWebster21