Just about everything that has happened with the Vegas Golden Knights this season has been better than expected. Some of it has been shocking. Some of it does not make any sense.
Even when you take into account the bad decisions several of the league’s general managers made in the expansion draft process, this has still been a team full of players having career years and exceeding expectations, carrying a first-year team to the Western Conference Final (Game 1, 7 p.m. ET on NBC).
The biggest surprise has obviously been the emergence of William Karlsson, 40-goal scorer, a performance that nobody should have or could have seen coming.
But right behind him in the “how is this happening?” discussion might be the development of the team’s blue line, which probably seemed to be the weakest part of the roster when it was initially selected back in June. There was some potential to be sure thanks to players like Shea Theodore (a first-round pick by Anaheim in 2013), Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller, all of whom have made a significant impact this season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
But none of them have been a more pleasant surprise than 36-year-old defenseman Deryk Engelland.
Engelland has become one of the faces of the franchise for a couple of reasons, not all of them related to just what he is doing as a player. Not only was he resident of the city for more than a decade when the team selected him in the expansion draft, but he actually played hockey in the city more than a decade ago as a member of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. Before the team’s home opener he delivered an emotional speech in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting in early October, and then followed it up by scoring one of the team’s first goals that night.
He has been a fan favorite and a leader on and off the ice from the very beginning.
He has not stopped making an impact all year and has not only been a surprisingly strong part of the team’s blue line, he has done so by completely redefining what he is as a player.
For the first part of Engelland’s NHL career he was primarily hired muscle. Not necessarily a pure enforcer in the sense that his only role or ability was to fight, but he was mostly a part-time player that would rarely play more than 13 or 14 minutes per game as a sixth or seventh defenseman, he would drop the gloves when needed or challenged, and mostly made a living throwing his weight around playing a physical brand of hockey. That is what he did. That is what he was viewed as.
He did that for parts of five seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins before becoming a free agent prior to the 2014-15 season. It was at that point that he signed a three-year contract with the Calgary Flames worth just shy of $3 million per season, resulting in one of the more memorable Tweets in NHL free agency (“That’s per year”), a shocking and seemingly excessive amount of money for a player with his resume at that time.
What stands out about his performance in Vegas is just how different all of it is from his days in Pittsburgh and Calgary.
Take a look at some numbers throughout his career.
— Instead of being a bottom-pairing defender that barely played when he was given a jersey, he ended up being a 20-minute per night defender during the regular season. The only skater on the Golden Knights that played more minutes than Engelland’s 1,602 this season was Schmidt (1,690).
— He went from being a player that would routinely fight to a player that did not fight one time all season, the first time in his professional hockey career he went an entire regular season without fighting.
— He was credited with fewer hits per minute than at any point in his NHL career, and by a pretty significant margin, meaning his game wasn’t just about “finishing checks” and playing physical.
— When you take into account how much more ice time he received this season, he took fewer minor penalties than at any point in his career.
— Oh, and he also set career highs in goals, assists, and points.
While he has yet to record a point in the playoffs for the Golden Knights, he has ended up playing even more minutes than he did during the regular season (23 per game) and is playing on the team’s top-pairing alongside Theodore, a duo that has a 56 percent shot attempt share during 5-on-5 play and has only been on the ice for three goals against in more than 150 minutes of hockey (via Natural Stat Trick).
There were some signs over the past couple of years in Calgary that his career was maybe trending in this direction (at least in terms of his ice-time and declining hit totals), but things just completely accelerated this season in Vegas.
That it happened in his mid-30s after eight years in the NHL is what makes it so surprising. Players do not usually change that much at this point.
And that is kind of what makes Engelland kind of a perfect representation for what this Golden Knights team is all about.
A player that got a bigger opportunity than he had ever been given before, maybe with something to prove, and then used all of that to put together a career-best season that exceeded every expectation that had ever surrounded him in his career.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.