Golden Knights haven’t been afraid of tough roster decisions

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The perception of the Vegas Golden Knights roster today compared to when it was first assembled 11 months ago is, to say the least, very, very, very different. Heading into the season the opinion of this team when looking at it on paper was that it was going to be awful. Today, there’s a lot of strong opinions about how the expansion draft was unfair and how 30 other teams around the league don’t know what they’re doing and made a lot of really bad decisions. In hindsight, there is a lot of truth to the latter point because quite a few teams did, in fact, blow it.

There is also the fact that the roster has changed quite a bit from the beginning of the year, not only in terms of the players that are on it, but also in the way they have been used.

One of the big challenges that Vegas and its coaching staff faced this season was having a collection of players thrown together from all over the league, several of whom had little track record in the NHL or had never really had an opportunity to play larger roles. There was a ton of mystery and a lot of tinkering that had to be done to find the right combinations that would work.

A lot of the players that we thought might be key players, or looked like they might be key players, turned out to be anything but, and looking at how players were used early in the season as opposed to now it is clear that not even the Golden Knights knew entirely what they had in a lot of cases.

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM]

Remember back in the offseason when Vadim Shipachyov signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the team to come over from Russia and was supposed to be one of their top players? That quickly fell apart and led to a rather bizarre — and seemingly messy — split between the two sides.

William Karlsson ended up being a 43-goal scorer this season and the biggest individual surprise of any player in the league. During the first month of the season he was fifth on the team in terms of average ice-time per game logging just a little more than 17 minutes per game. The now dominant and seemingly unstoppable line of Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jon Marchessault played a grand total of 39 seconds together through the first five games of the season (at which point Marchessault was sidelined with an injury for a few games) and didn’t really become a thing until the second month of the season.

The forward that Vegas leaned on the most in the first month of the season? Well that would be Cody Eakin, of course, as they played him nearly 20 minutes per night. He now plays around 14 minutes per night in the playoffs.

Here is a breakdown of Vegas’ ice-time distribution among forwards in the first month of the season compared to the last month of the season and then in the playoffs.

I excluded players that played less than four games in each time-frame.

The big changes are obviously Eakin going from the top forward down to a third-liner, while the Karlsson-Smith-Marchessault trio became the go-to group. But there are also significant increases for Haula (an extra two minutes per game) and Tuch (three minutes), while Perron saw his ice-tim decrease a bit.

Meanwhile, on defense…

From the very beginning Vegas seemed to know what it had in Schmidt and has leaned on him to be their top defender, a role that he has excelled in.

Deryk Engelland has also, quite shockingly, been one of their top defenders after completely reinventing himself as a player this year.

But in the first month of the season they were playing Luca Sbisa and Brad Hunt nearly 20 minutes per night, while top prospect Shea Theodore was playing in the American Hockey League and not even on the roster. Neither Sbisa or Hunt are significant players on the team now.

Jason Garrison, a veteran that played nearly 19 minutes a night over 70 games a season ago for the Lightning (and also opened the season as Vegas’ highest-paid defenseman) also saw some significant ice-time to start the year. But he was quickly jettisoned to the minor leagues and placed on waivers.

Colin Miller, who ended up leading all of their defenders in scoring, was at the bottom of the usage in the first month of the season.

In the end it’s been a fascinating evolution to watch unfold.

The player that was supposed to be the best forward (Shipachyov) ended up being, quite literally, nothing for them.

The highest paid forwards on the roster are David Clarkson and Tatar.

Clarkson has never — and will never — play a game for the team and is only a part of the organization because Vegas was willing to take his contract, along with Karlsson and a first-round draft pick, in exchange for not taking Josh Anderson or Columbus’ backup goalie in the expansion draft.

Tatar was their big trade deadline acquisition and has been relegated to the press box for most of the playoffs while their other trade deadline pickup, Ryan Reaves, who was never expected to make any sort of an impact, has scored two huge goals.

Their highest paid defenders at the start of the year were Garrison and Clayton Stoner. Garrison played eight games before being waived and relegated to the minor leagues while Stoner never played a single game.

Nothing about this Vegas season has gone as planned or as was expected, and nobody saw this team being as good as it is. Including them.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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