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Golden Knights haven’t been afraid of tough roster decisions

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury shuts out Penguins; hats off to Jost

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. The Pittsburgh Penguins did everything they could on Saturday night, and probably even had the better of the play against the Golden Knights, but Fleury stopped all 29 shots he faced — including a couple of highlight reel saves — to get the shutout against his former team. Fleury is off to a great start this season and now has a .934 save percentage in his first six starts.

2. Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche improved to 7-0-1 by rolling over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night thanks in large part to a hat trick from Jost. Expectations were sky high for the Avalanche at the start of the season and they have done nothing but justify them so far. They have the best top line in hockey, an exciting young defense, and strengthened their secondary scoring during the offseason. It is now really difficult to find a clear weakness on this team.

3. Corey Perry, Dallas Stars. Style points don’t matter for the Stars right now. They were not particularly strong on Saturday night in Philadelphia, but they still managed to snap a six-game losing streak with a 4-1 win to get two points that they desperately needed. The star of the game was offseason Perry, scoring his first goal as a member of the Stars and recording two assists. How bad as the Stars offense been this season? Entering play on Saturday the Stars only had five players on the team record more than three points for the entire season (over nine games!).

Other notable performances on Saturday

Highlights of the Night

This is some vintage Anze Kopitar hockey here, turning defense into offense and scoring a slick shorthanded goal to help the Kings roll.

Look at the patience from Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck to wait for Pekka Rinne to make the first move and then beat him with a slick backhander.

Here it is again, the first NHL goal for the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, Jack Hughes. The only goal in a 1-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Blooper of the Night

Jost ended up getting a splash of water to the face in celebration of his first NHL hat trick.

Factoids

  • The Vegas Golden Knights won the 100th game in franchise history on Saturday, needing just 173 games to reach it. That is the second fewest games needed to reach 100, trailing only the 165 games the original Ottawa Senators franchise needed back in 1917. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Hughes became the ninth player in league history to score their first NHL goal in a game against their brother. [NHL PR]
  • Morgan Rielly‘s overtime goal on Saturday night was the fourth of his career. Only Tomas Kaberle has more among Maple Leafs defenders in franchise history. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 1, Vancouver Canucks 0
Montreal Canadiens 5, St. Louis Blues 2
Arizona Coyotes 5, Ottawa Senators 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 6, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Dallas Stars 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 0
New York Islanders 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 3, Nashville Predators 2 (SO)
Los Angeles Kings 4, Calgary Flames 1
Buffalo Sabres 4, San Jose Sharks 3

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.

Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk had another chaotic encounter (Video)

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The Los Angeles Kings put together their best game of the season on Saturday night, defeating the Calgary Flames 4-1 to pick up their third win.

A lot of good things happened for the Kings in this game, starting with the fact that they actually scored a few goals after being shutout for more than 130 consecutive minutes of hockey (including back-to-back shutout losses) entering the night. Then there was starting goalie Jonathan Quick, stuck in a miserable slump to open the season that has seen him allow 19 goals in his first three games, stopping 23 of 24 shots for his first win of the season. The only goal he surrendered was a late penalty shot goal to Mikael Backlund.

If we are being honest, though, the biggest reason anyone outside of the Kings and Flames fanbases would be keeping an eye on this game would be to see if Matthew Tkachuk and Drew Doughty would continue their ongoing feud.

To the surprise of no one, they did.

Midway through the third period Doughty managed to take out Tkachuk with a low hit that set off a chain reaction pile-up that also included Flames defenseman Mark Giordano flying in from the top rope and taking out Kyle Clifford.

Tkachuk ended up getting two minutes for tripping, two minutes for roughing, and a 10-minute misconduct, while Clifford picked up two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. No other penalties came out of that sequence.

This feud has been ongoing for three years now starting with Tkachuk — during his rookie season — earning a two-game suspension for elbowing Doughty in the face. Since then they have gone back and forth through the media and constantly been involved in on-ice incidents.

In their first meeting this season Tkachuk scored a late game-tying goal against the Kings to send it to overtime where Doughty would win it and then taunt the Flames’ crowd.

So far this season Doughty and the Kings have managed to get the best of Tkachuk and the Flames.

They will have to wait until Dec. 7 to face each other again.

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.

Wild’s Jason Zucker apologizes to Bruce Boudreau for post-game comment

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The Minnesota Wild are off to an absolutely brutal start to the 2019-20 season having won just one of their first seven games.

Following their most recent defeat, a shutout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, Jason Zucker vented some frustration and said that everyone on the team needed to be better. Not exactly an earth-shattering comment for a 1-6 team, but what made it into a story was that he specifically mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name.

The exact comment: “I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Anytime one of the top player’s on a team mentions the coach by name as someone that needs to be better — especially one that is seemingly already on the hot seat — it is going to get some attention. In Zucker’s case, it got a little more attention than he wanted, and after apologizing to Boudreau on the team plane after the game on Thursday, publicly apologized on Saturday.

“I’ll start by first apologizing to Bruce,” Zucker told Wild reporters on Saturday, via Michael Russo of The Athletic. “There was no reason for me to use his name in that quote in any way. That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 percent of that is on the players.”

He went on to call it a poor choice of words on his part and again reiterated the fact that everyone needs to be better.

Zucker has two goals for the Wild through the first seven games of the season.

He has been one of the Wild’s best players for a few years now but still found himself as the centerpiece in two different trades that fell through by former general manager Paul Fenton.

The Wild are back in action at home on Sunday against Canadiens before playing seven of their next 10 games on the road.

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.

Jack Hughes scores first NHL goal in first game against brother (Video)

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Jack Hughes had to wait until his eighth game to score his first NHL goal, and the timing of it could not have been any better.

Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, scored on the power play at the 14:04 mark of the first period to give the New Jersey Devils the lead over the Vancouver Canucks, finishing a play that was set up by the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall.

It turned out to be the only goal in a 1-0 Devils win, their second in a row.

Here is a look at the play.

Why was the timing so perfect for Hughes?

Because his older brother, Quinn, is also playing in his rookie season for the Canucks and is in the lineup on Saturday afternoon. And since this was the first regular season matchup in the NHL between the two brothers the entire Hughes family was in attendance In Newark to see the big moment.

Both players players figure to be contenders for Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.

Jack’s goal on Saturday comes one game after he recorded his first career point, an assist in the Devils’ win over the New York Rangers  — and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko — on Thursday night.

Quinn entered Saturday’s game with a goal and two assists in six games for the Canucks. He scored his first goal in a win over the Los Angeles Kings earlier this season. He was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft class.

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.