The Vegas Golden Knights know they need to make changes heading into Game 2 against the San Jose Sharks on Friday night (10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream), but perhaps they’re learning the wrong lessons.
To head coach Gerard Gallant, Vegas wasn’t “hungry” enough in a convincing 5-2 Game 1 loss, while defenseman Jon Merrill emphasized the perceived need for the Golden Knights to check Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson early and often, as the Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes.
We could debate the merits of that plan for quite a while, actually. After all, wouldn’t you think every playoff opponent in existence would want to make life miserable for top-flight defensemen, especially a smaller one like Karlsson? You could probably file that under “Easier said than done,” as if you go too far out of your way to try to hit Karlsson, you might just give him the extra space he covets to send silky-smooth passes. See: his brilliant pass to Evander Kane in Game 1, among many, many, other examples of transition and offensive brilliance.
But, honestly, those tactical tweaks aren’t as important as putting the right players in the lineup.
This discussion starts with the most crucial point: Gallant needs to put Colin Miller back in the mix.
There are a number of choices for who to bring back out to make room for Miller. Nick Holden was the defenseman who seemed to bump Miller in Game 1, and Miller would be an upgrade there. It might be a tough sell to Gallant (who loves his bruisers) to consider scratching Deryk Engelland, but it should be a consideration, too. Engelland struggled possession-wise in Game 1, and while he exceeded expectations since joining the Golden Knights, the bottom line is that he tends to be under water on a nightly basis.
Really, if Gallant is really being stubborn, you could argue for going with a seven-defensemen, 11-forward set … although that might require scratching Ryan Reaves, which might be an even tougher (though possibly valid) sell.
Whoever you’d move out of the lineup, Miller’s the type of player you really want in your mix, especially when every lineup decision counts against a hauntingly deep team like the Sharks. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like the wrong time for refusing to give up on “sentimental favorites” like Reaves, Engelland, or Holden (the latter standing out, particularly because it might be an argument Gallant would truly consider).
If bar charts and so-called “fancy stats” aren’t your thing, consider that Miller does the really obvious stuff. That includes scoring.
Last season was a breakout year for Miller, as he scored 10 goals and 41 points during the 2017-18 regular season, then tied for second among Golden Knights defensemen with seven points during their run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
My guess is that a colder 2018-19 season (three goals, 29 points in 65 games) may partially explain Miller’s doghouse residence, alongside some specific turnover that probably stuck in Gallant’s craw. Generating 29 points in an abbreviated season still ranks as useful offense, particularly if the bar is merely “getting in the lineup,” and Miller’s puck luck (career-low 2.3 shooting percentage this season, versus a career average of 4.9 percent) could very well warm up when it matters the most.
The Golden Knights lack that Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson-type game-changer on defense, but they have the potential to manufacture offense from a group that’s still pretty effective. Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt can help in that regard, but Miller’s up there in being among the most potent scorers from Vegas’ blueline. Miller also grades well from just about every analytics metric, particularly if you’re comparing him to bottom-of-the-order players.
So, sure, Gallant, ask your players to be “hungrier.” Just reconsider which players you’re sending to the dinner table.
Golden Knights – Sharks Game 2 from The SAP Center will be Friday night at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. (Livestream)
For more on Friday’s Game 2 matchups, read The Wraparound.