Why Golden Knights are climbing NHL standings

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In what is somehow just their third season, the Vegas Golden Knights have experienced plenty of ups and downs. After some bumpy times, Vegas’ trajectory points up, possibly to the top of the Pacific Division.

Currently, the Golden Knights are (20-14-6, 46 points) essentially tied with the Arizona Coyotes (21-14-4, 46 points), although the Coyotes hold a game in hand. Either way, it’s increasingly looking like the Golden Knights will battle with someone — probably Arizona — for the top Pacific spot, while the motley crue of other divisional teams muck it up for the third seed, and maybe a wild-card spot if the Central sags.

To reiterate: this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The Golden Knights were sputtering, and teams like the Oilers and Canucks were playing over their heads.

So, what has changed for the Golden Knights, beyond others slipping? Some findings will be obvious; others might surprise you.

Golden Knights make different bets

In an interesting piece on Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen believes that you can draw Vegas’ turning point somewhere between Nov. 26 and Nov. 27. Considering the Golden Knights’ record split (start through Nov. 26: 11-11-4; Nov. 27 to present: 9-3-2 for 20 points), that seems reasonable.

It’s not just about their record, though. Schoen reports that, around this time, Gallant decided to deploy a less aggressive system, erring closer to “zone” instead of “man” coverage.

“There’s less running around,” Defensemen Brayden McNabb said to Schoen. “You more protect the middle, always come back to the house (front of the net). For that, we’re not out of position. We find it really helps for our wingers and forwards that they’re always in their spot, so if we get a chance to kill a play and move the puck, we always know that we’re going to have guys in their spots.”

While the flat goals for and against went Vegas’ way after that change, it can be difficult to tell how much of that hinges on pure luck, especially in a small sample size.

With that, let’s consider some metrics at Natural Stat Trick. Interestingly, the Golden Knights have actually allowed more high-danger chances per 60 minutes during their heating-up month (10.97) than they did from the start of the season through Nov. 26 (10.75). Vegas has, however, taken a greater share of the high-danger chances overall (from 50.99 percent to an impressive 55.36).

Overall, those numbers indicate that such strategy tweaks might indeed be wise. The key, really, might be for Gallant to show a willingness to adjust — which he already has.

Malcolm less middling, shooting goes from bronze to gold (or at least silver)

From the Dept. of Not Particularly Surprising: the Golden Knights are finally getting bounces.

During their first 26 games, Vegas’ even-strength shooting percentage was just 7.34, the third-worst mark in the NHL. Since then, their rate improved to 8.7. That shooting percentage only ranks in the mid-range, but it’s a whole lot better that bottom of the barrel. It also makes you wonder how dangerous Vegas can be if the Golden Knights catch fire.

Now for something actually surprising: the Golden Knights’ goaltending.

Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury have basically switched places. MAF was far better up until Nov. 26 (.919 save percentage vs. Subban’s .883). Since Nov. 27, Subban managed a strong .927 save percentage over eight games, while Fleury sunk to .881 in six contests.

As mixed and baffling as those results can be, consider this comforting overall.

The Golden Knights leaned on Fleury far too long, to the point that it’s felt like Flower-or-nothing. That’s a dangerous gamble with a 35-year-old with a ton of games under his belt.

Vegas is likely most comfortable turning to MAF during big games, but if Subban can at least be an above-average backup, it would be a luxury not unlike playing with house money.

Golden Knights have a lot going for them

Overall, Vegas figures to be a contender if it can get enough stops to go with two potentially dominant scoring lines and a solid defense. As you can see from prognostications including Travis Yost’s interesting breakdown of the division at TSN, and Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections (sub required), many signs point to Vegas winning the Pacific.

Whether they finish at the top spot or not, there’s a lot to like, and a generally weak division should give the Golden Knights room to experiment. Gallant’s already seen results in changing tactics, so maybe he should hit the lab and see what other concoctions might work for this talent-rich team?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.