One of the fascinating subplots in the Western Conference playoffs has been watching opposing players trying — and failing! — to hit Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. Given that Byfuglien is listed at 6-5, 260 pounds and is one of the biggest and strong players in the league it is not uncommon to see him run over people, and he has been crushing people all postseason. Just as he has done throughout his entire career.
Late in the second period of Game 3 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday night he found a new way to demonstrate just how absurdly strong he is when he tried to single-handedly end a scrum around the Vegas net by pulling two players off of the pile, one with each hand, like they were a couple of rag dolls.
Just watch it in the video above and shake your head in disbelief.
The two players he is pulling across the ice there are not exactly small individuals, either.
In his left hand he has Thomas Nosek, listed at 6-3, 210 pounds!
In his right hand is Colin Miller, listed at 6-1, 190 pounds.
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).
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.
If you were to tell me your Western Conference Final pick at the start of the season would have involved the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights the only logical response would be to tell you that you are a rotten liar and nobody believes you.
A first-year expansion team. A team that until this season had never won a single postseason game and had made the playoffs just once in the previous 10 years. Each on their own an improbable success story this season. Yet here they are together, each just four wins away from a completely unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
It may not be the matchup we expected at this point, but given the way these two teams play and are built it could be a fast-pace, back-and-forth series. They both have great offenses, they both have great goalies, and they both offer an incredible storyline with Vegas trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final as a literal expansion team, and the Jets trying to bring Winnipeg its first ever Stanley Cup.
Here is how the matchup looks as the series begins on Saturday night.
Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN Friday, May 18, 8pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN *Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC *Tuesday, May 22, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN *Thursday, May 24, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN
Jets: The Jets have been one of the top offensive teams in the league over the past two years and are absolutely loaded with top-line talent. Then they added to at the trade deadline by picking up Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, and he has been absolutely incredible in the playoffs. The scary thing about them right now in the playoffs? They are still scoring goals and really haven’t gotten Patrik Laine (three goals in 12 games) and Nikolaj Ehlers (zero goals in 11 games) going yet. They have front-line talent, they are deep, they are fast, they have skill. They pretty much have it all up front.
Golden Knights: Even though they had a bunch of players have great years — including a couple of career years — they don’t really have the superstar individual talent the Jets have. That doesn’t mean they are not a threat. They are fast, they play fast, and they don’t really have a glaring weakness as pretty much all four of their lines is legitimate first or second line NHL quality. No matter who is on the ice they can hurt you. They got a lot of help from the NHL’s other general managers in the expansion draft process (Hello, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, David Perron, and William Karlsson) and they were able to take advantage of that by building an exciting, fast team that head coach Gerard Gallant has been more than happy to turn loose. The most dangerous thing about them? They never let up depending on the score.
Advantage: The Jets, but it is close. These are two of the top-five offenses in the league and they can both go three-and four-lines deep when it comes to getting balanced scoring. The Jets get a little bit of an edge because they have more of the front-line superstar talent that can take over a game (Laine and Mark Scheifele specifically).
Jets: They’ve been missing some key players at different times this postseason, but this is a pretty good unit with Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tobias Enstrom leading the way. Byfuglien is the one that is playing truly outstanding right now with 13 points in 12 games and logging more than 26 minutes of ice-time per night. So much was made of their offense during the season it was maybe easy to overlook the fact they were also a top-five team in goals against.
Golden Knights: Entering the season this was probably expected to be the weakest part of the Golden Knights’ roster, and while a lot of their goal prevention success comes from the goaltending they did do an excellent job during the season of limiting shots and chances against. A lot of the young players (Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller) have taken a pretty big step forward right away. Still, the goaltending is what drives this team defensively and they’ve actually given up quite a bit of shots in the playoffs.
Advantage: The Jets. These are two of the three best goal prevention teams in the playoffs (and the other team in the top-three only played four playoff games … so let’s just say they are the two best) but the Jets have the higher end talent and I don’t think they are as dependent on their goalie to keep teams off the board as the Golden Knights have been.
Jets: The Jets were probably good enough as a team to make the playoffs in recent years more than they have only to be completely sabotaged by bad goaltending. This year they finally had the goaltending to go with everything else and it has not only made them a great team, it has made them what is right now the leading favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Connor Hellebuyck finally solidified the position and turned in a performance that earned him a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting.
Golden Knights: Then there is Marc-Andre Fleury. He has been downright dominant all season for Vegas and has to be considered the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point. For a few years in Pittsburgh he was objectively one of the least productive playoff goalies in the NHL and probably the biggest liability standing in front of his own team. The past few years, however, he has probably been his team’s greatest strength in the playoffs.
Advantage: Golden Knights. Another close one, but this one probably goes to Vegas. Hellebuyck got a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting but Fleury could have easily been there alongside him had he not missed so much time due to injury earlier in the year.
Jets: The Jets’ power play has been lethal in the playoffs, converting on 25 percent of its chances, continuing what was a strong regular season performance. They were also a top-10 team on the penalty kill during the season but have seen that number drop a bit in the playoffs.
Golden Knights: Vegas’ power play has been very hit-and-miss this postseason. It has had games where it has dominated (a 3-for-10 game in Game 1 against the Sharks; a 2-for-6 game later in the series) but has also had lengthy stretches without scoring. Their penalty kill has been one of the best units in the playoffs, though a lot of that probably comes from the fact they also have the best goalie in the playoffs.
Advantage: The Jets, simply because their power play has been a bit more consistent and they might be able to get to Fleury and the Vegas penalty kill in a way that the Kings and Sharks were totally incapable of doing. The Jets are by far the most talented team Vegas will have faced this postseason.
Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers has become one of the key building blocks for the Jets organization, and even though he just turned 22 years old a few months ago already has a pair of 25-goal seasons in the NHL on his resume. He is an outstanding player but has been mostly quiet for the Jets this postseason, having yet to find the back of the net. If the Jets can get him going along with everyone else there may be no stopping them.
Golden Knights: Like Ehlers with the Jets, David Perron has been a huge part of Vegas’ success this season, and like Ehlers has yet to score a goal in the playoffs. His line is still producing (he does have seven assists, after all) but he has managed just eight shots on goal in eight games. He has another level he can get to offensively.
Jets in 6. Vegas’ year one success has been one of the most improbable stories in North American sports history, but this is where it comes to an end. The Jets are going to be by far the best team they have played in the playoffs and will present a challenge unlike the ones San Jose and Los Angeles presented (they 11th and 12th best teams in the league, giving Vegas what was by far the easiest path to the Conference Finals round). The Jets are just on a roll right now and look like they can carry that all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
On one side, you have one of the teams of this generation, a Los Angeles Kings squad with two Stanley Cup victories on its resume. On the other, you have the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion franchise riding a magical run to a Pacific Division title during their first season.
If that’s not a sexy enough narrative to build intrigue, consider the clashing styles.
While the Kings have opened things up since moving on from Darryl Sutter, they’re still a button-downed team, they still allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season (202). Meanwhile, the Golden Knights have hit the ground running. Whether you think they’re for real or that their pixie dust is running out, there’s little denying that Vegas pushes the pedal to the metal. Few teams push the pace like Vegas, so it’s little surprise that the Golden Knights finished in the top five in scoring.
The Golden Knights broke just about every record imaginable for an expansion team, especially in the NHL. They finished the season with a 51-24-7 record for 109 standings points, trailing only Nashville and Winnipeg in the West.
Despite Jeff Carter missing a big portion of 2017-18, the Kings secured the West’s first wild card spot after missing the playoffs last season and seeing massive front office changes. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty carried the Kings to a 45-29-8 record for 98 points.
It’s true that Vegas finished 11 points ahead of Los Angeles, yet they were closely matched during head-to-head meetings. The Golden Knights won the first two games of their season series (Nov. 19 in regulation, Dec. 28 in overtime) and then the Kings won the last two (Feb. 26 in OT, regulation win one day later).
Let’s break down what could be the least predictable series of the first round.
Vegas: The Golden Knights combined two parts former Panthers (Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault) and a light-scoring former Blue Jacket (William Karlsson) to form one of the deadliest lines in the NHL. Karlsson topped the Golden Knights with a stunning 43-goal, 78-point season. Marchessault wasn’t far behind, while Smith was very productive but limited a bit by injuries.
Like Karlsson, Erik Haula enjoyed the season of his life – or a huge breakthrough? – by scoring 29 goals and 55 points.
More familiar faces rounded things out nicely. James Neal extended his streak of 20+ goal-seasons with 25, while David Perron finished third on the team with 66 points. Motivation has been an asset for Vegas all season long, and Karlsson, Perron, and Neal rank among the forwards who still have new contracts to earn.
Los Angeles: Anze Kopitar likely deserves more Hart buzz than he gets, but then again, isn’t that often the story with the Kings’ perennial Selke candidate? He generated a whopping 92 points, blowing away his previous career-high of 81. The second-closest Kings scorer among forwards was Dustin Brown, who rode shotgun with Kopitar to a redemptive 61-point season. Three Kings forwards passed 20 goals in 2017-18: Kopitar (35), Brown (28), and Tyler Toffoli (24).
That said, Jeff Carter was certainly on pace to do so. Despite being limited to 27 games played, Carter scored 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points.
Advantage: Golden Knights, although Kopitar is most likely to be the best forward on the ice.
Vegas: The beauty of the expansion experience is that players received the best opportunities of their NHL careers, and that seemed especially true on defense. Colin Miller (41 points, 19:20 minutes per game), Nate Schmidt (36 points, 22:14 ATOI), Shea Theodore (29 points, 20:21 ATOI), Deryk Engelland (23 points, 20:16 ATOI), and Brayden McNabb (15 points, 20:09 ATOI) all enjoyed some of the best work of their careers.
Kings: Released from the shackles of Sutter’s system, Drew Doughty generated 60 points this season, the best output of his impressive career. Doughty earns his hype, while the Kings also employ two underrated blueliners in Jake Muzzin (42 points, strong possession stats) and Alec Martinez (25 points, though with shaky possession numbers). As mentioned earlier, the Kings limited opponents scoring thanks to some great high-end players.
Depth might be something the Golden Knights can exploit, though. Dion Phaneuf generated OK offense since joining the Kings (10 points in 26 games), but the big-name defenseman continues to leak chances. If Vegas can force Los Angeles into trading blows rather than slowing things down, it could be a long couple of weeks for players like Phaneuf. That’s especially true if Muzzin can’t play due to injuries.
Advantage: Kings. Few defensemen are prepared to log huge minutes at a high level like Doughty, who’s easily the best defenseman in this series.
Vegas: What a weird year of goalies for Vegas, especially since they generally did such a great job weathering all the turbulence. Five different netminders suited up for Las Vegas, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban both suffered through injuries, occasionally at the same time.
Fleury generated the best save percentage of his career, posting a .927 mark while going 29-13-4 in 46 games. He’d be getting serious consideration for the Vezina if injuries didn’t railroad the quantity to go with all of that quality.
“MAF” has quietly been impressive, for the most part, lately. He’s generated a .920 or better season in three of his last four campaigns. Even last year (.909 save percentage), Fleury helped the Penguins with excellent postseason work.
Los Angeles:Jonathan Quick enjoyed one of the best years of his career, going 33-28-3 with a strong .921 save percentage.
Much like Fleury, Quick has been a polarizing goalie. Analytics-minded fans have often criticized Quick, while mainstream pundits sometimes exaggerate his accomplishments. In 2017-18, Quick earned the accolades.
Advantage: Golden Knights. Fleury’s generated better numbers this season and in recent years. Both goalies have plenty of postseason experience, so they have the confidence of their teams.
Vegas: The Golden Knights’ power play generated 53 goals, gave up five shorthanded tallies, and enjoyed a 21.4-percent success rate (tied for eighth in the NHL). Their PK gave up 44 goals while scoring eight shorties, killing 81.4 percent of their penalties (tied for 10th). Overall, special teams is a net positive (+12) for Vegas.
Los Angeles: The Kings topped the NHL by killing 85 percent of their penalties, while their 39 power-play goals allowed was second-best in the NHL (Los Angeles also scored five shorthanded goals). Los Angeles scored 49 power-play goals and allowed four shorthanded goals, generating a PP% of 20.4 (tied for 17th). Consider that a net positive of +10.
Advantage: Kings. The Golden Knights get the nod for balance, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that the Kings boast one of the best penalty kill units in the NHL. Like many facets of this series, it’s close.
Vegas: You’d think that the Kings will be on their best behavior but …
/Cuts to a shot of a car rolling into Sin City, with bright lights blinking and casinos never sleeping. Vince Vaughn may be in this montage.
Home-ice advantage could be significant for Vegas. The question is: how significant will it be?
Los Angeles: Normally, when you hear the word “experience” thrown around, it’s tough to resist rolling your eyes.
You can keep a straight face this time. The Kings have two Cups to their name, and in each case, they didn’t exactly set the NHL on fire during the regular season. (This is a team with two championship banners and zero division titles during that run, after all.)
The Golden Knights are in their first season against a team that knows all about the pressures, the grind, and the matchups that come with playoff hockey. Maybe that veteran edge will allow the Kings to control the tempo?
Kings in six games. The Golden Knights are the ultimate underdogs, so why not keep that going by doubting them even though they won their division and hold home-ice advantage against Los Angeles? This could be a weird one, even by first-round standards.