Jon Marchessault

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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.

Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights

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When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.

Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.

But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.

[Related: Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights]

Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.

It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.

He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.

When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.

While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.

The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.

It’s not like they protected Orpik or Taylor Chorney over Schmidt, or traded Andre Burakovsky and a first-round pick to keep Vegas from taking him.

They didn’t do anything stupid. They just accepted one player was leaving and let him go.

That player turned out to be Schmidt.

Joining a Vegas team that was starting from scratch the 26-year-old finally had a chance to do something he never could in Washington — get a real, honest look as a top-pairing defender.

He has excelled in that role.

[Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case]

During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.

In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.

He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.

He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.

Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.

Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.

None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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.

Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case

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The Conference Finals have reached the halfway point as we continue to inch our way to a Stanley Cup Final that will be … well … let’s just say a very unexpected matchup no matter who ends up playing in it.

The four teams remaining would all provide a fascinating story in their own right and have had some incredible individual performances that have helped drive them to this point. So let’s focus on those once again and check back in with our Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings.

The top of the list still has Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but he is starting to get a bit of a challenge from one of his opponents in the Western Conference Final. As well as one of his teammates.

To the list!

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. He was in the top spot when looked at this more than a week and literally nothing has happened to change that. If anything, he has only strengthened his case as he now has the Golden Knights just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. No matter how many times you think that sentence it never stops being outrageous. Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, specifically his two acrobatic saves on Mark Scheifele in the third period, are his signature moment so far this postseason. What does it do to his legacy if he leads a first-year expansion team to a Stanley Cup Final appearance (or wins it?!) and wins the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way? Big things, obviously.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. He has already set the NHL record for most road goals in a single postseason with 11 of them. Overall, he has a league-best 14 goals … in only 15 games! Keep in mind that no player has scored more than 14 goals in a single playoff run since Sidney Crosby scored 15 for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09. Before him you have to go all the way back to Joe Sakic (18) in 1995-96. It seems like he is a guarantee for two points every single night.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. We had Ovechkin in the second spot in our last update and his drop isn’t at all a reflection on the way he has played — he has been consistently incredible. It is just that there are simply two players that, at this point, are just a little bit better. In all honestly pretty much any of the players in the top-three (Fleury, Scheifele, Ovechkin) could easily be in the top spot without much of an argument.

4. Jon Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas’ top line has been a nightmare for teams all year and Marchessault has been at the center of a lot of it. He is also proving that his 30-goal season a year ago with the Florida Panthers was not a fluke. He is now up to 17 points in 13 games this postseason and has at least two points in six of his past nine games. How did the Florida Panthers allow this to happen?

5. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. He had a three-game stretch at the start of the Boston series where he did not record a point. Outside of that he has found his way onto the scoresheet in every playoff game the Lightning have played and enters Game 4 on Thursday night riding a four-game point streak. He has been the engine driving the Lightning all year.

6. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Holtby has been an incredible playoff goalie throughout his entire career and is finally getting the goal support to make people notice it. Still one of the most mind-blowing Holtby stats is that he has been on the losing end of 14 games in his playoff career where he has allowed two goals or less. He has lost four games where he has allowed only one goal! He has consistently produced for the Capitals. He has deserved better. This year he is getting better and is a big reason why the team is so close to finally reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

7. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets. From strictly an entertainment perspective he might be at the top of the list. Point-per-game player on defense, playing 26 minutes a night, plays a devastatingly physical game, has players bouncing off of him like he is a brick wall when they try to hit him, and he can drag multiple players around the ice by himself like they are nothing.

8. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. He is playing 19 minutes per night (tops among all Lightning forwards) and has more even-strength points than any other player on the team. In just his second year in the NHL he has quickly become a key part of this core. Perhaps the lesson for the rest of the NHL here should be to not be afraid to take the undersized player if he proves he can put the puck in the net. The Lightning haven’t been afraid to do it and have built a team that has been in the NHL’s final four in three of the past four years.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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.

Panthers are running out of time to make a playoff push

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The Florida Panthers lost again on Friday night, their seventh in the past eight games, thanks to a third period collapse that saw them turn a one-goal lead with 17 minutes to play into a 7-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild.

The loss keeps the Panthers six points out of a playoff spot with only 16 games to play in the regular season, while four teams (New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Philadelphia Flyers) all sit between them and the second wild card spot. For the Panthers to surpass the 93 points the Islanders — currently holding the second wild card spot — are on track for Florida would need to collect at least 25 out of a possible 32 points the rest of the way, something that would require at least a 12-3-1 run to close out the season.

Needless to say, they have very little margin for error and are running out of time to make up that ground.

“Our whole season, right now, has been a disappointment,” said Panthers forward Jon Marchessault after Friday’s game, via the Miami Herald. “At this point of the year, time is limited. We have less games, we need to turn this boat around.”

If they are going to get things turned around it pretty much has to start tonight against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that will be playing without almost all of its centers due to injuries and recent trades.

If the Panthers can get a win on Saturday — preferably one in regulation — it will just be one step out of the money needed to get back into playoff contention.

But a loss — and especially if it is in regulation — would pretty much give them no margin for error the rest of the way and might be the dagger in what has been an exceptionally disappointing season.

Maple Leafs place Seth Griffith on waivers

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The Toronto Maple Leafs may not win a ton of games this season, but they do have an impressive collection of young talent that is providing their fans with a ton of hope for the future.

But not all of those young players have been able to consistently crack the team’s lineup this season.

We have already heard from Frank Corrado, a 23-year-old defenseman that has yet to play in a game this season and is growing a little frustrated with it.

That was followed on Friday by the news that the team has placed 23-year-old forward Seth Griffith on waivers. Griffith, who was claimed by the Maple Leafs on waivers from the Boston Bruins at the start of the season, has played in only three games and logged just 28 minutes of ice-time this season.

The decision to put him on waivers is apparently due to a roster crunch with Matt Hunwick set to return to the lineup and Josh Leivo ready to come back from a conditioning stint in the AHL.

Even though Griffith hasn’t been able to find a regular spot in the Toronto lineup this season, he still seems like the type of player that is worth a look to a team in need of a cheap, talented forward that would not cost anything to acquire.

He has excelled at every level he has played at and is coming off of a monster season in the AHL that saw him record 77 points (24 goals, 53 assists)  in only 57 games for the Providence Bruins during the 2015-16 season.

The biggest knock on Griffith is probably the fact he is only 5-9 and if considered “undersized.” But if the NHL has shown us anything lately it’s that undersized players can excel in this era in a lot of different roles, from star players like Johnny Gaudreau, to top-line players like Tyler Johnson and Mats Zuccarello, to role players like Conor Sheary and Jon Marchessault.

Griffith has six goals and five assists in 37 career games at the NHL level.