House Money: How Golden Knights were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.

Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.

[How the Capitals were built]

It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.

Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.

The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now

Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.

Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.

Anyway, stockpiling defensemen and futures was a huge part of the gameplan. At the time, it seemed like any bit of first-season success would be the gravy. Instead, a nice first entry draft (despite bad draft lottery luck) and a bucket of picks ended up being the cherry on top of this beyond-Cinderella run.

Fleury and other established players

Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.

But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.

Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.

James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …

Karlsson is to Forsberg …

In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.

When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.

While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.

Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.

[What Vegas success says about NHL]

Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.

Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …

via Getty

Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans

An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).

To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)

You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.

Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.

/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.

Speaking of former Panthers

Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.

Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.

It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.

Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.

Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.

A fairly clean slate

You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.

Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.

Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.

That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.

As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?

Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.

***

No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.

Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.

You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• How Washington was built

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better defense?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Caps will go into the Stanley Cup Final will the best defenseman on either side. John Carlson has been one of the better defenders in the league throughout the 2017-18 season. He managed to pick up an impressive 68 points in 82 games during the season and he’s added 16 points in 19 games during the playoffs. Not only is he capable of leading the charge offensively, he’s also relied upon to play significant minutes (averages almost 26 minutes during the playoffs). The Golden Knights don’t have anyone like him on their roster. That’s a fact.

Michal Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, has been serving as Carlson’s partner during the playoffs. Kempny hasn’t looked out of place, but playing with Carlson has helped make him look good (his overall CF% is 48.04 percent. When Carlson isn’t on the ice with him it drops to 43.84).

Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov round out the top four for the Capitals. Both players have been relatively solid for the Capitals during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Orlov has eight points in 19 games and he averages 24:32 of ice time, while Niskanen has eight points in 19 contests and he averages 25:31 per game.

Things get a lot more interesting on the third period, which is made up of veteran Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos. The pairing has been a liability for the Caps throughout the playoffs. There’s a decent chance that they’ll be exposed by Vegas’ speed a few times during the series.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

As we mentioned before, Vegas doesn’t have a clear number one blue liner like Carlson, but they have a group of six players that seem to play well as a unit.

The Golden Knights defense is made up of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Luca Sbisa and Jon Merrill. None of those names really jump off the page when you look at the individually, but they’ve been good enough to help get the Golden Knights to this point.

No hockey fan considers Schmidt and McNabb as a top pairing and most people thought Deryk Engelland’s days in the NHL were done, but all three of those players have played significant roles for their team.

Before you sell the Vegas defense short, keep in mind that they have Marc-Andre Fleury behind them, which will cover up a lot of their shortcomings. Braden Holtby has been good for Washington, but Fleury has been dominant from the start of the playoffs and he hasn’t gone through a prolonged slump at any point.

Advantage: Capitals. 

The Capitals are at a disadvantage when you compare the bottom pairings of both teams, but the fact that they have the best blue liner in the series really helps shift this discussion their way. Even though Kempny is far from being a top-pairing defenseman, the fact that he plays with Carlson helps make him better. Also, the second pairing of Niskanen and Orlov plays a factor in this decision.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights

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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).

The biggest surprise has obviously been the emergence of William Karlsson, 40-goal scorer, a performance that nobody should have or could have seen coming. 

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.

Some observations:

— 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.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• 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.

Jets vs. Golden Knights: PHT’s Western Conference Final preview

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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.

Schedule

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

Offense

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).

Defense

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.

Goaltending

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.

Special Teams

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.

X-Factors

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.

Prediction

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.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• 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.

Can Golden Knights get more out of Tatar, supporting cast?

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Update: Well, the Golden Knights might try to get more from their depth players and make some changes, but Tomas Tatar might not be a part of that.

NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika notes that today’s skate indicates that Tatar and Tomas Nosek might be healthy scratches. In that event, Ryan Carpenter and Oscar Lindberg would take their places.

Much of the discussion below remains, and the Golden Knights have plenty of incentive to get more out of Tatar going forward. Maybe another trip to the press box could be a bit of “tough love” for Tatar?

Look, every NHL team is going to lack something, especially in this salary cap era. Daydreaming about improved depth is a pretty common occurrence for just about every squad in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Such matters are worth delving into because a) it’s possible that some teams could stumble upon solutions better than others and b) such studies sometimes shine a light on other things that work or fall short for a team.

The Vegas Golden Knights stand an interesting example.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

On one hand, they’ve developed a reputation for “rolling four lines” and for succeeding thanks to a by-committee approach, including on defense. At their best, the Golden Knights make their opponents feel overwhelmed by waves of attackers.

Is it possible that the San Jose Sharks have exposed a few cracks in that wall, or are merely better equipped to reveal that the Golden Knights might have some depth issues, too? Such questions might receive more clarity as this series goes along (Game 5 airs on NBCSN tonight at 10 p.m. ET), but in perusing the stats from San Jose’s 4-0 shutout in Game 4, some things stand out.

  • Vegas’ top line had its chances.

Opinions may vary, but while the points have come and gone, the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs make a strong argument that the top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith really is a legitimate top line. Sometimes it’s a dominant one.

While Vegas was blanked, that trio generated 11 of the Golden Knights’ 34 shots on goal. None of them suffered negative plus/minuses in a 4-0 loss, either.

Neal remains an intriguing UFA (if he doesn’t re-sign with Vegas) because he’s one of the NHL’s most reliable snipers (25 goals despite being limited to 71 games in 2017-18) while combining a mean streak with the sort of frame that can help him get to those “dirty goal” areas. At his best, he can be a headache for defenses to deal with.

It seems like he’s asserting himself against the beefy Sharks, too. While he suffered a -2 rating, Neal fired a lofty seven shots on goal during Game 4. He has one goal and three assists along with 19 SOG in four games so far in this series.

So, theoretically, the Golden Knights are in a nice spot with the first line and with Neal playing at a high level alongside Erik Haula and Alex Tuch. With that in mind, waking up their bottom-six forwards could be key.

It’s reasonable to wonder if Perron is truly healthy. If not, he should be commended for producing three assists so far in four games against the Sharks. Like Neal, he’s an intriguing pending UFA; Perron scored 66 points in just 70 games this season. He could be the key to getting more out of depth players, or if Gerard Gallant deems it necessary, making a more dangerous second line.

This brings us to Tatar, who seems to be slated for third-line duty with Perron and Cody Eakin.

To say the least, Tatar has been a disappointment since being traded to Vegas, even for those who thought that the Golden Knights gave up far too much for the former Red Wings winger to begin with.

Through 20 regular-season games, Tatar only managed four goals and two assists for six points. He’s been a non-factor during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, at least when he’s avoided being a healthy scratch altogether, failing to score a point and only managing four SOG in four games. His ice time is also a testament to how little confidence the Golden Knights have in him so far.

With just seven points in 21 career playoff games, some might wonder if Tatar simply wilts during this time of year.

That’s a lot of doom and gloom, but let’s not forget that Tatar is riding four consecutive 20+ goal seasons. He may never be worth the three significant draft picks Vegas gave up to get him, but Tatar is legitimately capable of catching fire and moving the needle in this series. Just look at what he can do when things are clicking:

Now, could Perron bring that out of him? Would a move up the lineup provide a crucial confidence boost? Maybe he deserves a little power play time after getting none in Game 4?

One of the things that makes Vegas such a great story is all of the opportunities that came here that may have never emerged for guys like William Karlsson, Shea Theodore, and Alex Tuch. Extending that spirit by at least letting Tatar get one foot out of the doghouse could, for all we know, be enough to light a fire under the solid scorer.

  • What about the fourth line?

On paper, the Golden Knights’ fourth line (William Carrier, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Tomas Nosek) leaves something to be desired. Bellemare’s possession stats are a microcosm of that group’s overall limitations.

Sometimes you’re just stuck with a limited fourth line, but Gallant should at least consider bringing Ryan Carpenter back and giving Oscar Lindberg a few looks. Lindberg hasn’t played since April 7, so obviously he’s not held in high regard right now, but the former Rangers forward does have some playoff experience (four points in 14 games) and would probably work hard to prove that he deserves to stay in the lineup.

***

Again, every team would like more depth (or, the deep ones might want some more high-end skill). To some extent, you sometimes need to just appreciate the smaller battles a line can win.

On the other hand, sometimes winning a tough playoff series comes down to making adjustments and finding new combinations. The Golden Knights are experiencing a real challenge in the Sharks. For all we know, a reinvigorated Tatar could tilt the scales in their favor.

Check out Game 5 tonight starting at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. This is the livestream link.

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.