Jon Merrill

Golden Knights aim to stay hot vs. Ducks

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

To put things mildly, Vegas has been through some challenging times in 2019-20. Yet, after navigating many bumps in the road, the Golden Knights are heating up, and hope to keep that surge going against the Ducks on NBCSN on Sunday.

Golden Knights gathering steam under DeBoer

Honestly, it’s still kind of jarring that the Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant. It sure didn’t seem like their struggles stemmed from bad coaching.

And yet … whatever the explanation might be, the Golden Knights seem like they’ve regained their swagger.

Now, it’s worth noting that the Golden Knights didn’t take off right away under Peter DeBoer. Their struggles extended from coach to coach, as Vegas suffered through a 4-7-2 stretch from Jan. 7 – Feb. 11. But now? Now they’re starting to look like the dangerous team many expected.

The Golden Knights have rumbled through some stout competition lately, beating the Blues, Islanders, Capitals, and maybe most impressively, the Lightning on Thursday.

They needed to make the most of a five-game homestand in Vegas, and they have, winning all of those games after they made the Maple Leafs’ Saturday a little less disastrous by beating the Panthers.

Sunday closes off a back-to-back set, and represents a rare road game. The Golden Knights’ Sunday NBCSN contest against the Ducks serves as a bridge between that five-game homestand and another four-game stretch in Vegas starting on Wednesday.

Golden Knights, Ducks approach trade deadline very differently

The Golden Knights and Ducks already rank as buyers and sellers, even if they’re done with their deadline dealing.

The Ducks may have sold a bit low on Ondrej Kase, particularly since they took on David Backes’ contract from the Bruins. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights already seem pleased with the addition of Alec Martinez.

“I thought he did awesome,” Jon Merrill said of Martinez’s debut, via The Athletic’s Jesse Granger (sub required). “He’s a veteran defenseman with a lot of poise in his own zone. He’s a great defender and blocks a ton of shots. You have to read the play, and it’s timing when to step into the lane. It’s definitely an acquired skill. I think the more you do it, the more you get a sense of when the shots are going to come. He’s done a great job at it his whole career.”

Get a glimpse of Martinez and the Golden Knights as they face the Ducks Sunday on NBCSN.

John Forslund and Brian Hayward will call the action at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

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.

Golden Knights need to let Colin Miller out of playoff doghouse

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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.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

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).

Miller looms as an upgrade from a wide variety of perspectives. Take his potential transition impact compared to Holden, via CJ Turturo’s visualization (which uses Corey Sznajder’s data):

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.

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.

Devils’ biggest question: Will their young defense measure up?

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One of the biggest questions for the New Jersey Devils heading into the 2015-16 season surrounds the youth and inexperience the club has on its blue line.

With Adam Larsson, John Moore, Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Damon Severson, New Jersey could have as many as five defensemen 24 or younger on the back end to start the season.

The Devils will expect more out of Larsson who signed a new six-year, $25 million deal last month.

The 22-year-old had a strong second half last season scoring two goals and 18 assists in the final 40 games after registering just 13 points in his previous 85 games dating back to the 2012-13 season.

“I think he’s only scratched the surface of the kind of player he’s going to be,” GM Ray Shero said per The Bergen Record. “There’s a reason he was drafted when he was. He’s got a lot of experience already. He’s played a lot of ice time on the (penalty kill) and 5-on-5. He hasn’t had the chance to play a lot on the power play, yet.”

Shero could also go out and add a veteran in free agency.

According to Generalfanager.com, New Jersey currently has over $14 million cap space.

With a plethora of unrestricted free agent defensemen available, perhaps Shero could add blue liner or two on a camp invite.

“We’re looking to be in touch with some (player) agents for some free agents. Or with some teams. Or maybe the possibility of a tryout with one or two guys in training camp,” Shero said. “Some guys are still trying to get contracts.

“There’s plenty of time there, but you’re always looking to see what’s there. And if it’s something that makes sense for us, we’ll jump in. If not, we’ll go into training camp with what we have and see what’s available after that.”

Goaltender Cory Schneider knows he’ll play a role in helping out his young blue line.

“We’re in transition somewhat, but (I’ll) hopefully be a calming presence and a veteran presence, even though I feel I’m a young 29,” he told NJ Advance Media. “I hope to put my mark on a franchise and organization and hopefully carry them to a Stanley Cup one day.”

Related: New Jersey Devils ’15-16 Outlook

New Jersey Devils ’15-16 Outlook

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The New Jersey Devils have finished in the bottom-five in scoring for three straight campaigns and once again their offense is a big area of concern.

No New Jersey player reached the 50-point mark last season and only two (Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri) recorded at least 40 points. Acquiring forward Kyle Palmieri in a trade with Anaheim over the summer does help matters, but offensively the Devils look like a long-term project that has only barely begun. Years from now, perhaps Pavel Zacha, who was taken with the sixth overall pick, will be a serious scoring threat, but for now New Jersey doesn’t have much in the way of young, NHL-ready forwards.

Stefan Matteau might establish himself as an NHL regular at the age of 21, but the 2012 first-round pick has never been a major contributor offensively. There’s always the chance that Henrique, 25, will take a step forward, but his career-high remains 51 points from his rookie season when he was working with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. There’s clearly no one at that level for him to play off of at this time.

The good news is that the Devils’ situation looks less bleak when you move past their offense as in contrast, the blueline’s rebuild seems to be moving along nicely. Adam Larsson took a significant step forward last season and the hope is that he’ll lead the charge along with Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill, and Damon Severson. The oldest of them, Gelinas, only celebrated his 24th birthday in May.

Then of course there’s their goaltending, which is in the capable hands of Cory Schneider. He demonstrated last season under trying circumstances that the Devils’ goalie situation remains their strength, even in the post-Martin Brodeur era.

Taking it all in, New Jersey isn’t without its strengths and upside, but until the Devils get to the point where they’re at least passable offensively, it will be difficult for them to make a serious run at a playoff spot.

It’s New Jersey Devils day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The New Jersey Devils.

The New Jersey Devils’ 2014-15 story is simple in that they were a team that couldn’t score often and therefore didn’t win often.

They did net six goals against the Philadelphia Flyers in their season opener and scored five times against Florida in their next game. After that though, they were credited with just 170 goals for over their final 80 contests.

The tragedy of it was that they wasted a great season from goaltender Cory Schneider. At the age of 28 (he turned 29 in March), Schneider finally entered a campaign as the undisputed number one goaltender and went on to post a 2.26 GAA and .925 save percentage in 69 contests. However, despite having the league’s ninth best GAA and fifth best save percentage, he finished in a three-way tie for 19th in terms of wins (26).

The Devils’ struggles led to Peter DeBoer’s dismal as head coach on Dec. 26 and he was replaced by co-coaches Adam Oates and Scott Stevens. The silver lining there is that 22-year-old defenseman Adam Larsson worked well under Stevens, leading to him breaking out after years of trying to find his way with the Devils. His rise helped accent the Devils’ promising young blueline, which also features Eric Gelinas, Damon Severson, and Jon Merrill.

Those defensemen provided the Devils with hope for the future, but the 2014-15 campaign itself was a disappointment as New Jersey finished with a 32-36-14 record.

Off-season recap

The Devils acquired forward Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a 2015 second-round pick and a 2016 third-round selection. They also added a player they hope will someday help solve their offensive woes when they took Pavel Zacha with the sixth overall pick in the draft.

Beyond that, New Jersey’s on-ice personnel might be similar this season, but the Devils have undergone a massive overhaul behind the scenes. The NHL’s longest-serving general manager, Lou Lamoriello, passed the torch to former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero in May. While the original plan was for Lamoriello to remain with the Devils by retaining his other title as the team’s president, he ultimately decided to leave to become the Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager.

Meanwhile, Shero brought in John Hynes to serve as the new bench boss. Hynes previously worked with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, making him a familiar face to Shero. The new general manager also laid out the Devils’ three principles going forward: Fast, attacking, and supportive.

So while the Devils haven’t made many signings or trades this summer, a new era has begun.