Kelly McCrimmon

nhl round-robin
Getty Images

Season full of surprises, disappointments for Vegas Golden Knights

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Vegas Golden Knights.

Coaching disappointments and surprises for Golden Knights

All these months later, it’s still hard to believe. The Golden Knights fired fairly recent Jack Adams Award winner and generally well-regarded coach Gerard Gallant. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, they replaced Gallant with Peter DeBoer, former Sharks coach and person Gallant called a “clown.”

Stunning.

As Adam Gretz noted back in January, Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon didn’t exactly share a lot of details for why Gallant was fired.

“It wasn’t a specific block of games, or a specific game,” McCrimmon said. “It’s hard to put into words I guess unless you’ve done these jobs, it’s more just the feeling that you have that a change might be needed. I wish I could be more specific than that, but that’s really how we felt …”

You can’t blame observers for finding disappointments in the process the Golden Knights went through, then.

The real source of disappointments for the Golden Knights

Under Gallant, the Golden Knights were a dominant puck possession team. They did a lot right, even if the results weren’t always there. Regardless of how McCrimmon and others “feel,” sometimes you just don’t get the bounces in hockey.

It’s especially tough for a coach to manufacture wins when your goaltending fails. Both on special teams and at even strength, Vegas’ netminding wasn’t up to snuff.

Marc-Andre Fleury‘s done a lot for this franchise, particularly during their unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. His play has dropped considerably from season to season, and 2019-20 represents a troubling picture. MAF only managed a .905 save percentage, forcing Vegas to prop him up to a 27-16-5 record.

To be fair to Fleury, he stood as easily the best option for Vegas for most of three seasons. Simply put, Malcolm Subban and other backups rarely got it done.

Really, to some extent, the disappointments revolve around the Golden Knights failing to find a goalie Plan B behind Fleury. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that they traded for Robin Lehner.

Thanks to the pandemic pause, we really only received glimpses of what the Golden Knights could look like with Lehner in net. Frankly, there’s a strong chance that Lehner is the Plan A to Fleury’s Plan B, rather than the other way around. Lehner even showed as much in just three appearances, winning them all with a sparkling .940 save percentage.

Patched up

After his first season with the Golden Knights, it sure seemed like Max Pacioretty‘s best days were behind him.

Pacioretty finished his run with the Habs with a whimper, managing only 17 goals and 37 points. Unfortunately, his Golden Knights debut seemed like a mirror image, producing merely 40 points in 2018-19.

While I would chalk up a significant portion of Pacioretty’s resurgence to playing with Mark Stone, it’s still delightful to see “Patches” rise. Especially considering how frequently he was unfairly scapegoated in Montreal.

Despite being limited to 71 games played, Pacioretty scored 32 goals and 66 points in 2019-20. He didn’t need outrageous puck luck, either, as his 10.4 shooting percentage was a bit below his 11 career average.

(Granted, he did enjoy a career-high 12.1 percent on-ice shooting percentage, but … still.)

Consider the dramatic difference between Pacioretty’s fabulous RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for 2019-20:

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Pacioretty 2019-20

And contrast that to his troubling RAPM chart from 2018-19:

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Pacioretty 2018-19

Again, playing with Stone made life significantly easier for Pacioretty. But beyond showing what a difference a two-way star can make, it also shows that a strong player can rebound if given some time. Pacioretty served as one of the most pleasant surprises for the Golden Knights in a season where they had to navigate plenty of disappointments.

Considering the many disappointments and stunning surprises, it’s quite something that Vegas sits atop the Pacific Division during the pause.

MORE ON THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS:

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Why Gallant was fired; Will Yzerman bring him to Red Wings?

Gallant Red Wings Yzerman
Getty Images
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon explains why the team fired Gerard Gallant. The vague “underperforming” explanation cements something, to me: this is a defining decision by McCrimmon. It’s striking how many players said that they loved playing for Gallant, by the way. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• Gallant developed a friendship with Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman over the years. (Witness that in that glorious main image from Getty Images/Sports Illustrated’s George Tiedemann from 1988.) Things already seemed shaky for Jeff Blashill beyond 2019-20. What happens now that Gallant is available? (Detroit Free-Press)

• Frank Seravalli breaks down a brutal, stunning season for NHL coaches. (TSN)

• Ilya Kovalchuk discusses why things didn’t work with the Kings, and the fit in Montreal. Kovalchuk explains to Eric Engels that he’s “useless” playing 7-10 minutes per night. (Sportsnet)

• Playing in (and winning) a World Series must have been nerve-wracking for Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. Then again, his thought on suiting up during a Capitals practice was “I hope I don’t die.” Good stuff. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

David Perron provides some fascinating insight on how he looks at certain hockey analytics. He also explains some of the stats the Blues emphasize. (The Point)

• More on the Blues: how the team shakes off injuries. (St. Louis Game Time)

• The Lightning are red-hot right now, and critics are wrong: their defense is strong. (Raw Charge)

• Key tactical adjustments make for an improved New York Rangers. (Blue Seat)

• The Blue Jackets aren’t just surviving in net post-Sergei Bobrovsky, they’re thriving. It sets up something unexpected: a potential goalie battle between two netminders who are playing well. (The Hockey News)

• Gus Katsaros does a deep analytics dive on the Devils. (Rotoworld)

• Need a sign that things are odd in 2020? How about this: the Capitals power play is struggling. (Nova Caps)

• Scotty Wazz shares news on TV coverage for “3 Ice,” a 3-on-3 summer league. If it can be anywhere near as cool as a similar basketball league, sign me up. Bonus points if it includes barely-retired players akin to Joe Johnson tearing it up. It’s starting up in June 2021.(Scotty Wazz)

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’ firing of Gallant short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction

8 Comments

The Vegas Golden Knights sent shockwaves through the NHL on Wednesday when they announced the firing of head coach Gerard Gallant, replacing him with Peter DeBoer.

It is a stunning move not only because it came completely out of nowhere, but because there does not appear to be any rational thought or logical explanation behind the decision. Not when you try to analyze it objectively from the outside. And certainly not when you hear general manager Kelly McCrimmon try to justify it.

Yes, it is true that the Golden Knights are stuck in the middle of a four-game losing streak and coming off a bad loss to a bad and banged up Buffalo Sabres team on Tuesday night. It is also true that at the time of the coaching change the Golden Knights are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture. But they are also just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division. They are a team that over the past two years — the first two years of the franchise’s existence! — played in the Stanley Cup Final and was a historically bad penalty call in a Game 7 away from potentially making another deep postseason run.

To fire the coach behind that because the team is maybe a few points worse than you hoped for at the mid-way point seems to be a dramatically short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction. The NHL coaching carousel is an unforgiving place and job security is always low for the people riding on it, but this seems drastic even by NHL coaching standards. Especially when you dig into the team’s actual performance and McCrimmon’s lack of an explanation.

The Golden Knights seem to be betting on McCrimmon’s instinct

In talking about the decision, McCrimmon was unable — or unwilling — to go into any details or provide any specifics as to why a coaching change was necessary. More than once he referred to a “feel.”

“As a manager sometimes you have a feeling that something isn’t the way you need it to be or want it to be,” McCrimmon said. “We feel we have underperformed a little bit, and certainly that’s not to pile that at the feet of Mike and Gerard. But sometimes you feel a change is needed.”

When asked how long he had contemplated a change. His response, again, went back to his “feel,” while admitting it was hard for him to get into specifics.

“It wasn’t a specific block of games, or a specific game,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words I guess unless you’ve done these jobs, it’s more just the feeling that you have that a change might be needed. I wish I could be more specific than that, but that’s really how we felt. We thought about this a lot. It certainly wasn’t something that we did in haste, or something that we did based on the recent four games. It was a decision that was arrived at over time.”

No specifics. Nothing more than a “feel.” Repeatedly saying it doesn’t all fall at the feet of the two coaches that were fired. It’s hard to listen to all of that, then look at the success Gallant had, and not come to the conclusion that was just an immediate reaction to a small sampling of results.

Especially when the team itself has probably played better than its record.

Strong process … mediocre results

When it comes to their 5-on-5 play the Golden Knights are controlling the pace of play in a lot of key areas.

  • Their 53.9 percent shot attempt share is fourth best in the NHL.
  • They have expected goals share of 54.8 percent that is second best in the NHL.
  • Their scoring chance shares (both all scoring chances and high-danger chances) are both in the top-five.

They are controlling the pace of games at a level that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup contenders.

So why haven’t the results followed in the standings?

You can probably start with the fact their team save percentage at 5-on-5 is 25th in the league. Not only has Marc-Andre Fleury not had a great season, but they still haven’t found a capable backup behind him to give him a break. No position impacts a team — or a coach — more than goaltending.

Look at the Jack Adams Award winner in a given season, and you will find a great goalie. Look at the coaches get fired in-season, and you will no doubt find a poor goaltending performance.

Vegas is the fifth different team to make a coaching change this season for performance based reasons, and here is where each team currently ranks in 5-on-5 save percentage: 16th (Nashville), 23rd (Toronto), 25th (Vegas), 27th (New Jersey), and 31st (San Jose).

Notice a trend?

Vegas’ defense may not be made up of superstars, and it may not be a great defensive team overall. But it’s certainly not a bad one, either. And it’s definitely a team that has played well enough overall to be in a dramatically different spot with just a few more saves from its goalies.

Maybe it all works for Vegas. DeBoer is a good coach with a strong track record, and also a coach that was done in by terrible goaltending the past two years. It is entirely possible that Fleury rebounds with a strong second half, at which point Vegas will probably take off again if it keeps playing the way it has and DeBoer will get the reward and praise.

But this all points to a flawed decision-making process and perhaps a misunderstanding of why teams succeed or fail. That might be the most concerning thing for the long-term outlook of the Golden Knights.

Related: Golden Knights fire Gerard Gallant, hire Peter DeBoer

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.

Golden Knights fire Gallant, hire Peter DeBoer as head coach

17 Comments

In a stunning news drop Wednesday morning the Vegas Golden Knights announced they’ve fired Gerard Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly and hired Peter DeBoer as their new head coach.

“In order for our team to reach its full potential, we determined a coaching change was necessary. Our team is capable of more than we have demonstrated this season,” said Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon in a statement. “We would like to thank Gerard and Mike for their service to the Vegas Golden Knights. They were both instrumental to the success we have enjoyed in our first two-plus seasons and we wish them all the best moving forward. In Peter DeBoer, we have a proven, experienced head coach who we believe can help us achieve our ultimate goal. We are excited to welcome Peter and his family to the Vegas Golden Knights organization. We look forward to a strong finish to the 2019-20 season with Peter at the helm and a successful tenure in the seasons to come.”

(Remember when Gallant called DeBoer a “clown” during the Golden Knights-Sharks series last season?)

Gallant, who was supposed to be in St. Louis next week to coach the Pacific Division All-Star team, was the franchise’s first head coach and helped lead them to the playoffs in each of their first two seasons, which included a trip to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. He compiled a 118-75-20 record in parts of three seasons and is now the seventh coaching casualty in 2019-20.

The Golden Knights are currently on 54 points and tied for one of the final wild card spots in the Western Conference. They’ve dropped four straight, but they’re also three points behind the Coyotes for the division lead. Will this turn out to be a short-sighted decision by McCrimmon, who is in his first season as the team’s GM?

Given the number of coaching changes in the NHL this season DeBoer likely wasn’t going to be out of work very long. Like John Hynes in Nashville, he’s walking into a situation that could really be great if their goaltending turns around. Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcom Subban have handled majority of the load and have produced a combined .911 even strength save percentage this season, fifth-worst in the NHL per Natural Stat Trick. They’re top-five in possession, expected goals, scoring chance percentage, and high-danger scoring change percentage. The talent is there, they just need someone to make a save.

DeBoer’s resume shows that he’s able to get immediate improvement in his teams. The Panthers, Devils, and Sharks all got the DeBoer Bump early on. That’ll likely continue in Vegas.

As for Gallant, the 2018 Jack Adams Award winner, there’s one obvious destination that should have already reached out to him and that’s Detroit. Jeff Blashill is not long for the Red Wings’ job and Gallant has ties to the organization having played his first nine NHL seasons there.

There’s a lot of work ahead for Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman and with Gallant’s track record as a coach he could be big part of a solution in Hockeytown.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Net gains: NHL’s load management is top goalies playing less

Marc-Andre Fleury plays when he’s told.

How much he plays has changed.

A decade ago, Fleury started 61 out of 82 games before backstopping Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup. He started 58 and 34 times on the Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Cup runs splitting time with Matt Murray, then made 46 starts for Vegas and led the expansion Golden Knights to the final.

“As a player, I love being in there. I love playing the game,” Fleury said. “It’s tough to find like the perfect amount of games. Nowadays, I feel like we’re hearing more than ever how we’re going to manage two goalies and stuff.”

Consider it hockey’s version of “load management” that’s gained popularity in basketball. Don’t expect NHL teams to handpick games throughout the season to rest star players – except top goaltenders who are getting more nights off while their backups share the net with an eye toward playoff success.

Each of the past five Cup-winning goalies started fewer than 60 games in the regular season, along with three of the past five runners up. The days of Martin Brodeur starting 78 games are gone – only three goalies have 70-plus starts over the past five seasons – and teams think year-round about how to best prepare to play deep into June.

“The trend is definitely going the way that you split the net more,” said Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, who carried the Bruins to Game 7 of the final last year after starting 46 times in the regular season. “It’s a tough thing because if your starter makes $8-9 million, you want him to play. But then you want to win the Cup, so you’ve got to think of it like, well, if this guy plays 70 games, is he going to play 25 in the playoffs at the same level? Versus OK we’re playing him 45, 50 really good games and then we got the other guy and the A guy’s going to play 25 really good (playoff games).”

Rask and Jaroslav Halak, Washington’s Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer in 2018 and Pittsburgh’s Murray and Fleury the previous two years are prime examples. Jordan Binnington didn’t make his first NHL start until January, but 32 games of work made him fresh to help the St. Louis Blues win the Cup last season.

It’s a delicate balance of having enough salary cap space to employ two capable goalies with playing time, plotting out the schedule for maximum rest benefits and collecting enough points to make the playoffs.

“It’s a collaborative discussion that all teams have,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “What we’re doing is trying to win hockey games during the regular season, trying to keep both of our goalies sharp and trying to have all our players at the top of their game come playoffs.”

The New York Islanders have alternated Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov for their first 24 games and allow the fourth-fewest goals in the league. Anaheim’s coaching staff pencils in both John Gibson or Ryan Miller for all 82 games and revisits incrementally to adjust for injuries and workloads.

“It has very little to do with games,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “It has more to do with how much work. We had a game earlier this year where we were overwhelmed in the game against Vegas. I think they put up 50 shots, and we were in our zone the whole time. That went down as one game for John, but he really played two, so that’s kind of how we look at it.”

Miller previously preferred to skip a game with a couple days off on each end for a mental break. He sees so many teams splitting back-to-backs and understands it but also thinks battling some old-school fatigue can be good for a goaltender.

“I don’t think there’s a strict recipe,” said Miller, whose career high was 74 starts in 2007-08 with Buffalo. “I think some adversity is good to keep your mentality in the right place. It’s not going to be a cake walk and then playoffs hit and it’s like (you’re) dialed in. You’ve got to go through some stuff and work through it and battle through the harder situations so that’s just your mindset every night.”

NHL goalies believe modern games are more difficult with higher shot totals than past decades. Teams are averaging 30 shots a game in 2019-20, while the schedule has more back-to-backs.

“Nowadays there’s a lot more work for a goalie: a lot less hooking and holding up for the D-men, so there’s a lot more chances or a lot more in-zone time that you’re actually working,” said Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott, who’s part of a successful tandem with Carter Hart. “Even if you’re maybe not getting shots, you’re looking through screens, you’re doing a lot of work.”

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant appreciates Fleury wants to play all 82 games, and he’s not alone in wanting to grab the net and not let go.

“I’ve felt a lot better every year I played a lot more games,” said Holtby, who led the league with 73 games played in 2014-15. “It’s a little more of a feel game instead of an analytics game just because of the speed of it. … It’s one of those things everyone’s probably different. It probably has a lot to do with how you practice and everything.”

Some goalies are going to play more than others; Florida’s $10 million man, Sergei Bobrovsky, or Montreal’s Carey Price, the highest-paid goalie in the league, could start 60 or more just because his team needs an elite level of play.

“We’d love to have (Price) in every game, but it’s not realistic,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. “We give him some days off of practices because that’s not quite as important as him in games.”

The most important thing, of course, is the playoffs. It’s tough for starters who want to play all the time and it takes an adjustment, but the proof is in the names on the Stanley Cup that splitting the net works.

“Everybody wants to play,” Rask said. “The older you get, I think it becomes a little easier to realize that it’s not about me. I’m resting for the team.”

And resting with the hope that shouldering less of a load now makes a goalie more likely to raise a trophy over his shoulders at the end of the season.