Malcolm Subban

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

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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.

Why Golden Knights are climbing NHL standings

Golden Knights Subban
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In what is somehow just their third season, the Vegas Golden Knights have experienced plenty of ups and downs. After some bumpy times, Vegas’ trajectory points up, possibly to the top of the Pacific Division.

Currently, the Golden Knights are (20-14-6, 46 points) essentially tied with the Arizona Coyotes (21-14-4, 46 points), although the Coyotes hold a game in hand. Either way, it’s increasingly looking like the Golden Knights will battle with someone — probably Arizona — for the top Pacific spot, while the motley crue of other divisional teams muck it up for the third seed, and maybe a wild-card spot if the Central sags.

To reiterate: this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The Golden Knights were sputtering, and teams like the Oilers and Canucks were playing over their heads.

So, what has changed for the Golden Knights, beyond others slipping? Some findings will be obvious; others might surprise you.

Golden Knights make different bets

In an interesting piece on Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen believes that you can draw Vegas’ turning point somewhere between Nov. 26 and Nov. 27. Considering the Golden Knights’ record split (start through Nov. 26: 11-11-4; Nov. 27 to present: 9-3-2 for 20 points), that seems reasonable.

It’s not just about their record, though. Schoen reports that, around this time, Gallant decided to deploy a less aggressive system, erring closer to “zone” instead of “man” coverage.

“There’s less running around,” Defensemen Brayden McNabb said to Schoen. “You more protect the middle, always come back to the house (front of the net). For that, we’re not out of position. We find it really helps for our wingers and forwards that they’re always in their spot, so if we get a chance to kill a play and move the puck, we always know that we’re going to have guys in their spots.”

While the flat goals for and against went Vegas’ way after that change, it can be difficult to tell how much of that hinges on pure luck, especially in a small sample size.

With that, let’s consider some metrics at Natural Stat Trick. Interestingly, the Golden Knights have actually allowed more high-danger chances per 60 minutes during their heating-up month (10.97) than they did from the start of the season through Nov. 26 (10.75). Vegas has, however, taken a greater share of the high-danger chances overall (from 50.99 percent to an impressive 55.36).

Overall, those numbers indicate that such strategy tweaks might indeed be wise. The key, really, might be for Gallant to show a willingness to adjust — which he already has.

Malcolm less middling, shooting goes from bronze to gold (or at least silver)

From the Dept. of Not Particularly Surprising: the Golden Knights are finally getting bounces.

During their first 26 games, Vegas’ even-strength shooting percentage was just 7.34, the third-worst mark in the NHL. Since then, their rate improved to 8.7. That shooting percentage only ranks in the mid-range, but it’s a whole lot better that bottom of the barrel. It also makes you wonder how dangerous Vegas can be if the Golden Knights catch fire.

Now for something actually surprising: the Golden Knights’ goaltending.

Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury have basically switched places. MAF was far better up until Nov. 26 (.919 save percentage vs. Subban’s .883). Since Nov. 27, Subban managed a strong .927 save percentage over eight games, while Fleury sunk to .881 in six contests.

As mixed and baffling as those results can be, consider this comforting overall.

The Golden Knights leaned on Fleury far too long, to the point that it’s felt like Flower-or-nothing. That’s a dangerous gamble with a 35-year-old with a ton of games under his belt.

Vegas is likely most comfortable turning to MAF during big games, but if Subban can at least be an above-average backup, it would be a luxury not unlike playing with house money.

Golden Knights have a lot going for them

Overall, Vegas figures to be a contender if it can get enough stops to go with two potentially dominant scoring lines and a solid defense. As you can see from prognostications including Travis Yost’s interesting breakdown of the division at TSN, and Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections (sub required), many signs point to Vegas winning the Pacific.

Whether they finish at the top spot or not, there’s a lot to like, and a generally weak division should give the Golden Knights room to experiment. Gallant’s already seen results in changing tactics, so maybe he should hit the lab and see what other concoctions might work for this talent-rich team?

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.

Goaltending at center of Golden Knights’ slump

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

The Vegas Golden Knights will go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury is able to take them this season.

Not only in terms of how he plays, but also how often he plays.

It has been a very simple recipe for the team dating back to the start of last season, and it goes exactly like this: When Fleury plays, and plays well, the Golden Knights look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that can stack up against any team in the league.

When he does not play, or when he does not play well, the team has had virtually no chance of winning on any given night.

They have a deep group of forwards with impact players carrying the top lines, their defense may not have any potential Norris Trophy winners on it, but it is a capable group, and in general the team plays a winning brand of hockey.

Even so, goaltending is the make-or-break position on this team and it all relies on the health and play of Fleury.

Their recent 10-game stretch entering their Wednesday Night Hockey matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks is a perfect illustration of the importance of their starting goalie. They have won just three of those games, and even though the offense has cooled off and had its own share of struggles, the goaltending has not always given them a chance to win. They have consistently fallen behind early, often times by several goals, and have had to play catch-up almost every night.

Fleury has slumped a little recently (an .897 save percentage in his past six starts), but the bigger problem remains the fact the team has absolutely no one behind him that can give him some regular time off and give the team a chance to win. On this most recent 10-game stretch backups Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk have started four games, all of them losses, and allowed 15 goals with a combined save percentage of just .881. Not good enough.

[COVERAGE OF BLACKHAWKS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

For the season, the Golden Knights are one of just four teams that have yet to get a win from their backup goalies, and dating back to the start of last season they are just 8-14-4 in games that Fleury has not started. Their backups have a combined save percentage of .896, which is a completely terrible number even as far as backup goalies are concerned.

This is a potentially big problem for two reasons.

First, it means when Fleury does not play the Golden Knights points percentage dips down to lottery team levels. Even if you assume that Fleury is able to play 60-65 games that is still 20 or so games where they are  just giving away points in the standings, something that could force them to play Fleury more than they need to. Or should.

That leads to the second problem, which is Fleury’s workload and how many games the Golden Knights actually want him to play during the season. For as durable as he has been throughout his career (and still is; keep in mind he played 61 games a year ago), you have to consider the reality that he turns 35 years old later this month. In the history of the league there have only been seven instances of a goalie in their age 35 season (or older) starting more than 60 games in a season, and only two of them — both Martin Brodeur seasons — ended up making the playoffs that year. In both cases he completely bombed in the opening round, losing each series in five games.

Even when taking age out of the equation the sweet spot for No. 1 goalies in today’s NHL seems to be somewhere around the 55-60 game mark. It cuts down the injury risk and keeps the starter fresh for the grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Fleury’s three best postseasons — when looking at individual success and length of postseason run — came in years where he started 35, 38, and 46 games during the regular season, while his three worst performances came in years where he started more than 65 games. Granted, no one is going to suggest his playing time should be limited to 35 or 40 games, but keeping him under 60 might be very beneficial in the long run. The problem is Golden Knights don’t have anyone on their roster behind Fleury that should inspire enough confidence to give them 25-30 starts without seriously hurting the team’s spot in the standings and playoff race.

It is a big problem and one that needs to be addressed because they can’t rely on Fleury to play every night, and their current backups haven’t proven to be good enough to give him a break.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk  and Pierre McGuire will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

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 bring back Subban; Will Vegas ease Fleury’s burden?

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With a tight salary cap situation that might just force intriguing forward Nikita Gusev out of town, it’s no surprise that the Vegas Golden Knights are going status quo (and cheap) when it comes to their backup goalie.

The Golden Knights are bringing back 25-year-old goalie Malcolm Subban to back up 34-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury in 2019-20, with Subban receiving a one-year, $850K contract. So you can cross Subban’s name off of the salary arbitration hearing list.

“We are pleased to announce this one-year contract for Malcolm. He’s been a valuable contributor to our team over the last two seasons,” Golden Knights GM George McPhee said. “We are excited to continue to work with Malcolm and help him reach his full potential as an NHL goaltender.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Potential is an interesting word with Subban.

The Boston Bruins made him an increasingly rare first-round pick, taking him 24th in 2012.

So far, Subban hasn’t justified that pick, but it behooves the Golden Knights to give him more opportunities to sink or swim. Because, frankly, they’ve been leaning on Marc-Andre Fleury far too much, and it sure feels like head coach Gerard Gallant has been playing with fire in that regard.

Subban only appeared in seven games from October through Dec. 31, and only 11 by the month of February. It would seem savvy to rest Fleury and play Subban more late in the season to ready for the playoffs (Subban played 10 games from March 10 to April 1), but that happened in large part because Fleury suffered a lower-body injury.

With 798 regular-season games already on his resume, not to mention plenty of deep playoff runs, Fleury’s a high-mileage 34-year-old, and there’s increasing evidence that teams need to shy away from the Brodeurian workloads of old.

Vegas would be wise to protect its investment with Fleury. Some might look at Fleury’s $7 million cap hit (which runs through 2021-22) and think that they should get every penny’s worth by playing “The Flower” as much as possible, but that’s shortsighted. Instead of letting MAF wilt, they should do their best to conserve his energy for when the big games roll in April and on.

Of course, to get to April, they’ll need to win enough games, and that would require Subban to deliver.

After putting forth a reasonably promising 2017-18 (.910 save percentage, 13-4-2 record) with Vegas, Subban sputtered in 2018-19, going 8-10-2 with a mediocre .902 save percentage. Those aren’t the type of numbers that will convince Gallant to be more future-focused and give Fleury the sort of breaks that might pay off down the line.

Really, though, with the Golden Knights’ war chest of talent, they might want to just buckle up and hope they can win high-scoring games. Even if Subban struggles here and there, it’s conceivable that they can just survive a back-and-forth bout with all of that skill, plus a little help from the Vegas flu?

If the Golden Knights ultimately don’t trust Subban to hold down the fort, or at least spell Fleury during back-to-back sets, then they sorely need to find other options. Perhaps that will mean pouncing instead of passing when Curtis McElhinney-type goalies get placed on waivers during the 2019-20 season, but either way, these are discussions Vegas should be having.

Cramped cap or not, the Golden Knights have done a lot right for a team that’s already highly competitive after just two seasons in the NHL, yet finding the right goalie balance could play a role in Vegas enjoying a big run like they did in 2017-18, rather than finishing another year with the sort of gutting feeling they experienced ending last season.

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.

New Golden Knights GM faces big opportunities, challenges

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The Vegas Golden Knights announced a passing of the torch on Thursday, as Kelly McCrimmon becomes GM, while George McPhee is no longer GM, but sticks around as president of hockey operations.

It’s a move that echoes Steve Yzerman giving way to Julien BriseBois in Tampa Bay: like the Lightning with BriseBois, the Golden Knights didn’t want to lose a respected executive in McCrimmon. There are also parallels in the job McCrimmon is transitioning into. Much like the Lightning, the Golden Knights boast a talent-rich roster, and while Vegas features some Lightning-like bargains, the bottom line is that a cap crunch hovers over all of that luxurious skill.

Let’s take a look at the road ahead for McCrimmon, McPhee, and the Golden Knights.

Flipping assets for that hair flip?

via GIPHY

After an out-of-nowhere 43-goal, 78-point breakthrough in 2017-18, William Karlsson needed a new contract last summer. The two sides settled on something of a one-year “prove it” deal for 2018-19, and while he didn’t sustain the unsustainable 23.4 shooting percentage from 2017-18, Karlsson confirmed that his ascension wasn’t a mere mirage.

Now Karlsson finds himself as an RFA once again at age 26, and paying up for his next contract is the pivot point for the Golden Knights’ off-season.

With Mark Stone‘s (clearly justifiable) $9.6 million cap hit set to kick in starting next season, and the Golden Knights’ well-stocked with other legitimate talents, Vegas is in a congested situation even before you factor in whatever dollar amount Karlsson will command. A glance at Cap Friendly gives the impression that Vegas is less than $700K under the ceiling, and maybe some final details might tweak that, the bigger picture is that this is a challenging situation.

Here are a few players who could get moved out to accommodate this situation. I’m leaving out plenty of names such as Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Nate Schmidt for a simple reason: they’re all on manageable, if not outright bargain contracts, and so I’d think McCrimmon would be making huge errors in moving any of them out.

  • Cody Eakin, 27, $3.85M cap hit expires after 2019-20: No, this isn’t because the major penalty he was whistled for that turned that unforgettable Game 7 on its head.

Instead, it’s simple math. The Golden Knights have a plethora of forwards, and Eakin’s pricey for a depth player, which is how he’d fall in the lineup under basically all circumstances.

  • Erik Haula, 28, $2.75M through 2019-20: His pretty scary injury wrecked his 2018-19 campaign after his 29-goal breakthrough the year before. This would be more about dumping salary than any indictment on Haula, and Vegas would be unlikely to get fair value in such a trade. That might have to do it if teams don’t bite on other trade possibilities, though.
  • Ryan Reaves, 32, $2.775M through 2019-20: Yes, he’s an entertaining quote and menacing presence, but it’s not quite ideal to spend nearly $3M on an enforcer in the modern NHL. Not when every dime counts. Really, the Golden Knights could save big money and force Gerard Gallant to put more talent on the ice.
  • Colin Miller, 26, $3.875M through 2021-22: If I were an opportunistic opposing GM, I’d circle Miller like a (not necessarily San Jose) Shark. He’s a good, useful player on a reasonable deal, but with Miller occasionally landing in Gallant’s doghouse, he could be almost $4M used in a less optimal way. Plenty of teams need RHD, and could get a nice gem if they pounce. And if, frankly, McCrimmon makes a mistake.

There are other possibilities (Brayden McNabb maybe?) but those are generally the most feasible salary dump options in trades, with different players appealing to different mindsets.

Supporting cast calls

Remarkably, Vegas already has a strong core, for the most part. They face some noteworthy decisions around those key players, though.

There are some free agents to consider. Is Deryk Engelland going to retire, and if not, would the veteran take a team-friendly deal to stay with Vegas? Brandon Pirri deserves an NHL gig somewhere, but would he be lost in the shuffle in Vegas’ deep offense? Can the Golden Knights retain surprisingly effective fourth-line Pierre-Edouard Bellemare?

Alongside the aging pieces, you have intriguing talent looking to make a dent. Vegas must determine if Cody Glass is ready for the big time, as he could provide cheap production on a rookie deal. What will they do with Nikita Gusev and Jimmy Schuldt, who spent last season in the KHL and NCAA respectively, and need new deals?

Some of these situations are tricky, yet it’s plausible that Vegas could end up with enviable depth if they make the right moves (and get some good luck).

Beyond the flower

And, personally, I think McCrimmon really needs to take a long look at the team’s future in net.

Considering this cap crunch, it’s probably best to stick with Malcolm Subban on another short deal. He’s an RFA, and as The Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes (sub required), the team seems to think he still has potential.

As a former first-rounder (24th overall in 2012), Subban’s potential may still be bandied about for years. Yet, at 25, there needs to be more real production to go with all of the theoreticals and hypotheticals.

Instead of spelling an aging Marc-Andre Fleury with regularity, thus keeping “The Flower” fresh for the spring and summer when the games matter the most, Gallant has been reluctant to start Subban, whose career save percentage is a middling .903 in 45 regular-season games.

Part of that might be attributed to Gallant’s tendency to lean heavily on his starters, yet it’s also easy to see why Gallant is reluctant to go with other options: those other options haven’t been very appealing. Fleury is 34, and you could argue “an old 34” with 940 games (regular season plus playoffs) under his belt, so this is an area the Golden Knights can’t neglect for much longer.

(Really, it’s one they probably should have been more aggressive to address already; it’s a little surprising they never pushed harder to land someone who ended up claimed on waivers like Curtis McElhinney, among other options.)

***

This is a challenging situation, no doubt. There are potential bumps in the road, especially if the aging curve hits “MAF” hard.

Yet the upside is also huge. If you saw the Golden Knights once they added Mark Stone, you’d likely agree that this team could be a viable contender, rather than a Cinderella story.

It’s up to McCrimmon to add volumes to this tale, rather than allowing cap concerns to slam that book shut.

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.