Malcolm Subban

Golden Knights surprises disappointments Gallant Fleury
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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: Flames land top NCAA free agent; Rielly wins in transition

Flames land NCAA free agent Connor Mackey, Colton Poolman, Morning Skate
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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.

• The Flames recently signed two NCAA players to bolster their defense: Connor Mackey and Colton Poolman. Frank Seravalli goes into detail on the Flames’ “two-year pursuit” of Mackey. Seravalli deemed Mackey the No. 1 NCAA free agent available this spring, making Mackey quite the get for the Flames. (TSN)

• Oilers GM Ken Holland spoke with Mark Spector about resolving the situation with Jesse Puljujarvi, which will be a challenge whenever there’s an actual chance to address it. In that same piece, Ken Hitchcock praised Puljujarvi as at least a useful third-line type player, while admitting he isn’t sure Puljujarvi will end up being more than that. (Sportsnet)

• Lou Lamoriello answered fan questions on the Islanders website, which meant a lot of Lou-like non-answers, sometimes comically so. (Yes, he even briefly discussed his fascination with lower jersey numbers.) Later on Sunday, we’ll ponder Lamoriello saying the Islanders would match a Mathew Barzal offer sheet. There’s other noteworthy information, though. The Islanders expect Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas back if play resumes this season/playoffs, while Adam Pelech should be ready for training camp before 2020-21. (Islanders)

• Could the Penguins actually keep their first-round pick from the Jason Zucker trade if the season isn’t completed? Pensburgh goes over that, and in doing so, lays out some of the tricky questions the NHL would face if COVID-19 forces more than just a pause for 2019-20. (Pensburgh)

• Helene St. James hands out best and worst awards for the Red Wings. In doing so, St. James posits that Justin Abdelkader will be waived and sent to the AHL in 2020-21. (Detroit Free-Press)

• Steve Simmons went looking for a phone number in an old phonebook, and found himself pausing to remember several names from the past. (Steve Simmons)

• How Malcolm Subban and Brendan Perlini could make strange history for the Blackhawks. Could Subban end up having the shortest “career” with the Blackhawks ever? (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Andrew Berkshire takes a look at defensemen who excel at that transition game, with Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly leading the pack. (Sportsnet)

• Fun 2020 NHL Draft angle from McKeen’s Hockey: the most polarizing prospect from each region, starting with Antonio Stranges in the OHL. (McKeen’s Hockey)

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.

Blackhawks trade Robin Lehner to Golden Knights

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The Vegas Golden Knights have had a need for goaltending depth all season, and they addressed in a massive way on Monday.

The Golden Knights acquired goalie Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for Malcolm Subban, defense prospect Slava Demin and a second-round pick.

The Toronto Maple Leafs also became involved in this trade to make it a three-team trade and will retain a portion of Lehner’s salary.

From the Maple Leafs:

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced today that the club has acquired Vegas’ fifth-round selection in the 2020 NHL Draft in exchange for forward Martins Dzierkals to complete a trade between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vegas Golden Knights. The Maple Leafs have retained a portion of goaltender Robin Lehner’s salary as part of the transaction.

CapFriendly lays out of the important details.

This is a significant move and could play a huge role in the Pacific Division race, as well as the entire Western Conference playoffs. Goaltending has been one of the single biggest issues for the Golden Knights all season due to Marc-Andre Fleury having a down year and the team having no reliable backup behind him. The latter part for the past two years has resulted in Fleury taking on a huge workload, which is not ideal for a mid-30s goalie.

That will no longer be an issue.

Lehner is not only a massive upgrade over Subban and the Golden Knights’ other backup options, he also serves as a great safety net in case Fleury slumps or is injured.

He has been one of the league’s best goalies the past two years and is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The latter point is why it makes sense for the Blackhawks to make this move. The team is going nowhere this season and there was no guarantee they would be able to re-sign him. Holding on to him for what would almost certainly be a doomed Hail Mary attempt at a playoff spot this season would have been managerial malpractice on the part of the Blackhawks.

They had to get something here.

Chicago also traded defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames on Monday for a third-round draft pick.

 

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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’ 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.