A couple of weeks ago, I graded the Vegas Golden Knights’ forward group from last season. Having an offensive scoring machine is one ingredient for success – however, an effective defensive corps is another critical ingredient. Having a stout defense is necessary to sustain a high level of success over the course of the season, as well as in the postseason. In tight games, it can also spell the difference between victory and defeat. With that in mind, let’s see how the Golden Knights defense fared last season.
Golden Knights’ Shield (Defense)
The Golden Knights did a decent job holding the line last season, ranking 10th-best in goals against (228). Given Vegas’ prolific talent on offense, they could afford a few more goals against and still walk away with a victory. However, the Golden Knights walked a fine line in that regard.
In the 2018-19 season, the teams that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs were the only teams with positive goal differentials (with the exception of the Montreal Canadiens). The Canadiens barely missed out on a playoff spot due to a packed Atlantic Division – Tampa Bay Lightning (Presidents’ Trophy winner), Boston Bruins (Stanley Cup runner-up), etc. – and an overall competitive Eastern Conference. Anyway, the Golden Knights had the third-lowest goal differential of all playoff teams (plus-19). Here are the factors that helped, and hindered, the Vegas defense.
The Golden Knights’ defensive unit was all around solid during the 2018-19 season. Led by Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore, Vegas’ defense provided a steady and consistent presence on the blue line. Theodore ranked ninth in the league among defensemen with 202 shots on goal, while also pacing Golden Knights defensemen with 37 points. Schmidt followed right behind Theodore with 30 points.
Not to be outdone, Brayden McNabb and Deryk Engelland distinguished themselves in the corners, ranking ninth and 21st in hits among league defensemen. In addition to Schmidt, Theodore, McNabb, and Engelland, Jon Merrill, Nick Holden, Colin Miller all also averaged over 15 minutes of time on ice over the course of the season. Even rookie Jimmy Schuldt, in his first ever NHL appearance, saw almost 20 minutes of ice time.
Having confidence throughout the depth of a defense is vital to team success over the course of the season. Relying too heavily on the top two pairings can leave teams vulnerable. Another factor working in Vegas’ favor was forward Mark Stone’s Selke finalist-worthy season. While the award ended up going to the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly, Stone’s two-way efforts paid off for the Golden Knights during the regular season as well as in the playoffs.
The Not So Good
It’s hard to label an aspect of the Golden Knights’ defense as strictly “bad.” One fact that may come as a surprise due to Vegas’ high-scoring offense is that only one defenseman from Golden Knights ranked in the top 50 point-getters among defensemen during the 2018-19 season – Theodore. While not overly crucial, several teams, including the Stanley Cup champion Blues, featured multiple defensemen in the top-50 point scorers.
The biggest stain on the 2018-19 Golden Knights defensive unit would be Game 7 of the first round against the San Jose Sharks. After a controversial call that led to a five-minute power play for the Sharks, Vegas allowed four straight goals in that span. The Golden Knights would end up falling in overtime, dashing Stanley Cup aspirations yet again.
The Golden Knights defense earned a well-deserved A-minus for the 2018-19 season. They were consistent all season long, an excellent complement to an explosive offense. Ultimately, one game and one controversial situation are what marred an otherwise great season for the Golden Knights defense.
Check back as we round out the 2018-19 reports with Vegas’ goaltenders next.
Former Army officer and Army ACHA D2 hockey player.
Husband and father of 3.