The annual NHL All-Star weekend is quickly approaching. This is an opportunity for fans to watch some of the best players in the world compete head to head. Players take part in a series of challenging skills competitions followed by a mini three-on-three tournament. The NHL has changed the format of the All-Star game multiple times over the years to try to increase fan and player interest. The three-on-three format does seem to be a popular choice for the fans as it provides some action-packed fast hockey.
Aside from the fun and games of All-Star weekend, this is also a time for teams to evaluate where they stand. The next important milestone on the schedule is trade deadline day in February. The Vegas Golden Knights will be looking at their team like they are holding a 16 at the blackjack table with the dealer sitting at 10. They need to decide whether to hit and go all in, sign some players and make a run.
This, of course, runs the chance of ‘busting’ and changing up chemistry. They may think it is best to ‘hold’ on what they have and hope it is good enough to carry them through the long run or ‘fold’ and build for the next season.
Where Does Vegas Stand?
Currently, the Golden Knights sit in the first wild card position in the Western Conference. This comes as a good news-bad news scenario. On the positive side, they are in the playoffs. One game can easily push them into first place in the Pacific. The other side of this is they play in the extremely tough Pacific Division and Western Conference. Just as easily as one win jumping them up two or three positions, a loss combined with other team wins can push them to the outside of a playoff spot looking in. Currently, the team has been playing .500 hockey and is on a three-game losing skid.
The Golden Knights need to capitalize on their final games going into the break. They play three struggling teams that are out of the playoff picture in the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. The third and final game before the break is against a very strong Boston Bruins team. Winning out these final three would do wonders for their confidence and keep them in the very tight mix in the Western Conference playoff picture. They will then have over a week off to rest up and prepare for a difficult final stretch.
Slow Start to the Season
Evaluating the Golden Knights in the preseason, there were more high hopes that this team would perform well going into the 2019-20 campaign given their previous two seasons. The hopes people had diminished quickly after the start they came out to through November. The team flirted with barely .500 hockey in the first third of the season, numbers that did not have them sitting pretty in the Pacific. The optimism in some people would point to last year. They were in a very similar spot coming out of the gates stumbling. Last season, they did manage to turn things around and clinch a playoff spot before being ousted in the first round by the San Jose Sharks.
A similar tide seemed to turn this season. Through the end of November and into December the Golden Knights were one of the hottest teams in the league. What sparked this change for them? There always seems to be a turning-point move that can point a team back in the right direction. Whether it be a trade, a change behind the bench or a hot goalie. For the them, it seems to have been a change in systems.
Restructuring the Defensive Zone
The Golden Knights have been playing a man-on-man system in the defensive zone. Playing man on man is a very aggressive system. Although this can have payoffs, this system provides opportunities more times than not to have players out of position and scrambling if they get out-battled. Most teams play more of a structured zone-defensive system. Playing a version of a zone defense gives teams a better chance to be in a position to protect the middle, where the majority of dangerous chances come from.
Being a good coach is recognizing what you have. Gerard Gallant knew that he had a team that was not as quick as they were in the first two seasons. This is what sparked him to make adjustments from a system that he has had success with in the past. (from ‘Change by ‘stubborn’ Gallant turns around Golden Knights season, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 12/26/2019) Since Gallant’s changes, the team played better than .500 hockey, an improvement of what they were playing previous. This has helped propel them back into contention for a playoff spot for their third season in a row.
What They Need
During the All-Star break, the Golden Knights will be evaluating their season to date. Part of this evaluation process will be preparing for the upcoming trade deadline. The wish list for the team probably looks similar to most teams. They would like to get some secondary scoring, they need to strengthen up their blue line, and a backup goalie with more consistency would help down the stretch when they need to rest Marc-Andre Fleury. This is a long list, and with their cap situation, probably out of reach. They will have to get creative when it comes to deadline day if they want to make any changes. If they had to settle on one area, the defense probably needs to be something they try to improve.
The Golden Knights have what it takes to make the playoffs despite the tough division. They have proved it this year winning pivotal games against top teams. A change in systems helped kickstart a new look for the team and it has been paying off. The team will need to once again turn around some mediocre play they have encountered as of late before hitting the toughest stretch of their schedule. Now is the time to take advantage of going head to head against some other struggling teams.