Twenty-eight games to go, five teams separated by three points, and games in hand, the Vegas Golden Knights’ road to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is going to be an adventure. Oh, and did I mention they fired their much-beloved head coach and replaced him with the coach from their arch rival, the San Jose Sharks?
It’s Been a Tumultuous Two Weeks
It’s been two weeks since the Golden Knights shocked the NHL world by firing, pardon me, relieved of his duties, head coach Gerard Gallant and replaced him the former head coach of the Sharks, Peter DeBoer. The move was widely rebuked by most hockey writers. And here in Las Vegas after the shock of the news subsided, there was absolute outrage amongst the loyal Golden Knights fanbase. Outrage not only for firing the head coach that took them to the Stanley Cup Final in the magical season, but just as much for the hiring of DeBoer.
DeBoer joined the Golden Knights in the midst of an eight-game road trip separated by a 10-day All-Star Game/bye-week layoff. Wisely, DeBoer stated in his first meeting with the media that he would use the pre-break games to assess the team and begin to form and implement changes. (From ‘Peter DeBoer expresses gratitude for chance with Golden Knights,’ Las Vegas Review Journal, 01/16/2020)
Fortunately (or unfortunately), DeBoer got to see some of the best of the Golden Knights along with some of the significant issues facing the team this season. A season in which they have significantly underperformed and were woefully inconsistent at times.
In his first game behind the bench, the Golden Knights scored on their first shot, 34 seconds into the game, on their way to a dominating win over the hapless Ottawa Senators. In the second game, they missed their wake-up call and fell behind 3-0, and despite a valiant comeback, fell 5-4 in a shootout to the Montreal Canadiens. And in the final game before the All-Star Game/bye week, the Golden Knights blew a third period lead, losing 3-2 to the Boston Bruins.
What Happened During the Break?
Before we speculate on what happened during the break, there is one systemic change that DeBoer has already taught and implemented for the Golden Knights. Under Gallant, they played a high-pressure forecheck system in the offense zone. While that system provided great rewards (they are tied for the league-lead in shorthanded goals), when the forecheck failed, the opposition was far too often allowed easy access to the defensive zone. That access allowed for their opponents to set up and execute their power play.
Under DeBoer’s system, the Golden Knights will implement a nearly opposite system. They will not aggressively forecheck. Instead, forward one will shadow the breakout while the remaining three players on the penalty kill, in essence, line-up across their blue line preventing easy access and setup in the offensive zone. Once in the zone, they will look to apply constant pressure on the puck. The goal being to disrupt and force bad decisions and turnovers.
With as poor a season as the Sharks are having, they still have the number two penalty kill in the NHL while the Golden Knights are hovering in the middle of the pack at 18th. Fixing the special teams is such a high priority that DeBoer hired Steve Spott who was the architect of the Sharks’ power play until he and DeBoer were fired on Dec. 11.
As far as other changes being implemented by the coaching staff, that information is very hard to come by. Observing from 3,000 miles away on my couch, three things jump out at me.
Shift time is definitely shorter. The benefits of this are obvious – the shorter the shift, the less gassed the players are and the less likely they are to get trapped in the defensive zone.
More Penalty Killers
Coach DeBoer clearly plans on including significantly more players on the penalty kill than Gallant did, which is another easy-to-see benefit as special teams are the great disruptor to game flow and rolling lines. By spreading the penalty kill minutes amongst more players, there is less burnout on the primary units, saving the players for higher-quality minutes at five-on-five. The prime example is DeBoer using Alex Tuch on the penalty kill in an effort to get him more involved in the game and hopefully break out of the season-long slump he is in.
DeBoer, the Line Blender
You can throw everything you know about line combinations out the window. Coach DeBoer is going to do what he thinks is best for the team regardless if it has never been tried. With the injuries to William Karlsson and Cody Glass, DeBoer has yet to see what the optimal lineup is going to look like. In the interim, he is tweaking and tuning and searching for chemistry. In the first game back from the break, Chandler Stephenson got first-line minutes with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. In last night’s game against the Nashville Predators, it was Paul Stastny’s turn on the top line as Stephenson returned to center with Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty.
With both Karlsson and Glass now being described as game-to-game, it is going to be very interesting to see what the lines look like and who is taking up a chair in the press box.
So Far So Good
Two games post-All-Star break and two solid road wins by the Golden Knights. They might have played their best period of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes, but they did blow two two-goal leads only to pull out the win on a power play goal by Tuch late in the third. Last night, in Nashville, they dominated the entire 60 minutes. It was one of their best performances of the season and certainly the best game they have played with DeBoer behind the bench. Though the power play went 0-for-4, they created numerous high-quality scoring chances and piled up the shots. The penalty kill was 5-for-5 and you can definitely see that they are taking to that new system.
Still Little Margin for Error
With the standings in the Pacific Division changing on a nightly basis, the Golden Knights have precious little room for a bad game. They exhausted all those “free points” with losses to teams like the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers. If they are going to extend their playoff streak to three seasons, seven of the next nine games are going to tell the story. First up, two more tough road games in Florida, then an absolutely crucial five-game homestand against five playoff teams through the middle of February. Sandwiched in between are a couple of those “should win” games where avoiding a letdown will be of the utmost importance.
With 28 games to go in the regular season, it is a five-horse race in the Pacific Division and only one of the five horses has a new jockey. These next couple of months are going to be huge for the Golden Knights organization and fanbase. If they make a deep playoff run, as has been expected all season, the anxiety over hiring DeBoer will quietly drift away. If they do not, there is going to be a huge backlash amongst the fanbase, and the Mc’s (George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon) are going to be in a difficult position.
So far so good, but Golden Knights fans should buckle up, because I think it might be a bumpy ride!