If you’re feeling sluggish, the right remedy is to take steps one by one to identify what the cause is, then make adjustments. Not enough sleep? More vitamins? Fewer carbs? A little more exercise? Please, not more exercise, anything but that…
The Vegas Golden Knights are not off to a good start in any area and the trick is the same – identify the biggest problem and correct it. And the major problem is obvious – DEFENSE. On the way to last year’s surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas played solid team defense – eighth in goals allowed, No. 10 in penalty killing. It was all the more impressive as an expansion team.
However, the poor start to this season can be traced to defensive breakdowns. In a rematch of the championship this week, Vegas went to Washington and got trounced, 5-2. It was the second time they’ve allowed five goals this season, saddling them with a bottom ten defense in goals allowed and killing penalties.
So what gives? For starters, they’re not whole, missing a key blue-line piece — a big piece.
That major concern will be rectified but not right away in defenseman Nate Schmidt. He is suspended for the first 20 games of the season for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He is eligible to return Nov. 18 at Edmonton. Unfortunately, for the Golden Knights, he’s their best defenseman.
That’s a key loss, so until then the Big Three on ‘D’ are Shea Theodore, Colin Miller and Brayden McNabb. The 23-year old Theodore is a strong force, off a season with 30 assists counting the playoffs. He also chipped in three postseason goals.
Ample Defensive Depth
Miller is also young (25) and is the most offensive-oriented defenseman on this team. Last season he had 10 goals, 31 assists and 41 points. He was one of only two Golden Knights to play in all 82 games (William Karlsson was the other). His value was evidenced in the offseason as the team avoided arbitration by inking him to a four-year deal worth $15.5 million.
The 6-foot-5 McNabb is another above-average defensemen. In 2016-17 he finished third in ice-time at even strength and second on the penalty kill for the team. He was on the ice for only 74 goals against all season across all situations.
The Vegas defense has a solid young trio that will only get better when Schmidt returns late next month. Like the whole team, 14-year veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is far off his pace from a year ago, but it’s not like he’s forgotten how to play well or his game is diminishing because of age. Fleury is 33 and in 2017-18 he was tied for second in the league in goals allowed (2.24) and his .927 save percentage was tied for sixth. He boasts three Stanley Cup rings. The current defensive struggles are team-wide but fixable.
“It’s a long year and we have to figure out things quick,” Shea Theodore said after losing to Washington, 5-2. “We definitely have to work some things out and find our game.”
With Schmidt out, Vegas has been using veteran defensemen Deryk Engelland a lot – he’s played the fourth-most minutes on the team. However, his plus/minus ratio is negative on the young season, and, at age 36, perhaps he’s being asked to do too much. He did play a similar number of minutes per game a year ago but had a positive plus-minus ratio (plus-six).
One option might be prospect Erik Brannstrom. The 19-year-old Swedish defenseman has been assigned to the minors but had four points in the first five Golden Knights’ preseason games. He was the No. 15 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, a fine defensive player and a puck moving defenseman with strong skating skills.
Holden and Merrill: Steady Contributors
A pair of defensemen the Golden Knights don’t have to be concerned with are Nick Holden and Jon Merrill. Neither are flashy, but both are steady contributors in their prime. The 26-year old Merrill played in 34 games for Vegas last season and had an assist in the opener against Philadelphia, a 5-2 defeat. Coaches don’t have to worry about him as he doesn’t take risks trying to gamble on offense.
The 31-year-old Holden played defense for the Rangers and Bruins last season and is contributing 17 minutes per game with the Golden Knights. In the last four years, he’s played 72 or more games every campaign. He had an assist in the Cup rematch with Washington this week, where he played the most minutes yet (18:33).
Vegas will lean on their experienced defensive corps to tighten up play until Schmidt returns. It doesn’t appear to be a team that is more focused on last season’s overachievement.
“One thing that we have to do is stop talking about last year,” Vegas center Jonathan Marchessault said. “It’s a new year now. Last year is over. It’s a new team.”
There’s no need to panic. Improvement is likely, as this defense shouldn’t be as poor as the early-season numbers indicate. They lost to the Penguins this week, 4-2, but allowed only 22 shots, a step in the right direction. The next step is to turn few shots into fewer goals.