We’re 10 games into Peter DeBoer’s tenure as head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights and already there is a lot learned on what this team is going to be like going down the stretch. The 10 games are broken down into three groups – observation, implementation, and execution.
There is a lot to unpack in the 10-game block..
The Observation Period
With the sudden and out-of-the-blue firing of Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15, DeBoer was thrust into a tumultuous situation as the new coach in the middle of both a long road trip and long losing streak. He literally went from the beach to the bench in less than 24 hours as he was vacationing with his family in Florida when he got the call. Wisely, in his first meeting with the media, DeBoer said he would take the remaining three games of the road trip to observe the Golden Knights and plot his strategy for the direction of the team.
The observation period was very eventful for DeBoer and the Golden Knights. Aside from the 1-1-1 record, DeBoer got to see some of the very best of the Golden Knights in a dominant win over the Ottawa Senators. He also got to see a lot of what has plagued Vegas this season. In game two, the VGK missed their alarm and the Canadiens jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Once they did wake up, they mounted a furious comeback only to fall 5-4 in a shootout. And in the third and final game of the observation period, the Golden Knights blew a third period lead in losing to the Boston Bruins.
The real benefit to the timing of the DeBoer hiring was that he and the Golden Knights would have nine days off for the All-Star break and mandatory bye week. DeBoer stated that he would be using that time to get together with his coaches, Steve Spott, Ryan McGill, and Ryan Craig, and set up the plan of changes for the Golden Knights.
There was one change that began to be implemented almost immediately. That being to the construct and philosophy on the penalty kill. More detail on that change below.
As for what other changes might be in store, we could only speculate. Best guesses were changing the forward lines and defense pairings, followed by the power play and changes to limit high danger chances.
Coming off of the bye week, the Golden Knights continued their season-long eight-game road trip with stops in Carolina, Nashville, Tampa Bay and Florida. These four games would be the first chances to see what changes DeBoer was going to make to the Golden Knights.
With the playoff race in the Pacific Division the closest in the NHL (five teams within three points), it was tantamount that not only did the Golden Knights successfully execute the new system, but continue to earn points. As expected, there were some hiccups with the new systems as the players only had a couple of on-ice practices to implement them.
Six points out of eight was an outstanding beginning to Golden Knights 2.0 with DeBoer behind the bench. As good as those points are, the real takeaway from the road trip is that the best game of the four the Golden Knights played was against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it was the only loss on the trip. The Golden Knights soundly outplayed the hottest team in the NHL for most of the sixty minutes and in all three zones.
After 10 games as head coach of the Golden Knights, we now know some very important information as to what DeBoer’s expectations of the team are, and what type of team they will be with him as head coach.
What We’ve learned:
The Way Things Were Isn’t Relevant
With the caveat of injuries to Cody Glass and William Karlsson, in the first game back after the bye, we found out DeBoer is going to do things his way. The Golden Knights top two lines have been basically untouchable. Not anymore – DeBoer switched around the centers, moving Chandler Stephenson to center the top line in place of Karlsson. Paul Stastny moved back to 2C between Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. When Karlsson returned last week against the Hurricanes, instead of rejoining his linemates on the top line, Karlsson slotted in at 3C between Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin.
This was just the beginning of the DeBoer line blender as over the next few games he continued to tinker with the lines trying to find chemistry up and down the lineup. There is no sign of that changing anytime soon as Tuch is now week-to-week after taking an awkward fall Thursday against St. Louis. The Golden Knights activated both Glass and Nic Roy from Chicago for last night’s tilt vs. the New York Islanders, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
A Radically Different Penalty Kill Strategy
In the 10 games prior to the Gallant firing, the Golden Knights’ penalty kill slipped from the top 10 in the league to the middle of the pack. Clearly, DeBoer was not happy with the PK because it went through a complete overhaul from positioning and strategy, to the number of players used.
The philosophy changed from aggressive pursuit end-to-end to one forward shadowing the breakout while the other three penalty killers lined up across the blue line to prevent easy zone entry. Once in the zone, the traditional box formation is gone and out the window, replaced with a hyper-aggressive pursuit of the puck. The thought being that putting extensive pressure on the puck will force players into quick bad decisions that will lead to turnovers and clears.
So far, there has been some solid success with the new system. However, there have also been a few missed assignments and switches that have led to easy power-play goals against. With practice and repetition, the new PK system should prove very effective in the future.
Just as big a change on the Golden Knights’ PK is the number of players killing penalties. While Gallant was the coach, the Golden Knights had basically two units of penalty killers up front and on defense. With DeBoer, there are at least eight forwards rotating in and out of the penalty kill and almost all of the defense are getting PK time. With special teams being a huge disruptor on game flow and line rolling, using more players on the PK is saving the Golden Knights best players for more efficient 5-on-5 shifts. Those few minutes stretched out over a game and over the season will prove to be very beneficial to the Golden Knights.
DeBoer’s Non-Negotiable List
From the very beginning, DeBoer said that there was a list of non-negotiables. He kept it a mystery in the beginning and has slowly let us in on what the list is comprised of.
Shorter shifts were first on the list. He felt that the Golden Knights shifts were too long and that led to them being “gassed” at the end. Those long shifts lead to extended play in their defensive zone. Statistics are proving that since that change, shift time has been reduced for both the forwards and the defense. Even just a few seconds per shift when stretched out over an entire game is making a noticeable difference.
Next up is shot-blocking. DeBoer’s teams in San Jose continually ranked in the top five in NHL in shots blocked. The Golden Knights were in the bottom five in the league in shots blocked. That has significantly changed over the last 10 games. So much so that over that span, the Golden Knights are in the top ten, and, for the year, have moved out of the basement and into the middle of the pack.
DeBoer made it clear that shot-blocking is everyone’s responsibility – no exceptions. When you see the likes of Stone and Pacioretty sliding in front of shots, you know the message was received, and that the Golden Knights would be following the lead.
More Aggressive Defense & 5-Man Units
This concept is where things are going to get messy and complicated.
In a paragraph earlier, line juggling was discussed but not on defense. The most relevant changes to the defense have to do with personnel. Immediately back from the break, fan-favorite Deryk Engelland was relegated to a seat in the press box and Nick Hague was sent to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL in favor of Zach Whitecloud. There is only one possible explanation for these moves – DeBoer is prioritizing puck movement and aggression with the defense – by removing the two slowest skaters from the lineup the Golden Knights are as mobile as they are going to be.
Thankfully Whitecloud has looked like a veteran instead of a 23-year-old with exactly one NHL game under his belt prior to last week. He is fitting in seamlessly with the Golden Knights new breakout and defense strategies, even logging some minutes against opposition top lines without looking at all out of place.
With all that being said, and the trade deadline coming up on Feb. 24, the Golden Knights need to make a move for a puck-moving defenseman if they are going to maximize their chance at a long playoff run. The market is thin, the prices are sure to be high, and the Golden Knights have basically pocket lint for cap space.
So, if DeBoer is going to get what he wants and needs for the blue line, the Mc’s (George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon) are going to have to pull off a David Copperfield-sized magic trick. They succeeded in pulling off a blockbuster at the deadline in the first two seasons – soon, we are going to find out if they have another big trick in their bag.
After 10 games with DeBoer, the Golden Knights have earned 12 out of a possible 20 points. If you asked him, I think he would say that was “just ok” but we have to do better. Considering 8 of the 10 games were on the road, very limited on-ice practice time and a lot of changes to the systems, there is a lot of positive to take away from the beginning of DeBoer’s time as head coach of the Golden Knights.
The work is far from over, and the playoff race far from decided. The Golden Knights are going to have to continue to progress on learning the new systems, avoid letdown performances and giving away easier points if they are going to make a serious run at, and in, the playoffs this season.
With 23 games left in the regular season, the Golden Knights have plenty of time to steady the ship. All signs are pointing that they will.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be must-see TV for Golden Knights fans!