Despite Improvements, Golden Knights Still Have 2 Things to Fix

A torrid 13-2 start for the Vegas Golden Knights has given way to a bit of a cooling-off period in which they’ve gone 4-4-1 over their past nine games. There’s still plenty of room for positivity at T-Mobile Arena, but this stretch of uneven play is a reminder that they can’t sit back on their way to a deep playoff run.

The Golden Knights’ recent drop in performance also acknowledges that, while this season clearly represents an early upgrade on their 2021-22 showing, there are still areas for improvement. In fact, now that we’re more than a quarter of the way through the season, we have a clearer sense of how this team differs from last season’s disappointment. Health obviously looms large, but there’s more to it.

Here are some of the more significant facets of the game in which the Golden Knights have seen improvement from a year ago, as well as a couple of areas that have produced a bit of decline:

Improved: Defensive Play

Last season, the blue line was particularly besieged by injuries, where Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Zach Whitecloud, and Nicolas Hague all missed a chunk of time. Of those four, only Hague – who has missed one contest – hasn’t played in all of the Golden Knights’ 24 games this season. The result (to this point, anyway): Vegas has improved from 15th in the league in goals-against to eighth.

Bruce Cassidy Vegas Golden Knights
Bruce Cassidy made an immediate impact on the Vegas blue line. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Going back to Robin Lehner’s hip surgery, it goes without saying that Logan Thompson and Adin Hill have shored up the Golden Knights’ crease beyond even the most optimistic scenarios. Not only have they held their own, but they’ve considerably outplayed last season’s duo of Lehner and Laurent Brossoit.

It’s at least partially as a result of this uptick in defensive play that Vegas has become a tough team to come back against. When leading after the first period, they are 8-2. After 40 minutes, the club has gone 11-1 this year protecting a lead.

Declined: Alec Martinez

Okay, so there is an exception to the thriving defensive play. Sidelined by a scary facial laceration that put him on the shelf for over four months, Martinez hasn’t really looked like himself, even with a clean bill of health. The zero goals and four assists in 24 games isn’t of major concern for a defense-first blueliner, but having just 13 hits and seeing slightly decreased ice time is.

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At 35 years of age and with over 700 games under his belt, it’s fair to say age has played a role in Martinez’s struggles. The Michigan native can be shielded somewhat on Vegas’ deep back end, as evidenced by his solid plus-seven plus/minus rating. However, a contract that has the Los Angeles Kings’ 2014 Stanley Cup hero on the books for $5.25 million for this season and next could become problematic in a hurry.

Improved: Goaltending

Going back to Robin Lehner’s hip surgery, it goes without saying that Logan Thompson and Adin Hill have shored up the Golden Knights’ crease beyond even the most optimistic scenarios. Not only have they held their own, but they’ve considerably outplayed last season’s duo of Lehner and Laurent Brossoit.

Logan Thompson Vegas Golden Knights
Logan Thompson, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

To date, the goalies have combined for a .915 save percentage (SV%) and 2.54 goals against average (GAA). Comparatively, Lehner, Brossoit, and Thompson backstopped the organization to a .906 SV% and 2.81 GAA last season. What’s more, the 2022-23 group (including a $1.2 million hit from the buried-in-the-AHL Brossoit) counts for a shade over $4.1 million towards the cap, approximately half of the cap hit from the 2021-22 trio.

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We’ll leave the topic of Lehner and Brossoit’s future for another day. For now, Vegas is riding high on Vezina-caliber netminding from Thompson and some solid backup support from Hill.

Declined: Scoring Depth Up Front

This might be an injury-related misnomer, as some of the Golden Knights’ depth forwards were getting increased ice time and opportunities in light of absences higher up in the lineup. Still, with the departures of Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov this past summer, the club’s hopes of internal improvement haven’t manifested themselves. Sure, Jack Eichel and a healthy Mark Stone have helped maintain the top-six scoring, but complementary production from the bottom-six isn’t as evident.

Unfortunately, that emerging production is exactly what the front office was counting on to fill the Pacioretty/Dadonov void. Hamstrung by a tight cap situation, GM Kelly McCrimmon’s only external answer for the missing 39 goals (48 if you include Mattias Janmark) was adding Phil Kessel. The “Phil the Thrill” experience has been a fun one so far but has only produced four goals and four assists in less than 13 minutes of ice time each night.

To be fair, William Carrier (eight goals, 11 points) has answered the call among the bottom-six. After him and linemate Keegan Kolesar, however, pickings have been slim. Paul Cotter wowed in training camp but hasn’t found a way to impact play over 14 regular-season games. Meanwhile, Jake Leschyshyn struggled over a five-game trial, and Jonas Røndbjerg and Pavel Dorofeyev have yet to work their way back to the big club.

Improved: The Stars

If you’re trying to determine the Golden Knights’ MVP this season, you might look to the crease, where Thompson has been one of the league’s best stories. In front of him, however, are some early contenders for the Hart and Norris Trophies in Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo, respectively.

Alex Pietrangelo Vegas Golden Knights
Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Eichel is back to pre-injury form, with 11 goals and 26 points in 24 games, while sporting a team-leading plus-15. The 26-year-old has already surpassed his 25 points in 34 games from a year ago when he was coming off of neck surgery and starting out with the Golden Knights.

Pietrangelo, meanwhile, was one of the few Vegas players who stayed healthy last season, but clearly looks more impactful with a complete blueline corps around him. The 32-year-old ranks fifth in the league in assists among defensemen (18) and, with 0.91 points per game, sits well ahead of his average points pace in either of his two previous seasons with the Golden Knights.

This Vegas team is vastly improved from the one that failed to make the playoffs last season. Still, it’s worth recalling how that team was 22-12 when the calendar switched to 2022 and appeared to be postseason-bound. Appreciate what the first 24 games have brought, sure, but this group still has plenty of work to do.

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