Golden Knights Should Be Thinking ‘Defense First’

Head coach Peter DeBoer is known to study video. Breaking down plays and systems is one of his signature strengths as a coach.

He used a large portion of the All-Star break — the Vegas Golden Knights had 10 days between games — to pore over video and consider adjustments to how his new team will play. His immediate goal coming out of the break was to get the Golden Knights to play at a faster tempo.

Peter DeBoer

“For me, playing aggressive and dictating games and wearing teams down with our depth, we have the ability to roll four lines and be really hard to play against,” DeBoer told the Las-Vegas Review Journal. “I think we want to get back to that.”

From ‘Peter DeBoer’s priority as coach is to speed up Golden Knights,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jan. 29, 2020

A faster tempo should indeed be a goal. But DeBoer’s bigger concern should be the Golden Knights’ defensive play. For a team with serious Stanley Cup aspirations it gives up way too many “easy goals.” These can be defined as obvious transgressions against everything a stay-at-home defenseman stands for, violations of hockey gospel burned into an old goaltender’s brain.

Peter DeBoer
Coach Peter DeBoer wants his new team to play at a faster tempo. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

The Golden Knights are scoring at a pretty good pace. In their first 54 games they have 168 goals (tied for 11th in the league), an average of 3.1 goals. But they’re only at plus-six in goal differential (tied for 15th); the NHL’s best team in the category is the Tampa Bay Lightning (plus-43), followed by the Boston Bruins (plus-40). Those are significant gaps when compared with the Golden Knights.

Defend Better

Playing faster can help the Golden Knights improve overall. The keys to increasing tempo are crisper passing, better awareness and deeper commitment to puck management. And somewhere in there should be a basic message from DeBoer. Something like, “Hey, boys, let’s defend better.”

If the Golden Knights want to break away from the pack in the Pacific Division, improved defensive play is critical. They’ve made a stride in that direction, showing some better play in their penalty kill, again one of DeBoer’s priorities during the All-Star break. (from ‘Golden Knights’ penalty kill turning into strength,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal, 02/02/2020) In five games under DeBoer, the Golden Knights have killed 15 of 17 penalties. Before DeBoer was hired on Jan. 15, the Golden Knights went through a stretch where they allowed eight goals in 14 shorthanded situations.

For anyone thinking the message of “defend better” is too simplistic, let’s go to video for support. The Golden Knights’ game before the All-Star break is a perfect example of how allowing an easy goal spoiled a solid road effort. The Golden Knights lost to the Bruins 3-2, giving up two goals in the final period, including David Krejci’s game-winner with 7:42 left.

Krejci’s Goal Preventable

In a 2-2 game on the road how do the Golden Knights allow Krejci to lurk alone in front of their goal? Unacceptable for a team whose objective is winning the Stanley Cup. What went wrong?

Boston Bruins David Krejci
Left all alone in front, Boston Bruins forward David Krejci broke a 2-2 tie to beat the Golden Knights on Jan. 21 (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

First, center Chandler Stephenson and defenseman Nick Holden are in decent position for the Golden Knights, staked in the slot.

The play starts with Bruins center Danton Heinen jumping on a loose puck on the back boards and then skating up the wall toward defenseman Brandon Carlo at the right point. Heinen is being shadowed by Golden Knights wing Max Pacioretty, and at this point the Golden Knights are positioned well defensively.

Only when Heinen dishes off to Carlo at the point does the coverage break down. Once Carlo takes the pass, either Stephenson or Holden in the slot has to jump on Krejci. Because it’s pretty obvious Carlo’s first option is to toss the puck toward Fleury in the Golden Knights’ goal.

But neither Stephenson nor Holden makes a move toward Krejci. Holden probably should be sliding a bit to his right, toward an open Bruin in the faceoff circle who is waiting to tee up a one-timer. But that Bruin is a minor threat.

Stephenson, on the other hand, should be all over Krejci, even before Carlo releases his wrist shot at the net.

But he doesn’t react until after a partially screened Fleury makes the save, the rebound landing at Krejci’s skates. Stephenson is left lunging late at his defensive responsibility. In a moment’s time, Krejci has jammed the puck past Fleury and a diving-in-the-crease Holden. And a solid road effort by the Golden Knights is wasted.

“There was some good tonight, but we weren’t good enough overall to come in to a place like this and win,” DeBoer said afterward. “Boston’s a team where you have to do everything right.” (USA Today)

Far too many times this season the Golden Knights have allowed opponents such chances. Time to tighten up.