Golden Knights Need Better Defense

With the NHL Entry Draft starting Friday, all eyes will be on Dallas to see where the future stars of the game land.

For the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that won’t be picking for the first time until the 61st position in the second round, they are in an unfamiliar spot for an expansion team. While expansion teams in their inaugural season are in the basement of the league, meaning a higher first-round pick, the Golden Knights’ historic Stanley Cup run put them lower in the draft.

George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee announces the number six overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

When the Knights lost in five games to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final, it was clear that their inexperience on defense was exploited. From the Capitals going 5-for-13 on the power play to turning the puck over in their own zone, which led to odd-man rushes, the Knights will be looking to add some depth on the blue line.

In a draft class that has a plethora of high-potential defensemen, George McPhee and the Knights’ management personnel will have the opportunity to bring aboard top young talent on the blue line.

Invest in Solid Defensive Puck Movers

Drafting defensemen who can move the puck with ease will be a top priority for the Knights.

Swedish blueliner Rasmus Sandin is one of those defensemen and more. After playing in the Swedish League, Sandin moved to the OHL, where he was a valuable asset to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. In 51 games, he tallied 12 goals and 33 assists.

Sandin’s greatest strength is his puck-moving ability on the breakout into the attacking zone. His coverage is superb because of his physicality, and despite his 5-foot-11 size, he can plug the lane for opposing forwards in the neutral zone.

Rasmus Sandin, OHL, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Rasmus Sandin playing for the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

His nimbleness to retrieve the puck in his own zone can be matched by his tremendous speed to defend and be in position. Greyhounds coach Drew Bannister stated, “He defends, but he also creates offense. It’s the way he moves the puck and his competitive nature. He logs a lot of minutes, he has leadership qualities and he’s extremely mature. He’s a 17-year-old playing like a 19-year-old.”

Sandin is likely to be off the board long before the 61st pick, so if the Knights want him, they should explore trading up if possible.

Adding to the lengthy list of talented Swedish defensemen in this draft, the Golden Knights should consider taking Filip Johansson, who many are considering to be a sleeper with lots of upside potential. At 6-foot-1 ,187 pounds, Johansson played in the Swedish league and helped Sweden win bronze at the IIHF World Hockey U-18 Championships and gold at the 2017 World Hockey Challenge.

Like Sandin, Johansson’s poise and control with the puck are superb. He has nimble speed out of his zone and defensively, he possesses stellar positioning to block passing and shooting lanes. Along the boards and in front of the net, Johansson uses his size and physicality to wear down his opponents and create screens in front of the goaltender.

Golden Knights Need Shutdown Defenders

Vegas struggled in the Stanley Cup Final with defensive turnovers and controlling the puck in their own zone. Like many teams, acquiring a young shut down defenseman with size is incredibly important to clear their own zone.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Golden Knights draft tall defenseman Kevin Bahl if he is available. Bahl is the draft class’s tallest blueliner, with a size of 6-foot-6, 231 pounds. He was a critical piece for the Ottawa 67’s, racking up 12 goals and 13 assists, leading the team to the OHL Playoffs.

The foundation of Kevin’s game is his strong, shutdown defense. For a big player, he can skate very well and uses his long reaching stick effectively in one-on-one situations. As a result of the long reach, Bahl is superb in his positioning to plug the scoring and passing lanes.

Kevin Bahl, OHL, Ottawa 67's
Kevin Bahl played for the Ottawa 67’s, leading them to the playoffs. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images.)

But the young defenseman’s greatest strength is his discipline. Young players often struggle with taking unnecessary penalties in big game situations. Bahl’s discipline allows him to strike a balance between solid positioning and being physical along the boards, allowing him to clear the puck out of his own zone with ease.

As the draft approaches, Kevin sees where he can improve to become a well-rounded player. “One area of my game I want to work on is creating offense from defense,” says Bahl. Just making quick, smart plays, getting the puck up quick or getting the puck up from your wing and the point and getting a shot through and making sure it’s hitting the net and not getting blocked.”

The Future is Bright for Vegas

The Golden Knights are way ahead of schedule. While their appearance in the Stanley Cup Final was historical, many pundits are wondering if this run was a fluke.

In order to build on previous success, a foundation needs to implemented by drafting franchise players that will generate sustainable, long-term success.

George McPhee
George McPhee (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Many of the current Golden Knights players will mature and get better. But to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, their defense must be more disciplined and physical.

George McPhee has the opportunity of a lifetime. While tough decisions will inevitably have to be made, the Knights have the management personnel to select young defensemen in this draft that will take this team to the jackpot.