How did we get here? A Stanley Cup Final run, the most successful expansion team of all time, great hope for the future. Three of the Golden Knights’ most important players have already received long-term deals this season. William Karlsson will likely get one at the end of the season.
All of this builds up to a 7-9-1 record to start the year? No. That can’t be how this is going, right?
The Golden Knights are outclassing opponents in terms of Corsi, shot share and high-danger share, ranking in the top three in the NHL in each of those categories at 5-on-5. Basically, the Knights are their usual possession-monster selves. They’re also top three in expected goals for so far this season.
Here’s a heat map showing from where the Golden Knights are getting shots:
Nothing wrong with it, although there could be more from the circles.
That’s because the Golden Knights have a 26th-ranked 12.73 percent high-danger shooting percentage (at 5-on-5), a 5.40 shooting percentage (31st in the league) and a tendency to hit the post more than the net.
Across all strengths, the Golden Knights are 28th with a 15.92 high-danger shooting percentage and 30th with a 7.17 all-around shooting percentage (only ahead of Carolina).
But there are also four other factors working against the Golden Knights this season.
Entering the season, it was assumed that Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt would be frequent contributors to the team. Pacioretty is one of the best goalscorers in the league, and prior to last season he was in the top five in goals over the previous four seasons. Stastny made a significant impact with the Winnipeg Jets after the trade deadline last year and has been a force at the faceoff dot throughout his career. Schmidt is the Golden Knights’ No. 1 defenseman.
In addition, the latest victim of injury is Erik Haula. Haula was doing a good job of replacing Stastny on the second line, and losing him is another massive blow to the Knights’ center depth. It could also mean a promotion for someone like Brooks Macek from the Chicago Wolves, but clearly that wishful thinking is not the same as having Haula and Stastny.
The Golden Knights have been without Schmidt all season and will be for the next three games as well until he is ready to return from his suspension. Pacioretty missed significant time. Stastny hasn’t played in 14 games and will miss many more.
Pacioretty has two goals this season, having generated 39 shots in 13 games from the second line. He’s represented a positive in terms of Corsi and shot share, and he’s a plus-one in high-danger share at 5-on-5. He could work on his defense, however, having been on the ice for eight goals against at 5-on-5.
Stastny won 59.3 percent of his faceoffs in his first three games, and he was dominant in every category except goal share — one against, none for. He’s someone who is important for depth, as well, and he was a major offseason acquisition.
With Stastny and Pacioretty on the second line with Alex Tuch — something we’ve yet to see this year — the third line can eventually be Tomas Hyka, Cody Eakin and Haula, once he’s back to full health. With Eakin’s revamped performance, putting Haula on the wing and allowing the speedy combination to focus on offense with Eakin as a defensive presence could work beautifully.
Schmidt also brings depth (and talent) to a position that very sorely needs it. A Schmidt-Shea Theodore pairing, which seems likely, would allow Colin Miller and Brayden McNabb to play on the second pairing and Deryk Engelland and Brad Hunt or Nick Holden to play on the third pair.
Schmidt had the second-most time on ice at 5-on-5 last season and had solid possession numbers while sporting a heavy defensive usage rate (52.95 percent of his faceoffs came in the defensive zone). That’s an important figure to get back for the Golden Knights.
Another problem the Knights have had this season is the ineffective power play.
Those two green dots near the goal are not great. Neither is the fact that the Knights have been pushed to the outside, and that part of the royal road is getting entirely erased for the power play. The forwards need to get inside more, as that’s what’s led to the limited success they’ve had. Though the power play has been much improved in recent games, its performance over the course of the season has been less than ideal.
Vegas has the 10th most time on the power play this season, which makes it clear how poorly the power play has operated. But the Golden Knights are just 16th in high-danger chances on the power play, seventh in shots and 18th in goals for (25th in high-danger goals for). They’re 20th in high-danger shooting percentage and 24th in all shooting percentage on the power play this season.
That’s not great.
The penalty kill is fourth in Corsi and eighth in shot share. Let’s start there. Those are great possession numbers, and that ability to move the puck has helped lead the Golden Knights to second place in fewest goals allowed on the penalty kill. Not bad. Though when considering the fact that the Knights have played the third-fewest shorthanded minutes, that’s not great, either.
Still, Vegas’ penalty kill is seventh in the league in conversion rate. Right about where it should be, and it’s one of the only things the Golden Knights have had going for them on a consistent basis (thanks, Belly).
The power play is a weakness (perhaps on the rise but still not where it needs to be) and the penalty kill is a relative strength. Considering the injuries on the team, that makes sense.
The Golden Knights have allowed the 14th-most high-danger goals against this season (28) across all strengths despite allowing just the 23rd-most high-danger chances against (173). They’ve had just the 30th-most shots against (in all strengths) this season, but have somehow allowed the 18th-most goals.
That bright blue dearth of shots against from the royal road is impressive. Yes, the Knights are allowing too many shots from immediately in front of the net, but considering their high-danger numbers against, that doesn’t warrant bad numbers in terms of goals. They’re forcing bad angles instead of good shots.
This isn’t a function of the defensemen — they’re doing their jobs by controlling chances and keeping the puck out of their zone.
This is a function of a usually-excellent goaltender not doing his job. After last season, everyone is reluctant to blame Marc-Andre Fleury, and for good reason. He was one of the three best goaltenders in the league last season, and despite his Stanley Cup Final performance, was the best goaltender in the playoffs up until that point.
Yet Fleury has an .894 save percentage this season, even against lowered chances against. His even-strength save percentage is .896, 51st in the league. At 5-on-5, Fleury has allowed the third-most high-danger goals, although he has faced the fourth-most high-danger chances. His .788 high-danger save percentage is 50th in the league and markedly worse than Malcolm Subban’s .857 (22nd in the league).
The Golden Knights need more from their goalies. Fleury hasn’t been himself, and Subban has an .881 save percentage and hasn’t been all that great, either. If the Knights are going to win more games, they’ll need the goaltenders to help them do it. Through the first 17 games, the goaltenders have only helped them win seven, and even one of those wins was in spite of Fleury’s .864 save percentage. That’s just not good enough.
Vegas has a .958 PDO, which is the combination of save percentage and shooting percentage and essentially is a measurement of puck luck. The Knights’ .958 PDO is good for second-worst in the NHL. That means that Vegas has had, definitively, some of the worst luck in the National Hockey League. Whatever bounces that should have been coming their way, the Knights just haven’t gotten, which hasn’t been the case for most other teams.
For reference, the average PDO should be about 1.000. Sixteen teams are above that mark so far this season, including the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators — a.k.a. the teams winning games.
Those under 1.000 include the Los Angeles Kings, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings and Knights, a.k.a. the teams that haven’t been that successful.
This is ultimately what it is. Vegas has been good at every area of the game, but with sub-par goaltending and absolutely zero luck, the team has found itself in a 7-9-1 hole. The Golden Knights can fight against luck as much as they want — and oh boy have they ever over the course of this season — but it’s not working.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Golden Knights are very good. They’re just nowhere near lucky.