For many, the trade deadline brought with it a renewed sense of optimism. Be it for the future or for their respective Stanley Cup odds.
For the Vegas Golden Knights, though, it has brought concern, questions and losses in four of their last five contests. All is not well in Vegas.
Losses to Los Angeles (twice), Ottawa, and Columbus over the last nine days has seen the Golden Knights fall from top spot in the Western Conference to a tie with the Winnipeg Jets for second. The Jets, 8-2-0 in their last ten are surging while the Golden Knights, now 5-4-1 in the last ten, are in free fall.
Thankfully, as far as the Golden Knights playoff aspirations are concerned, their closest division rival (San Jose) sits 10 points back and, barring a continued collapse, should not be a threat to surpass the Knights. The Golden Knights are, in all likelihood, a lock for the post-season.
What will happen after they make it, however, is a big mystery.
While struggles come and go for every team over the course of an 82-game season, it not only comes at an inopportune time in the season for the Golden Knights, but is an entirely new experience for the fan base. A fan base that has, if we’re being honest, been a bit spoiled this season.
A 42-19-5 expansion team does that to a fan base.
Spoiled or not, the questions surrounding the struggles of the Golden Knights cannot be ignored. What has happened? Why now?
That’s a cliff, Vegas... And you’re falling off it
What we see here is a massive change for the Golden Knights in many key statistics over their last five games.
They are allowing nearly a goal against more per game, which is problematic for a team also scoring over a goal per game less than normal. The drop in scoring can be accounted for by the sharp drop in shooting percentage which has seen the Golden Knights drop 4.45 percent over their last five games.
For what it’s worth, pre-slump the Golden Knights sat in the top three in shooting percentage in the NHL, above the league average of 9.1, but not so much that it was unsustainably high.
Perhaps more startling than the drop in shooting percentage is their complete drop in save percentage. The Golden Knights have gone from an above average goaltending team, having a team save percentage of .913 in all situations and .920 at even strength, to a sub-.900 team with just a .912 even strength SV%.
Marc-Andre Fleury has seen his overall SV% drop from .930 in his first 30 games played to .905 over the last five and his season-wide percentage drop four whole points in just four games.
At this point of the season, that doesn’t often happen.
Two minutes for “You can’t do that”
And finally, the penalty kill. I’m giving the penalty kill its own subsection because it needs it.
The Golden Knights had a very pedestrian penalty kill pre-slump sitting at 80.6%. Based on current rankings that would have placed them 15th in the league. Just barely league average.
Over the last five games, the Golden Knights have a kill percentage of just 75 percent. Pro-rated, we’re talking about the 29th-ranked penalty kill in the game. Compounding the issue of their struggling PK is the fact that they are also taking penalties at an alarming rate.
Over the last five games, the Golden Knights have taken an average of four penalties per game. Four. Which means, statistically, they are allowing a goal per game just on the PK.
That’s not good.
Prior to the slump, the Golden Knights were taking just 2.79 penalties per game. They are, in fact, one of the least penalized teams in the NHL sitting 28th in the league with just 219 penalties taken (including the previous five games).
They are — or were — a very disciplined team.
A change in the narrative
”He adds grit and toughness, he plays a physical game. He creates space for his teammates and intimidates his opponents. You can’t quantify that on a spreadsheet.” — People on the internet
You are probably sick of the Ryan Reaves talk at this point. That is fair. However, as what is often praised about Reaves (and players like him) are his intangibles. Ones that often aren’t or can’t be quantified statistically. Much to the old-school fans’ delight, it’s only fair we deal in narratives here, too.
The Golden Knights were, prior to the deadline, a disciplined team. Then they added Reaves. While it is fair to say that Reaves has only taken three penalties in five games (which is a lot, but none in the last three games), and has a strong 53.85 Corsi For percentage in those five games, it could also be argued that he has changed the culture in the locker room.
Which is what people said he would do.
And what it has led to is a team that has taken far more penalties per game. Something that cannot be acceptable when the team is not very good on the penalty kill.
Ultimately, the the team opted for some physicality over skill when they brought Reaves in and sent Brendan Leipsic out of town. Yes, Leipsic was struggling to score goals, and no, they couldn’t have foreseen his five points in three games with Vancouver, but he fit the system far more and was not a player who changed the culture of the locker room. He was just a good soldier.
One their leader sold low on.
This could be just a slump. This could be a blip in the radar of the overall scheme of things for the Golden Knights. This could mean absolutely nothing.
On the other hand, what we may have seen the last five games is what people have said was going to happen for months, which is a team that was near the top of the league in many categories, said to be playing above their heads, crashing down to earth. Sky-high shooting and save percentages plummeting faster than Felix Baumgartner. A penalty kill, which was already average, being overtaxed by a team trying to become something they haven’t been over the first 61 games.
We can’t know for sure. Not yet.
But with 16 regular season games remaining, it’s getting to be time they course correct and find their way back to what worked. Whether this means bringing Tomas Hyka back to play on the fourth line or doing nothing and hoping it figures itself out, something has to give.
Failure to get it worked out could lead the team to a disastrous conclusion to what has been a fantasy-worthy season. One where they’ve spent two prospects (Leipsic and Tobias Lindberg) and their first-round pick while choosing not to sell off valuable UFA contracts.
An unacceptable end to an unprecedented season.