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Alex Pietrangelo could give Golden Knights the NHL’s best defensive pairing

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With Shea Theodore already on board, Vegas could be in position to have their top defensemen on the same pair.

Vancouver Canucks v St Louis Blues - Game Five
Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues warms up before Game Five of the Western Conference First Round against the Vancouver Canucks
Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights signed defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year, $61.6 million dollar deal worth an AAV of $8.8 million last Monday. They traded Nate Schmidt shortly after to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a third-round pick to free up necessary cap space.

The move makes the Vegas blue line better, as Pietrangelo, who came within a few votes of being a Norris finalist in the 2019-20 season, steps in effectively for Nate Schmidt on both the penalty kill and likely on the second-unit power play. Shea Theodore should already have secured his spot on the first unit and on the first pairing.

A potential duo of Pietrangelo (a right-handed shot) and Theodore (a left-handed defenseman) could be in the works. That pairing would likely be one of the best in the NHL, perhaps the best.

According to MoneyPuck, three of the top 20 defensive pairings (min. 100 minutes) from last season included Theodore. Theodore and Alec Martinez topped the trio (which also included Nick Holden and Brayden McNabb with Theodore) as the league’s fourth-best pairing, with 7.3 expected goals for and 4.2 against. That gave the duo a 63.5 percent expected goal share.

One of the other top 20 duos was Pietrangelo with Vince Dunn, St. Louis’ best pairing last season. They had 10.5 expected goals for and 6.7 expected goals against for a 61 percent expected goal share.

Now the question is, is Theodore an upgrade over Dunn and Pietrangelo an upgrade over Martinez or McNabb or Holden? The Golden Knights should be banking on an unequivocal yes, as both Pietrangelo and Theodore finished well in the Norris voting with Pietrangelo at fourth and Theodore at sixth.

Clearly, Theodore can work with multiple types of partners (Martinez’s play is a far fetch from that of McNabb) and Pietrangelo is used to supporting a talented younger partner. They also work well in each other’s weaknesses and increase each other’s strengths.

Theodore is better at denying sheer opportunities (he had 47.68 shot attempts against per 60 to Pietrangelo’s 49.38; 26.53 shots against/60 to Pietrangelo’s 28.3) but Pietrangelo is better at controlling quality (1.09 high-danger goals against/60 to Theodore’s 1.38 while having a lower on-ice save percentage, .911 to .921).

Pietrangelo beat Theodore in every point metric in the 2019-20 regular season except one. Goals per 60, assists per 60, primary assists per 60 and points per 60 all went to Pietrangelo. But Theodore wasn’t for lack of trying — his IPP, or percent of goals factored in on while on the ice was higher (50 to 44.83). Theodore also took more shots and created more rebounds while Pietrangelo blocked more shots and drew more penalties.

Vegas Golden Knights v Dallas Stars - Game Three Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Theodore allowed fewer goals (2.09 per 60 to 2.52) while Pietrangelo scored more (3.13 to 2.52). Theodore had better pure possession metrics (for example, 59.09 percent expected goal share to 52.42 percent) but Pietrangelo drove play better (each of his possession stats was above his 52.38 percent offensive zone start percentage while Theodore’s were below his 60.6 oZS%).

Pietrangelo kills penalties while Theodore has never been given the chance while Theodore makes the power play better. Both were excellent offensively while being reliable defensively in the regular season, but Theodore’s expected results were better (14.2 expected goals above replacement to 6.4 real GAR) while Pietrangelo’s real results were better (18.2 GAR to 13.8 xGAR).

The Golden Knights’ new No. 7 has already stated his intent to help Theodore develop into the defenseman he can be. There’s no better way of doing that than putting Pietrangelo right alongside Theodore; at least at 5-on-5 and for even-strength hockey.

Like the other best defensive pairings in the league like Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis or Sam Girard and Cale Makar, Pietrangelo-Theodore gives the Golden Knights two play-driving defenseman who are adept in their own end as well.

It also gives the Golden Knights two different number one defensemen they can play against various styles if they divide the two and play them with Martinez (for Theodore) and McNabb, Zach Whitecloud or Nic Hague (for Pietrangelo).

Vegas’s addition to their blue line makes them a much better team. Even if that addition is not in a position of weakness (a trade for Steven Stamkos, which was explored, would have likely added more as the Golden Knights need a number one center and already had Theodore).

Vegas’s blue line may be the best in the league. But if these two come together as they should, they could have the best pairing as well.