What to watch for as the Golden Knights face the Maple Leafs
Toronto has a challenge for Vegas in the present, and a possible blueprint for the future.
It's a tale of two struggling teams tonight as the Vegas Golden Knights (9-4-0) head into the Air Canada Centre to face off with the Toronto Maple Leafs (8-7-0).
While the Golden Knights are coming off a victory in which, until the last 15 minutes or so, looked like a very strong team effort, they’ve lost three of four and are playing a road back-to-back against the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
It's rare to find a team that one can definitively say is worse defensively than the Golden Knights, but Toronto is it. Toronto is 29th in goals against having surrendered 36. The Maple Leafs make up for it by being the highest scoring team (40 goals scored), but they’ve only won two of their last six.
Though, to be fair, the Leafs possession numbers (51.76 Corsi-For percentage) is far superior to that of the Golden Knights (47.26) and they surrender far fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes than the Knights (56.52 for Toronto, 61.94 for Vegas).
The Maple Leafs are a team of incredible high-end talent, and it all starts with their franchise center Auston Matthews. The former No. 1 pick has 10 goals in his first 15 games this season and 18 points overall. His nine even strength goals is second to only Nikita Kucherov (11).
Beyond Matthews, Toronto has Nazem Kadri, William Nylander, and defenseman Morgan Rielly with 11 points in 15 games. Their big off-season free agent signing has paid early dividends as well. Patrick Marleau has five goals and nine points in 15 games.
Their lineup has been in flux lately so we aren't entirely sure which version we'll see on Monday. Kasperi Kapanen has started drawing into the lineup with some regularity displacing veteran Dominic Moore, but the line combinations tend to change for coach Mike Babcock on the fly depending on how the game is going.
Goalie Frederik Andersen has been the recipient of a lot of bad defense, screened goals, and tipped shots this year and his .895 SV% is probably not indicative of how he's played. That said, if the Leafs are to succeed this year and become the Stanley Cup contenders people, including the Vegas betting odds, think they are he will need to be much better.
Here are two things to watch for the Golden Knights
The defense needs to show up versus a franchise center
The Golden Knights faced John Tavares, one of the best centers in the game, and had trouble containing him (two goals on seven shots) in the Islanders’ 6-3 win Oct. 30 against the Knights. It wasn’t Lagace’s fault. Vegas saw first-hand what it was like to face a top-tier center (with all-due respect to Jonathan Toews).
Here is the second chance for this defensive unit and it comes in the form of the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year, Matthews. How they go about containing Matthews will say a lot about this defensive core, and might dictate whether they can pull out a win on the road.
This is the goal! Watch it, savour it, hope it's in the cards for Vegas' future
This is less a thing to watch from the Golden Knights and for the fans.
The 8-1 start was amazing. It captivated a fan base and gave everyone, myself included, vague notions of competing for a playoff spot in Year-1 of the expansion teams existence. But, a playoff spot is not the goal. It should never be the goal.
The Maple Leafs are the new gold standard on rebuilds, but had a “what not to do” template for the longest time.
The turnaround came when they finally, a decade later than they should have, started a full rebuild. They tore it down to the studs, traded all value to Stanley Cup contending teams and accumulated assets wisely.
What they ended with was Mitch Marner as the No. 4 pick in the 2015 Entry Draft, and Matthews in 2016.
Watch the Leafs and think about how great players like that would look in Vegas — how a couple years of being bad could lead to something with the potential to be truly great.
Hold onto that feeling when the trade deadline comes and, regardless of what the standings say, the Golden Knights begin the process of stripping it to the studs in hopes of accumulating picks that might end in Rasmus Dahlin.
The 8-1 start was exciting. You won't hear any of us complain if it continues. But Toronto proves the goal isn't, and should never be, the playoffs. To borrow their phrase, "there will be pain". But, just over two seasons since they started their rebuild, the Leafs are proof that it doesn't have to last long, either.
How to watch
TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM
Puck drop: 4 p.m. PT