How the Golden Knights can replace Nate Schmidt on the top pairing

With Nate Schmidt suspended 20 games by the NHL, Vegas faces a conundrum. Who takes over as the number one defenseman?

Nate Schmidt has been suspended 20 games, roughly one quarter of the season, by the NHL. As perhaps the most important defenseman on the Golden Knights’ roster, this is an incredibly difficult obstacle for the reigning Western Conference champs. It also means that Vegas needs to find a new No. 1 defenseman for the first part of the season.

The role of a No. 1 defenseman is defined in this article as being the go-to guy; someone who can play well on every unit (penalty kill, power play and even strength) and can play upwards of 22 minutes a night. They’re good offensively, can play well in their own zone and can match up well against top-tier competition.

Outlined below are the cases for every Golden Knights defenseman to be the new No. 1 guy. This list does not include Nicolas Hague or Erik Brannstrom, who, while they now have an increased chance at playing in the NHL this season, are not likely to be in the running.

Instead, the list will be include Shea Theodore, Colin Miller, Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb and a surprise guest. Nick Holden, Jon Merrill and Jake Bischoff are likely going to be third-pairing options.

The case for Shea Theodore

Theodore has come a long way over the last year. Even when he was with the Chicago Wolves, Theodore excelled and was used as the No. 1 defenseman. In the NHL playoffs, Theodore played the second-most even strength and 5-on-5 minutes of all Golden Knights’ blueliners.

Theodore’s possession stats are great as well. Here are his numbers (at even strength) in the regular season and the playoffs.

Shea Theodore’s possession numbers

Theodore in the Time on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn-Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1057:49:0052.4352.9752.0452.3446.0754.760.91354.68

In addition, Theodore was excellent when playing with the first line and was the quarterback of the first unit power play. He has the potential to be the best offensive defenseman on the Golden Knights’ roster, if he isn’t already. He’s getting better defensively and showed the ability to make smart plays in his own end in the latter half of the season.

He was the most productive member of the blue line in the playoffs, scoring 10 points and three goals. He’s been someone the Golden Knights can rely on, and coach Gerard Gallant called Theodore a “future superstar” after the rough Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. This might be a chance for Theodore to get more time and responsibility, especially in a relatively brief run, so he can prove whether or not he’s ready for a larger role.

The case against Theodore

Theodore doesn’t have the best defensive heat maps and in the regular season he only played 27:57 on the penalty kill (2:10 in the playoffs). He’s not gained enough trust defensively yet to be the best all-around defenseman, and that could hamper his chances of becoming the No. 1 defenseman for the Golden Knights.

Here’s his heat map for reference:

Theodore obviously needs to work on clearing players out of the crease, and the defense with him on the ice allowed too many shots from the circle and the slot. While Theodore could get more time and play on the top pairing, it’s unlikely he becomes the go-to guy in all situations.

The case for Colin Miller

Like Theodore, Colin Miller was a highly productive offensive defenseman this past season, leading all Knights defensemen in scoring. He scored 41 points, including 10 goals. In the playoffs, Miller scored seven points in 20 games, including three goals.

Unlike Theodore, Miller was used in all situations. He played 201:31 on the power play in the regular season, the most of any Knights player, and played 53:15 in the postseason (second amongst Golden Knights defensemen). He also played 81:16 on the penalty kill in the regular season, fourth amongst Knights defensemen (22:12 in the playoffs).

Miller has demonstrated an ability to play on every unit, which would be crucial for the Knights’ No. 1 defenseman. He also has good possession numbers (again at even strength), and an impressive heat map.

Colin Miller’s possession numbers

Miller in theTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn-Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1303:22:0056.2155.0549.1256.3954.2843.550.90161.75

The case against Miller

While Miller was a successful offensive defenseman who played on both special teams units, he did so while playing with other defensemen who were often better than him defensively. He can’t be trusted purely on his own, and needs a better defensive defenseman alongside him. That’s not the makeup of a first defenseman.

In addition, too many of his minutes were sheltered, and a 60 percent zone start rate is not a good aspect for a first defenseman. He also lacks defensive awareness at times, as with the 4-on-4 goal scored against the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.

A No. 1 defenseman cannot get lost like that.

The case for Brayden McNabb

Brayden McNabb is a defensive defenseman who can play on the penalty kill (playing 206:43 in the regular season (second most amongst Knights players) and 72:07 in the playoffs (also second). He has experience playing on the top pairing, being Nate Schmidt’s partner for much of the season, and averaged 20:09 per game this past season.

He also had solid possession numbers despite the fact that he had more of a defensive workload. McNabb scored a career-high five goals with the Golden Knights and had 15 points. All of his scoring was done at even strength as well.

Brayden McNabb’s possession numbers

McNabb in theTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn-Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1318:25:0050.9851.9559.0251.2148.1556.670.92249.06

McNabb was also important in the postseason, allowing just 19 goals, with 10 at even strength and nine on the penalty kill. Those are both far from the most goals allowed by a Knights defenseman. In addition, the locations where he allowed shots at 5-on-5 were typically from low-danger areas.

McNabb did not allow many shots from the slot and while opponents got off shots from the faceoff circles, those are less dangerous than other shots.

The case against McNabb

McNabb is not fast. In a league moving towards speed, that’s the biggest argument against him as the No. 1 defenseman. This has led to problems in the past. He’ll need a speedy partner to be successful, which is why he and Schmidt made such a good pairing.

McNabb also doesn’t play much on the power play, but his reliability in his own zone is what sets him apart. He’s likely going to be on the first pairing this season, and is one of the better candidates for the first defenseman spot.

The case for Deryk Engelland

Engelland was one of the most important defensive defensemen for the Golden Knights this past season. He was one of the faces of the franchise and was a veteran mentor for Shea Theodore. He played well in his own zone and came up with crucial points at times. He scored a career-high 23 points and averaged the most minutes of his career with 20:17.

He played the most minutes on the penalty kill of anyone on the Knights’ roster in both the regular season and playoffs (234:12 and 80:09, respectively). Even at even strength, Engelland had a heavy defensive zone usage rate.

The case against Engelland

At the same time, Engelland had bad possession stats. While part of that can be explained by his defensive share, Schmidt had a bigger defensive role and better possession stats.

Deryk Engelland’s possession numbers

Engelland in theTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1359:13:0048.0148.645048.4844.7951.520.91447.81

He’s not someone who will play on the power play, and at the same time, he might not be able to play as many minutes again this season. He’s now 36 years old and will be 37 by the end of the season. He’s not someone with a ton of speed and he’s losing his game as he ages.

The case for Erik Karlsson

Karlsson is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, perhaps the best when healthy. He’s one of the last remaining trade market pieces this season, and the Knights have long been in discussions with the Ottawa Senators to acquire him. With Schmidt now out a quarter of the season, and as long as Theodore is not involved, now would be a better time than ever to pull the trigger on a trade for Karlsson.

The Senators have an advantage in the Knights needing a No. 1 defenseman right now, but Vegas has an advantage in the market for Karlsson being relatively dry and the holdouts from other teams on trading elite prospects.

If the Knights can acquire Karlsson, he’s the obvious first defenseman not just for the 20 games Schmidt is suspended, but as long as he’s in Vegas.

Over the past few years, he leads defensemen in points with 355 and is third in goals with 83. He’s somebody who can be relied on in both zones and he impacts the game whenever he takes the ice. It’s why multiple teams have been interested in him, and why the Senators’ front office has taken so much slack for wanting to trade him. This past season, his possession stats were not impressive, but considering the circumstances and the talent around him, that should be fine.

Erik Karlsson’s possession numbers

Karlsson in theTime on IceCorsiShot ShareGoal ShareScoring ChanceHigh-Danger ChanceHD Goal ShareOn-Ice Save %Off. Faceoff %
Regular Season1558:04:0051.450.8743.2748.8249.8340.860.88155.15

On a pure player level, Karlsson is the easiest choice to be first defenseman, but for the Golden Knights, Karlsson isn’t just a player decision.

The case against Karlsson

Trading for Karlsson means somebody from the Golden Knights pipeline leaves. Whether that’s Theodore or a key prospect like Cody Glass or Nick Suzuki, somebody leaves. While Karlsson is worth that, it’s still something the Golden Knights’ front office would have to seriously consider.

That’s really the only downside of Karlsson, besides the fact that even if the Knights do trade for him, he could leave in free agency next summer. One year of Karlsson is not worth mortgaging the future.

The ideal pairing

Going based off what the Knights actually do currently have, they should role with McNabb and Theodore as their top defensive pairing for the first 20 games. One of them will likely outplay the other, and when Schmidt gets back, said defenseman should remain on the top pairing.

Theodore and McNabb could potentially complement each other perfectly, with McNabb playing a tighter defensive game and Theodore playing the speedier, more mobile game. That could even remain a pairing once Schmidt is back, and someone else steps into being his partner.

So to answer the question of who replaces Schmidt — nobody, at least not alone. A better pairing than last year’s needs to arise. That’s the solution.