Roundtable: Choosing the Golden Knights’ MVP at the All-Star Break
It’s a tougher choice than you might expect.
After showing early signs of a sophomore slump, the Vegas Golden Knights are now sitting pretty 52 games into their second season as an NHL franchise. Despite losing three of their last four games, the Knights still sit comfortably in third place in the Pacific Division with a stellar 29-19-4 record on the season.
With 30 games remaining, we’re starting to get a good grasp on who Vegas’ most important players are. At the end of the season, the Knights will hand out their team awards. The Knights only handed out three awards last season (First Star Award, Seventh Player Award and Vegas Strong Service Award), but if they end up giving out an MVP award this season, we have some pretty good ideas as to who will be accepting that title.
Of course, Marc-Andre Fleury’s name will certainly be included in the discussion, but there are also a few dark horse candidates who could be in the running for an MVP award as well. To determine who should win this imaginary (?) award, we all cast our votes on who we think should be named Golden Knights MVP, and some of the names thrown in may surprise you.
Ryan: Alex Tuch
The 22-year-old power forward has been pretty darn good in his sophomore campaign. Despite missing Vegas’ first eight games of the season, Tuch leads the Golden Knights in points (40) and has already broken previous career highs in goals and points through 44 games. He only needs a pair of helpers to tie his previous career high in assists.
Out of all 456 forwards with at least 100 minutes of ice time this season, Tuch ranks 51st in the NHL with a stellar 60.32 Goals For percentage at 5-on-5 (which ranks higher than the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin, Johnny Gaudreau and even Alex Ovechkin). Pretty good company!
Tuch is still a work in progress. After all, it hasn’t even been two years since he became old enough to purchase an alcoholic beverage. But despite his age, he’s already showing signs of eventually becoming the unquestioned centerpiece of the Golden Knights. This is just the beginning for the Syracuse native.
Danny: Nate Schmidt
It’s easy to look at the record from Game 20 to 52 and see why Schmidt is, literally, the most valuable player on this roster. To go from 8-11-1 to 29-19-4 is no coincidence. But Schmidt’s value upon his return is not just because of what he brings to the ice as a shutdown defenseman and facing the other team’s top line. He brought life to a collection of blueliners that were not getting it done in the scoring department.
Shea Theodore (eight points through 20 games) and Colin Miller (six points through 20 games) were not able to replicate what Schmidt brings in his absence. In 19 fewer games than Theodore, Schmidt has five less points (17). He’s on pace to finish with 33 points compared to Theodore’s 36 this season, and that’s in 20 fewer games. Also, the Golden Knights are 10-0-2 this season when Schmidt scores a point.
This is not a knock on Alex Tuch (best skater on the team) or Marc-Andre Fleury (best player on the team). But this year, most valuable without question, has been 88. He’s been the reason why Vegas is back in the playoff chase.
Jillian: Alex Tuch
Tuch has been a beast for Vegas this season and has played a major role in the Knights’ success. His points-per-game rate of 0.91 is first on the team among those who have skated in at least 15 games, as is his Goals For per 60 rate of 3.89. Tuch leads the team with a points-per-60 rate of 2.99, and he set a franchise record earlier this season by recording points in nine straight games; during that streak, Vegas went 8-1-0.
Additionally, Tuch has earned at least a point in 30 out of 44 games this season; in those 30 games, Vegas went 21-7-2 for a win percentage of 70. During the 14 games in which he did not find the scoresheet, Vegas managed a record of 4-8-2 for a win percentage of 28.6. In the games in which he earned at least two points, Vegas won nine out of 10.
Clearly, when Tuch is rolling, Vegas is rolling; fortunately for the Knights, Tuch has been rolling merrily along.
In fact, he has become a true game-changer for Vegas, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively in the sense that he can take over a game every time he’s on the ice; his rare blend of size, speed and skill makes him a formidable force, and he has taken great strides in honing those skills to be a better all-around player.
But he’s also been a game-changer in a literal sense; not only does he lead the team in scoring despite missing eight games, but he leads the team in game-winning goals with six. Six. Six.
Three Knights had six game-winning goals all of last season, but Tuch has reached that mark in 44 games. For further context, consider this — only nine players in the entire NHL have at least six game-winning goals so far this year. That list includes Panarin, Connor McDavid, Phil Kessel and Gaudreau.
Tuch has been the heartbeat of Vegas’ offense, and he’s a huge reason why the Knights are even in playoff positioning with 30 games to go.
Dalton: Alex Tuch
To miss eight games and then lead the team in points, outperforming a pair of 75+ point players from last year, all while playing on a second line that was riddled by injuries is no small feat. Elevating Cody Eakin to score 19 points in his first 26 games may be an even bigger one. Tuch has done all that at the ripe old age of 22. With six game-winning goals — and the exact same number of penalty minutes — it’s hard to imagine a player more valuable to his team than Tuch. Evolving-Hockey has him with 2.3 Wins above Replacement (WAR), which is first among skaters on the Golden Knights and tied for eighth in the entire league. At even strength, he is the league’s fourth-best forward.
Marc-Andre Fleury may lead the league in wins and shutouts, Nate Schmidt’s return may have turned the season around, but no one player has been more consistently excellent than No. 89.
Shepard: Reilly Smith
I’m going with someone who hasn’t played since Jan. 6. He’s been sorely missed on both the power play and penalty kill. He makes both units better, and he’s a necessary ingredient on the first line. Despite having just 27 points in 45 games to this point in the season, my MVP so far has to be Smith because of what he does off of the scoreboard.
Without Smith in the lineup, Vegas’ top trio goes from a 54.80 shot share and 56.69 high-danger share to a 50 percent shot share and 45.33 high-danger share at even strength. The top line’s expected goals percentage is 57.04 percent with Smith — the fifth-best line in the NHL (with more than 300 minutes played). Anybody capable of making that much of a numeric difference has to be important.
I also have the team on my side, so...
Ellis: Brandon Pirri
Brandon Pirri started playing with the Golden Knights on Dec. 20. Vegas didn’t know it, but Christmas had come early, and Pirri was playing Santa. Game one? Goal. Game two? Two goals. It just kept rollin’. He now has 13 points in 14 games. And as of Jan. 16, he’s on the roster for what seems like for good.
The biggest concern about Pirri was that his defensive play left something to be desired. “All he does is score goals” was a rallying cry of sorts. Still, Pirri has an impressive 61.86% Corsi For percentage.
Another fun stat — his high-danger scoring chance percentage is 63.79, the best of all Golden Knights in the usual lineup.
Fans really love Pirri. Scoring goals will do that. But beyond that, they’ve been with him through his journey. They rode on the roller coaster of his random reassignments to the Chicago Wolves and subsequent call-ups just days, maybe even hours later. Now he’s playing on the first line while Reilly Smith is out.
An overlooked NHL outcast made something of himself. For him to do that on a team that was born from other outcasts, that kind of makes him the ultimate Golden Knight.
Chris: Marc-Andre Fleury
Despite the way Alex Tuch has played this season, for me, Marc-Andre Fleury is the Golden Knights’ MVP thus far.
He leads the NHL in games started (45), wins (27) and shutouts (6). In comparison to other goalies around the league, Flower has four more wins and three more shutouts, which is a pretty decent margin.
Simply put, he’s been sensational this season. And when Vegas struggled early on without Nate Schmidt, Fleury was legitimately stealing games and keeping Vegas in the race.
Looking back at how the season has transpired, you could make a really good case Fleury’s remarkable play is why the Golden Knights are third in the Pacific Division and fifth in the Western Conference.