It would be easy to look at the Vegas Golden Knights’ record through the first quarter of the campaign and suggest that this is simply a matter of luck running out, that the success the expansion franchise experienced last season — a Western Conference championship and berth in the Stanley Cup final — was a mirage predicated on luck and little else. And, no doubt, there are a fair number of people who see the results the Golden Knights have had through the early campaign as exactly that, fortunes turning on a team that was able to ride a heater all the way to the last series of last season.
There’s an element of truth to that, too, exemplified in no better way than William Karlsson’s shooting success.
Last season, the Golden Knights’ breakout star stunned the league with a 43-goal, 78-point campaign that put him in not just in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, but in the conversation for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Karlsson’s remarkable campaign, though, was bolstered by an inexplicably high shooting percentage, 23.4 percent, that made him ripe for regression this season. And regress he has. Through 22 games, Karlsson has scored five times, is on pace to finish with less than 20 goals and his shooting percentage has been nearly halved. It sits at 12.4 percent entering Wednesday night.
Karlsson hasn’t been the only victim of a downturn in shooting percentage, however. In fact, the entire Golden Knights roster has experienced a wild variance in shooting success. Across the duration of the 2017-18 campaign, Vegas’ roster shot 8.4 percent at five-a-side. It was the sixth-highest rate in the league, up there with top-tier attacks such as the Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. This season, though, the Golden Knights find themselves near the league basement in the same category. They’re firing at a mere 6.4 percent rate, the fourth-lowest 5-on-5 percentage in the league.
The reality is, though, that other teams with not entirely dissimilar shooting percentages aren’t faring as poorly as the 9-12-1 Golden Knights. The Jets are firing at 6.9 percent yet sit seven games above the .500 mark. The Arizona Coyotes have the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL, 5.5 percent, but have a 9-9-1 record and positive goal differential. And overall, seven of the 15 teams with a shooting percentage below eight percent are currently holding playoff spots despite having modest-at-best shooting success.
The difference in Vegas, though, is that their bad luck firing the puck has been paired with poor performance between the pipes. On the heels of one of the best — and arguably the very best — seasons of his career, Marc-Andre Fleury, to put it bluntly, hasn’t been very good. At all. And at this point in the campaign, with a quarter of the season gone and Vegas struggling to gain traction in the West, the Golden Knights need Fleury to be better if they have any hope of salvaging their season.
As much as that may seem an overstatement or oversimplification of what has ailed Vegas this season, Fleury’s play truly has been the Golden Knights’ greatest hindrance at the quarter-point of the season.
On the heels of a campaign in which he put up identical .927 save percentages and 2.24 goals-against averages across 46 regular season and 20 playoff outings, and a season in which he finished with a career-best fifth-place finish in Vezina Trophy voting, Fleury has looked less like a Vezina-calibre goaltender and more like a replacement-level keeper who might sink an entire season. Through 18 appearances this season, Fleury’s .901 SP is among the worst marks in the league and his .897 SP at is fifth-worst among all netminders with at least 400 minutes played at five-a-side.
In a way, Fleury’s numbers would somewhat excusable if the Golden Knights were playing poorly in front of him, if Vegas were getting caved in when it comes to run of play on a night-to-night basis. But the Golden Knights have been far better than a team such as, say, the Anaheim Ducks. Matter of fact, Vegas has been among the league’s elite teams when it comes to underlying statistics this season. At 5-on-5, the Golden Knights rank third in Corsi percentage (55.9), third in shots percentage (55), third in scoring chances percentage (55.5) and fourth in high-danger chances percentage (54.8). Those numbers are representative of a team that could reasonably be expected to be among the class of the league. Instead, the Golden Knights are battling to get out of the basement.
Even if the comparison is to be made from last season to the current campaign, there’s really no clear reason for Fleury’s struggles, either.
Statistically speaking, Vegas has actually done a superior job insulating their netminder this season, and that’s with No. 1 blueliner Nate Schmidt only just returning to the lineup. Consider that, at 5-on-5, Fleury has faced in the neighborhood of 5.5 fewer shots against per 60 minutes of play. That includes more than three fewer low-danger shots, 1.5 fewer medium-danger shots and a decrease in high-danger shots by about half a shot per 60 minutes. To put the difficulty of his workload this season into league-wide context, among the 34 goaltenders with at least 10 games played, Fleury ranks 34th in shots against, 25th in high-danger shots, 24th in medium-danger shots and 34th in low-danger shots against at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes of play.
Fleury’s season is far from a write-off, though, and the same goes for the Golden Knights. All it takes is one string of stellar performances for Fleury to get back on track, and turning things around for the latter starts with the former finding his form. Vegas can be a competitive team, maybe even a Stanley Cup contender, again. But the only way for the Golden Knights to get back on track and reach the same heights is for Fleury to shake his slow start and rescue Vegas from what has potential to be an incredibly disappointing sophomore campaign.