The Golden Knights sit atop the Pacific Division and entire Western Conference thanks to an eight-game winning streak, and it’s time for Vegas to start seriously considering buying at the deadline.
Conventional wisdom ahead of the season was that when the trade deadline rolled around the Vegas Golden Knights would be sellers. With a handful of talented pending unrestricted free agents-to-be and a GM in George McPhee who was clear about building through the draft, the belief was Vegas would take its top assets, ship them out for picks and prospects when their value reached its peak and reap the rewards somewhere down the line.
However, when the Golden Knights started hot — and we’re talking almost unbelievably, eight-wins-in-nine-games hot — some started to question that theory. And when Vegas won five straight games for a second time this season, some believed that maybe, at most, one of the big UFAs would be on the move at the deadline. But now, in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, points in 13 consecutive outings and an absolutely unfathomable position atop the Pacific Division and Western Conference, it appears you can take your conventional wisdom and boot it into the sun, because in no way does it appear these Vegas Golden Knights have any interest in performing anywhere near anyone’s expectations.
In some ways, Tuesday’s win over the Nashville Predators was as big a statement as the Golden Knights could have made. Not only was it their eighth victory in a row, as noted, but it tied a mark across all major North American sports. By winning eight straight, Vegas became the only franchise other than the NBA’s Denver Nuggets to win eight consecutive games during its inaugural season. (A note on that, though: Denver had come over from the ABA and retained four of their top five scorers from the year prior. It was their first year in the NBA, true, but the Nuggets weren’t an expansion team in the same vein as the Golden Knights.)
Better than winning eight in a row, though, the contest was a shutout victory over the Nashville Predators, the same Predators who entered the season as top contenders in the Western Conference and have at times looked like they were at the top of the class in the league this season. Shutting them out, and doing so in a game where Vegas controlled the possession for much of the evening, didn’t point to a Golden Knights team that’s just piling up wins as part of some unsustainable winning streak. Rather, it seemed to be proof positive that Vegas is one of the handful of truly top teams in the West.
Inevitably, though, the questions surrounding this team will turn to the trade deadline, turn to the pending free agents who could potentially leave town for nothing at season’s end, and all eyes will be on McPhee. But with the position his Golden Knights are in, and the position it appears they’ll be in as the deadline approaches, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the James Neals, Jonthan Marchessaults and David Perrons of the roster are shipped out for futures, primarily because it looks like the future for the franchise is much more immediate than anyone would have expected. So, what should McPhee do? The exact opposite of what everyone assumed he would do. He should buy.
It should be said that such a suggestion isn’t simply a reaction to one win over a top contender or a lengthy winning streak. No, there’s more to it than that, as the underlying numbers surrounding the Golden Knights point not to some sort of fluke or first-year luck, but a team playing as well as their record indicates. Over the past month-and-a-half, Vegas is seventh in possession, boasting a 52.8 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 adjusted for score and venue. Under the same parameters, the Golden Knights rank third in shots for percentage (54.4), sixth in goals for percentage (56.9), fourth in scoring chances for percentage (55.5) and ninth in high-danger chances for percentage (54.9). All the while, their 1.008 PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — doesn’t suggest any dip in performance is imminent.
Generally, advanced metrics that strong across the board are reserved for the best teams in the league. But Vegas has shown they’re exactly that, one of the league’s best, beyond the underlying numbers. Take for example the offensive prowess the team has shown, with four 30-plus point scorers across 38 games. Five players, including Marchessault, Neal, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula and William Karlsson, have at least 10 goals. There’s production from the blueline in Shea Theodore, Colin Miller and Nate Schmidt. And the goaltending, well, when you can rely on fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace to win you games, you’re in a good spot.
The decision facing McPhee shouldn’t even really be if he should add at the deadline, but where he should make those additions. And the answer to that is one that should be music to his ears, because, realistically, the things the Golden Knights need aren’t going to cost them the top assets and futures that they so desperately sought through the expansion draft and off-season. Rather than add the top talents or rentals, the Evander Kanes, Max Paciorettys or Mike Hoffmans of the league, what McPhee most needs in Vegas is additions deep in the lineup. For instance, a third- or fourth-line center who isn’t a drag on possession but can win some faceoffs in crunch time would be an asset. The same goes for a player who is a skilled penalty killer, given one of the Golden Knights’ only real shortcomings this season has been their play when down a man. They have an 80.3-percent success rate on the kill. By the same token, a power play specialist, be it a forward or a rearguard, would be a nice addition as Vegas’ man advantage ranks below average — 18.9 percent — this season.
Maybe the biggest addition the Golden Knights would have to make to turn into a true top contender would be a blueliner who can hold the fort on the second or third pairing. Vegas has undoubtedly been solid defensively, but finding a steadier, more productive option — and one who could possibly step into a one, two or three spot on the back end in a pinch, say someone like Mike Green — would be all it takes for the Golden Knights’ blueline to get that much better. Adding such a defenseman would be the most costly piece, to be sure, but take a second to look through what Vegas has to offer. Per CapFriendly, the Golden Knights have 10 picks in the top two rounds over the next three seasons. And into the 2020 draft, Vegas has an additional 18 selections across rounds three to seven.
Suggesting the Golden Knights ship out those picks or any futures to buy at the deadline would have seemed absurd six months ago following the expansion draft. It would have seemed just as foolish three months ago on the eve of Vegas’ inaugural NHL campaign. But as the Golden Knights enter the second half of the season holding down top spot in their division and the entire Western Conference, it seems the best move for McPhee now is the one few saw coming: go all-in and see if the expansion Golden Knights can’t shock the world with a Stanley Cup victory.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick)
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