Hey there, Vegas fans. Take a few deep breaths. It’s OK to feel panic. You’ve never been in this situation, after all. Last year, things went so right that even the wrongs turned into rights. Not even injuries to your top three goalies could stop you from becoming the greatest expansion team in major pro sports history.
This season, it feels like that pixie dust has worn off. It started in the summer when defenseman Nate Schmidt, the Golden Knights' minutes leader in 2017-18, got popped for a 20-game PED suspension. Then promising young right winger Alex Tuch, seemingly solidified as the team’s second-line right winger, went down with a week-to-week lower body injury. Worse yet: Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant announced Monday that shiny new free-agent signee Paul Stastny, the team’s second-line center, will miss multiple months with a lower-body injury. Even emotional leader Deryk Engelland has an arm injury with a murky recovery timeline now.
As much as the hockey gods blessed the Golden Knights last season, those same deities seem to be conspiring against them now. Can they recover from a 2-4-0 start minus two of their top six defensemen and two of their top six forwards? Don’t be so quick to declare the magic gone. There’s still reason for optimism about the Golden Knights going forward. Here’s why.
1. Home cooking hasn’t been part of their diet
Remember the Vegas Flu last year? Whether it was because of the off-ice temptations or the lavish, leg-draining pre-game pyrotechnics, teams struggled mightily to beat Vegas at T-Mobile arena. The Golden Knights finished 29-10-2 in their barn. This year, they’ve played five of six games on the road, skewing their record. They did lose their lone home game so far, yes, but they haven’t gotten a chance to dig their roots in and dominate in front of their rabid fans for an extended stretch. Now they play five straight games at T-Mobile. Don’t be surprised if their record gets back up to .500 or better during this homestand.
2. They have dominated 5-on-5 play
Under the hood, the advanced stats tell us the Golden Knights’ hornet-nest attack is actually still producing dominant hockey – just without the goals. Per naturalstattrick.com, In 5-on-5 play, Vegas ranks fifth in the NHL in Corsi (shot attempts) For per 60 and has the lowest Corsi Against per 60 in the NHL. The Golden Knights rank 11th in high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes and allow the fifth-fewest high-danger attempts per 60. The ice is tilted Vegas’ way, with far more pucks flying at the other team’s net, but Vegas has the fourth-lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL at 5.23. How low is that number? The NHL’s worst team percentage last year was 6.14. A massive positive regression is thus in store, even with Stastny and Tuch missing from the lineup. Sooner or later this team will be rewarded for controlling the play.
3. The first line remains intact
It hurts to lose Stastny and Tuch, but the Knights still get to roll out Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and deploy them on the top power-play unit. Deeper in the lineup, the Knights also boast some players capable of jumping up in the short term. Erik Haula can play center or wing and is fresh off a 29-goal season, for instance. His odds of repeating that breakout are slim, sure, but the point is that the guy can play.
4. Flower power
Marc-Andre Fleury, 33, showed what he still has in the tank by marching into Philadelphia, a city that hasn’t been kind to his numbers throughout his career, and posting a shutout Saturday. He’d struggled in his first four appearances of the season before that. But if we look at the bigger sample size, he has a .919 save percentage across his past five seasons. Per corsica.hockey, Only 12.5 percent of the chances he’s facing at 5-on-5 are high-danger right now, so if Vegas continues its strong defensive play, Flower’s SP should steadily rise.
5. The schedule gets easier
Five of Vegas’ first six games have been against playoff teams from 2018-19, including the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of the past three Stanley Cups. Vegas gets three games on this homestand against bottom dwellers from a year ago: Buffalo, Vancouver and Ottawa. A lot can change in a year but, theoretically, these still look like easier opponents on paper.
So relax by the pool, Vegas fans. It’s far too early to worry. Better times lie ahead for your team.