What We Learned: Is it time to worry about Vegas?

The Vegas Golden Knights are finally starting to struggle. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Vegas Golden Knights are finally starting to struggle. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Having 95 points is, from what I understand, a lot for an expansion team with 10 games left on the schedule.

The Vegas story this year has been an amazing one, because this is a team that by all rights shouldn’t be as good as they have been and is, in fact, shaming most of the league’s GMs for giving away so many players who are having such good seasons. Call it luck or a confluence of positive circumstances or whatever else you like, but the Golden Knights have been a smashing success.

All season, people have championed not only their powerful home ice advantage, but also their ability to turn unsung heroes on other teams — William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Jon Marchessault, David Perron, Erik Haula, Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, etc. — into legitimate scoring threats. It doesn’t hurt that Marc-Andre Fleury, already one of the more likable guys in the league, is also having a whopper of a season.

That none of the players on this team will get much love for individual awards a few months from now is, perhaps, reflective of whatever alchemy they’ve forged together. However, you can basically write Gerard Gallant’s name in for Jack Adams right now, in pen. And it’s probably a toss-up between Steve Yzerman, David Poile, and George McPhee for GM of the Year.

However, those who’ve been paying attention have probably noticed that the stories about the Knights’ home cooking are a little less frequent these days. The “aren’t they amazing?” video packages aren’t so common anymore. All talk of what a tough out they’re going to be have faded. And that’s because it’s starting to look like teams have figured them out. Since Feb. 26 (and not including yesterday’s game against a sliding Calgary side), they have just three regulation wins in 10 games. They’re losers of four straight in T-Mobile Area, the once-proud home of the Vegas Flu.

But anyone can lose four straight at home. Anyone can lose 6 of 10. It happens. Earlier this year, the Lightning lost 5 of 7. Nashville opened the season winning just 5 of 12. But the problem for Vegas is that in terms of their “process,” they’ve been trending down for a while now. Their numbers in the last 16 games — that is, since Feb. 13 — look pretty bleak at 5-on-5: They’re 16th in shot attempts, 19th in shots on goal, and 27th in expected goals. The only reason they’re even plugging along a little bit is that Fleury continues to be spectacular, by and large, and they’re still getting plenty lucky in shooting the puck.

Moreover, this comes at a time when their power play remains quite good, running seventh in the league at 24.4 percent, neck-and-neck with Tampa. Their PK, however, has crashed and burned, running 74.4 percent and seventh-last in the NHL. Their kill is suddenly worse than Ottawa’s, after spending the previous 55 games at 82 percent. And that’s reflected in the underlying numbers; they’re giving up more attempts, more high-danger chances, etc., and to no one’s surprise when such a thing happens, that’s turning into more goals in the back of their net.

Over this period, they’re plus-3 in actual goals but minus-5.3 in expected goals at full strength. Outperforming their poor play to that extent is the only reason the wheels haven’t well and truly fallen off, and one has to logically start wondering how much longer Vegas can last.

Again, in the grand scheme of things this may look like a blip on the radar. It’s 16 games of playing poorly, and their record in that time is still 9-6-1. This is basically the definition of being a bit lucky, but the thing with Vegas is that this is a slippage of quality that’s led to the worsening results. Other teams that outperformed expectations for a big chunk of the season then regressed — your Torontos and Minnesotas and Calgarys and Colorados and Floridas — were those with sub-50 percent underlying numbers that never really impressed you to watch them but won anyway thanks to a lot of shooting luck and, often, surprisingly good goaltending.

Not so with Vegas. Basically all their underlyings were well above 50 percent for a good chunk of the year and have only started to slip in the last month-plus. The reasons for this aren’t quite clear to me; have teams simply figured out their PK and 5-on-5 schemes? Are injuries to some key players catching up with them a bit (and in doing so exposing the team’s long-gestating depth problems)? Could this just be “one of those things?”

The answer to all those questions, I think, is “probably.” It’s a combination of factors that can’t be wholly explained except to say the NHL season is long and teams that don’t have a ton of top-end talent and depth eventually get figured out, and when guys like James Neal and Reilly Smith get hurt, that exacerbates the issue.

I’ve said all year that Vegas got a better team than they had any right to if other GMs were smart about their expansion draft approach, and a number of guys are having career seasons in what not-so-coincidentally are contract years. I’ve also said all along that they were a lot like last year’s Blue Jackets, which were pretty good for most of the season but made a lot of hay by absolutely pounding on bad teams and getting lucky against good ones. I’ve seen little to dissuade me from either take to this point.

The question, then, becomes what this team looks like come playoff time. They’re still all but assured to win their division — San Jose ended Saturday night six points back with an extra game played — but they’re also probably going to face the better of the two wild card teams. Right now that could be Colorado, Dallas, or Anaheim. The Stars are sliding a bit lately as well (3-3-4 in their last 10) and Colorado is coming on strong (6-1-3). That would be a tough out for the Golden Knights, home ice or not. It couldn’t be a surprise if they, like last year’s Blue Jackets, lost in the first round despite getting a lot of hype all season.

In theory, there’s still time for them to turn this around and go back to being what everyone thinks of them being. But they’re quickly running out of track and, perhaps, answers.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Losing Kevin Bieksa for a month strikes me as a blessing in disguise.

Arizona Coyotes: Put another way, Antti Raanta is looking to run out the clock.

Boston Bruins: How do they keep winning like this?

Buffalo Sabres: They’re really gonna try to sign Casey Mittelstadt here. If Mittelstadt is smart, he runs it to Aug. 15, 2021.

Calgary Flames: They’re gonna miss again. You gotta make changes this summer.

Carolina Hurricanes: Ah, trying to cheap out on a GM search? Good stuff. For the record, $400,000 a season is mid-tier assistant GM money, not actual NHL GM money.

Chicago Blackhawks: These guys hadn’t lost to the Sabres since 2009. That’s where we’re at now.

Colorado Avalanche: Another attempt to discredit the MacKinnon for Hart campaign. Shameful!

Columbus Blue Jackets: They just keep winning. Which is what they should have been doing all year.

Dallas Stars: The good news is they keep getting enough points that all this losing might not matter so so so much at the end of the season, but also you probably don’t want to gamble like this.

Detroit Red Wings: This kind of apologia has to get wearisome to write after 70 games.

Edmonton Oilers: Hahahaha, what a headline.

Florida Panthers: Turns out it probably doesn’t matter if you get super-hot at the end of the season if you were horrendous for the first four months of it.

Los Angeles Kings: Sometimes you just get shut out on 38 shots by a backup goalie. It’s a weird sport, man, I dunno.

Minnesota Wild: Devan Dubnyk picked up his 200th career win on Saturday. Here’s a guy with a .916 career save percentage despite playing on the Oilers for a long time. Not bad!

Montreal Canadiens: Would the Canadiens be better off tanking the rest of the way?” What kind of question is this? They’re a point above the bottom five and they went into the year thinking they were a playoff team. Who cares?

Nashville Predators: These guys gotta be scary, man.

New Jersey Devils: They are about to do it.  Down five points, Florida’s gotta be cooked, even with the games in hand.

New York Islanders: Moving Tavares to the wing? Just trade him now. Good lord.

New York Rangers: Yeah I can see their future: It’s a real dark place.

Ottawa Senators: In my medical opinion, getting hit in the head with a frozen rubber thing moving close to triple-digit miles per hour is bad.

Philadelphia Flyers: If you’re ever down in the third period, you better hope like hell you’re playing Carolina.

Pittsburgh Penguins: If they can finally get Brassard going, look all the way out.

San Jose Sharks: Gotta tell ya, the Sharks are looking real good lately.

St. Louis Blues: Would losing Vladimir Tarasenko for the last few weeks of the season be bad?

Tampa Bay Lightning: I want a Lightning/Bruins series very very very badly.

Toronto Maple Leafs: I don’t know if it’s good or bad that the Leafs have been around this long and this third-in-their-own-division season is probably going to be their best in franchise history.

Vancouver Canucks: Yeah this team is an embarrassment, full stop.

Vegas Golden Knights: One team Vegas really doesn’t want to play in the first round? Minnesota.

Washington Capitals: This is a fun twist.

Winnipeg Jets: Lost in how good the Jets have been: Last summer’s Dmitry Kulikov contract has been pretty bad.

Play of the Weekend

For me? This was a good goal from Luke Schenn.

Gold Star Award

As expected, Keith Kinkaid is sealing up this Devils playoff appearance. We all saw it coming.

Minus of the Weekend

Drew Doughty has played 30 minutes in two of the Kings’ last three games. That’s too many minutes!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “wilfred” is on top of things.

To Ottawa:
Price

To Montreal:
Ryan
Gaborik
Anderson
Perron
Ott 2nd 19
*Perron and Ott 2nd are for Montreal to pay for Prices 13m signing bonus before the trade is made

Signoff

Oh, not in Utica, no. It’s an Albany expression.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via HYPERLINK “http://www.corsica.hockey/”Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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