Trending Topics: Let's talk about the Vegas Golden Knights

Let’s be realistic here: The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t an elite team. (Getty)
Let’s be realistic here: The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t an elite team. (Getty)

Seems like this is the week for Vegas takes.

On Tuesday, the Golden Knights did what the Golden Knights do: Won at home against a team that is significantly better than them. It led some guy named Greg Wyshynski whom I have never heard of and is probably a bad guy to wonder if the “Vegas Flu is real.

Likewise, Tyler Dellow concluded that the Golden Knights “look reasonably real” in terms of being competitive, because while their top two lines are overperforming their capabilities — an unexpected turn of events — and their bottom two lines are doing just about what everyone should have predicted, they’re mostly breaking even in a lot of their games and have, indeed, gotten a little lucky, especially on the power play.

And Travis Yost noted that the Knights’ real strength is their second line, with two guys the Panthers foolishly gave away for nothing. Here, too, this is something we could have reasonably predicted, because Reilly Smith and Jon Marchessault were both very good players Dale Tallon didn’t value because of who previously valued them. Are they as good as the numbers suggest? Probably not. But are they very good, elite middle-six guys in the NHL? Absolutely.

At this point, it would take a minor miracle for the Golden Knights, who have 46 points from 33 games, to miss the playoffs. They’d need to really blow it, and given the talent throughout the entirety of the roster, one imagines they’re not going to. With that having been said, there’s a world of difference between the way reasonable people like Yost and Dellow are talking about them, and other national media guys have turned into the kind of debased fanboys who can’t imagine a scenario in which this isn’t one of the best teams in the league.

You expect that latter kind of talk from actual fanboys, of course, especially because a lot of them probably haven’t been regular NHL Watchers over the past few years and don’t know the standard litany of cautionary tales like Columbus, Calgary, Colorado, Florida, etc. A lot of the arguments you hear about them are the ones Blue Jackets fans were pushing around this time last year: Look who they’ve beaten, it’s all the good teams in the league. Look at their home record, it’s insanely good. Look at their power play, it’s very successful.

But there’s a big difference between beating the Lightning 3-2 on a BS late penalty call in mid-December and winning four games out of seven against an actual playoff team once April rolls around. Look how good Columbus appeared to be heading into last year’s postseason, and how badly the Penguins humiliated them; they won one game out of five and had a minus-8 goal difference. Hey man, it happens.

With that in mind, let me try to lay out the reasons — which Vegas fans won’t acknowledge as being actual problems until after the fact — why the Golden Knights still appear to me to be a paper tiger. Any discussion of this issue, of course, has to revert back to that Vegas Flu idea, which is very probably a real issue for visiting teams, but probably not to the extent that the Knights should expect to be 14-2-1 at home.

First let’s acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, Vegas is a perfectly alright team at full strength. They’re 13th in CF%, ninth in expected goals, third in penalty difference, and don’t have an outside PDO, which is why they’re “only” 13th in goals. Way better than anyone had any right to expect headed into the season, but hey, here we are. And obviously given the point total, their results dramatically outperform their plus-6 goal difference at 5-on-5, especially because their goal difference on combined power play and penalty kill situations is only plus-3.

As I’ve said before, this is a team that’s outscoring opponents 5-0 in overtime (so that’s maybe two or three more points than should be expected), and is 2-2 in shootouts. Add in a couple empty-netters and that gives you their plus-16 goal difference in all situations. A team that’s plus-16 shouldn’t also be 13 games above .500, but this is where the home record comes in.

Because if Vegas is 14-2-1 at home and 8-7-1 on the road, that tells you something weird is going on. And while we can be perfectly accepting that teams get to Vegas and party a little too hard, one imagines that doesn’t lead to the kind of swing that gives them a plus-21 goal difference at home but a minus-6 on the road. (And by the way, the fact that they’re effectively a game above .500 despite a minus-6 goal difference in all situations tells you even more about how lucky this team has been.)

So let’s just do the simple stuff and look at the home/road splits, with the acknowledgement that teams should, of course, do better in their own rink because they get the benefit of last change and so on:

As you can see, this is a team that’s a little bit above water in a lot of ways, and has a more significant edge in average shot quality at home. However, you also have to say that scoring almost 60 percent of the goals at home is a thing that cannot be sustained.

Obviously they’re outpeforming their team talent level with that shooting percentage, and that doesn’t include the incredible, unsustainable success in the 3-on-3. But the talent outperformance is especially true when you consider that save percentage, given that Vegas relied on AHL or ECHL goaltenders for all but a small handful of their games this season. There is no universe in which the quartet of Maxime Lagace, Malcolm Subban, Oscar Dansk, and Dylan Ferguson should be anywhere close to .916 at 5-on-5 on a long enough timeline, given what we know of their talent levels relative to other NHL goalies.

Fleury, sure, he can keep marginally outperforming expected goals numbers, but nonetheless, at some point all this has to catch up with Vegas, even at home.

The idea that the “Vegas Flu” is going to allow a team — let alone an expansion team with minimal top-end talent — to reliably outperform its expected-goals number by 4.5 points seems like a bit of a stretch, even if we think it’s real. And I mean, it probably is to some extent.

But it’s it weird that we stopped collectively talking about Vancouver’s “Roxy Flu” when they stopped having a ton of high-end talent and started eating losses at home like crazy? The Canucks carried a 102.1 PDO at home from 2007-12, which I’m willing to call their heyday for all intents and purposes. In the past six seasons? It’s 99.4, which feels “more right” given the way the team has been managed and the talent has aged. Did visiting teams stop going to the Roxy in the past six years? Maybe. Did the talent and an extra couple hundred games against a lower-end club catch up with them? I’m gonna guess the answer is “uhh, yeah.”

And since people are talking so much about Vegas’s record against current playoff teams (well, those in playoff spots ahead of Thursday’s games), here’s the breakdown on that regardless of venue:

First of all, they’ve played 20 games against non-playoff teams and only 13 against playoff clubs, which is going to help the ol’ win percentage. But here, too, there’s a problem of overperformance. Let’s say Vegas is better than all the teams they’ve played that are not currently in the playoffs (a bit of a stretch but mostly right). That doesn’t explain why they’ve taken a 31 of a possible 40 points against those teams (a .775 points percentage, or pace for 127 points). Obviously, that is not commensurate with how they’ve actually played against those teams.

Meanwhile, they have a .500 points percentage against the playoff teams, which is also a little better than where they maybe “should be” against those teams, but far more reasonable.

So no one is saying this is a bad team. Again, they’re perfectly fine. And better than most had any right to expect. But to believe this home record to hold up the rest of the year is to set yourself up for disappointment, and is just as foolish as thinking this is an actual elite team. As with Columbus last year, yeah they’re beating good teams, but the process just isn’t really there overall.

The Vegas people don’t really have the experience to realize these things, and maybe one day they will, but everyone in the national picture should know better by now. Doesn’t mean this isn’t a good story or that Vegas isn’t better than anyone would have given them credit for in September, but good lord, let’s be realistic here.

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

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