Defenseman Nate Schmidt, USA Today Sports
It has been a season of ups and downs thus far for the Vegas Golden Knights. Starting the year without Nate Schmidt for 20 games put the Golden Knights in a tough spot, as Schmidt plays the role of their number one defenseman, contributing at even strength and on both special teams units. Schmidt's suspension and injuries to Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin, Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, and Erik Haula have and continue to provide a decent amount of adversity for the Vegas hockey club to fight through. Vegas has slowly regained composure and is now back in the top half of the Western Conference standings, with Stastny expected to return during their current four-game road trip.
Heading into the holidays, the Golden Knights should be down to just one man remaining on their injury report. Haula's widely-speculated ACL injury has been very "hush hush" with VGK brass and no clear timetables have been given regarding his return to the ice. With Haula gone "month-to-month" the Golden Knights move forward with a fairly healthy roster and a team that has been playing very well as of late, with an 8-2-0 record in their last 10 games, since a 7-2 stinker in Calgary.
With the Golden Knights trending up, the rest of the Western Conference will take notice. As the defending Western Conference Champions, the Golden Knights' ascent up the standings is dangerous for their Western Conference cohorts. As of December 12th, the Golden Knights find themselves in fifth place in the Pacific Divison with a 17-14-1 record, good for 35 points. They are well within reach of a playoff spot, as only two points sit between Vegas and second place in the Pacific Division. With the halfway point of the season less than 10 games away, how do the Golden Knights stack up against the rest of the Pacific Division? Let's take a look at the competition:
1st Place - Calgary Flames: 32 GP (19-10-2, 40 pts)
Record against Vegas: 1-1-0
Calgary is backed by superstar Johnny Gaudreau, affectionately known as "Johnny Hockey". His top line, with Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm have been a big reason for Calgary's success. The three forwards are the top three point producers for the Flames, with the New Jersey native Gaudreau leading the way with 39 points (12g, 27a). NHL-legacy Matthew Tkachuk provides depth scoring punch (33 points) and plays the point on the Flames' top PP unit. Calgary is solid on the blue line, led by captain Mark Giordano and has gotten solid goaltending from David Rittich (2.29 GAA, .922 SV%) during incumbent starter Mike Smith's struggles. Calgary looks legit, IF they get the goaltending.
2nd Place - San Jose Sharks: 32 GP (16-11-5, 37 pts)
Record against Vegas: 0-1-0
Coming into the season, the Sharks were looked at as the biggest challenger to the Golden Knights' Pacific Division championship defense. San Jose resigned Evander Kane, traded for Erik Karlsson, and kept their top-six intact. While they are in a playoff spot, inconsistent goaltending and less than stellar defensive zone play have capped the Sharks' seemingly sky-high potential. San Jose has time to work out their growing pains, but they need Martin Jones and Aaron Dell to be better between the pipes. San Jose is a lock for the playoffs, but they are very beatable.
3rd Place - Anaheim Ducks: 32 GP (16-11-5, 37 pts)
Record against Vegas: 0-2-0
Two words, John Gibson. He is the reason the Anaheim Ducks find themselves in a playoff position at this point in the season. His GAA doesn't show his dominance, due in part to shaky team defense, but his .925 SV% despite Anaheim sporting a horrendous 45.24 CF% speaks volumes to his play. Gibson keeps Anaheim in games, helping them win when they don't deserve to. Backup Ryan Miller is out six weeks and was replaced by the recently-waived Chad Johnson. A Duck sighting in the playoffs would be astounding.
4th Place - Edmonton Oilers: 31 GP (17-12-2, 36 pts)
Record against Vegas: 1-1-0
Edmonton obviously has the superstar, Connor McDavid. They also have Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at their disposal. Scoring should never be an issue for Edmonton. In an effort to right the ship, the Oilers replaced former coach Todd McClellan with future-HOFer Ken Hitchcock. Hitch has the Oilers looking like the contenders they were in the 2016-17 season. Backup goalie Mikko Koskinen has saved the Oilers from Cam Talbot's dismal play. If the goaltending holds up, Hitch will have the Oilers in the playoffs, as a wildcard.
6th Place - Vancouver Canucks: 33 GP (14-16-3, 31 pts)
Record against Vegas: 1-1-0
Vancouver had a strong start to the season, fell off a little, and are now working on a three game win streak. The return of Brock Boeser and the mindblowing play of rookie sensation Elias Petterson (16g, 16a) provide hope for the young Canucks. They recently waived former Golden Knight Brendan Leipsic who was then claimed by division rival LA. Vancouver is a wild card when it comes to the Pacific Divison race. They could end up playing the role of spoiler late in the season.
7th Place - Arizona Coyotes: 29 GP (13-14-2, 28 pts)
Record against Vegas: 0-0-1
Arizona looked like they were ready to take a steo forward this season. Multiple injuries, the latest potentially season-ending, to talented goaltender Antti Raanta and a lack of top-end talent have put a damper on the Coyotes' season. A team loaded with potential (namely Clayton Keller, Alex Galchenyuk, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Jakob Chychrun), the Coyotes have yet to scratch that surface. Their offseason swap of Max Domi for Galchenyuk has yet to pay off. Domi (14g, 17a) has been great in Montreal thus far while Galchenyuk (3g, 8a) has battled through injuries all season. Arizona has some work to do.
8th Place - Los Angeles Kings: 32 GP (11-19-2, 24 pts)
Record against Vegas: 1-0-0
Los Angeles is the second Pacific Division team that fired a coach. John Stevens was let go, but the Kings' struggless have continued without a hitch. They have gotten pretty good at finding ways to lose games. All-star goalie Jonathan Quick is surprisingly back from his knee surgery, missing just 12 games. He seems to be regaining his high level of play, including a 5-1 win in Vegas on December 8th. LA may be looking to sell at the trade deadline. Ilya Kovalchuk could be sent out with his $6.25 million cap hit along with rumors swirling about superstar Drew Doughty. Doughty is set to make $11 million next season, in the first year of his contract extension. Quick and Doughty will be sought after by numerous teams. LA should be in sell mode.
Despite their early struggles, the Vegas Golden Knights will be a playoff team at season's end. Barring a significant injury to their core, the Golden Knights are a real player in the Western Conference playoff picture. Vegas is a threat in the West, a team with good overall speed, reasonable depth scoring, and solid goaltending. Combine that with a plus penalty kill (83.2%, 7th NHL) and salary cap space to improve at the trade deadline and you have the makings of a long playoff run.
For all of their positives, the Golden Knights have been prone to defensive zone breakdowns and inconsistency at times this season. The return of Schmidt has helped normalize the defensive pairs and rotation, but the Golden Knights will need to keep defensive zone play at the top of their priority list as they march toward their second straight playoff campaign. Anything less than a two-for-two in playoff visits will be unacceptable for this team.
General Manager George McPhee added talent to the returning core with the intent of Vegas being a better team, which they are, on paper. It has taken some time, but Max Pacioretty (trade and sign) has finally broken out, now playing alongside Eakin and Tuch. Stastny's return can provide a boost to the third line, which has not produced. Oft-scratched Oscar Lindberg has looked good since Haula's injury pushed him into the lineup. On the opposite wing, Tomas Nosek provides speed and great penalty killing, serving on the top PK unit with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
Paul Stastny, USA Today Sports
Stastny slotting in for Ryan Carpenter (1g, 6a) on the third line is the move to make. Vegas' first, second, and fourth lines have been very strong, which only highlights the ineffectiveness of the third line. Carpenter plays on the second PK unit with Eakin, but Reilly Smith can seamlessly slide into that role, as he currently gets PK time alongside William Karlsson, when Vegas utilizes a third PK unit. With Lindberg and Nosek at his side, Stastny should have little problem getting back to game speed as Vegas marches toward a playoff push.
At some point, back-up goaltender Malcolm Subban will need minutes. Starter Marc-Andre Fleruy has started all but four games this season (84% of the games), including both games of two back-to-back scenarios. Head coach Gerard Gallant clearly has faith in Fleury's talent and conditioning, but as a goalie with over 760 career regular season games, Fleury will need some rest before a playoff run. Subban also needs the chance to get sharp. He has had both good and bad moments thus far, but hasn't played in the past 10 games, his last action coming in the 7-2 loss to Calgary. Subban made a number of big saves in that game, while being admittedly hung out to dry by the Vegas defense corps. Subban should have been given the chance to erase that memory by now. You have to wonder about the condition of the Vegas back-up net-minder at this point.
Marc-Andre Fleury, USA TODAY
Last season, Vegas was forced to play five different goaltenders, due to injury. After the way 2017-18 played out, it is very odd to see how much faith Gallant has, in giving Fleury such a heavy workload. Without sufficient game time, Subban could struggle mightily, in the event he is needed in a hurry. Vegas better hope there isn't an injury to Fleury.
All-in-all, the Vegas Golden Knights have the tools to compete in post-season. Their success against the Pacific Division definitely increases their chances of locking up one of the top eight spots. The defending conference champs rely on their starting goaltender a little too much for my liking, but at the same time, they have the potential to put up high scoring totals. Consistency will be key for Vegas down the stretch, but it is hard to see this team missing the playoffs in their sophomore campaign.
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