By Sheng Peng
Have the Vegas Golden Knights gotten faster?
Two years ago, the expansion Golden Knights played faster than just about everybody else on their way to the Stanley Cup Final.
This season, they seem to have re-discovered that gear, especially after a critical tweak to their defensive zone structure.
For the first 2 1/3 years of their existence, Vegas generally played man-to-man defense in their zone. Here’s an example from their inaugural campaign:
Concentrate on James Neal (18), who follows Tyson Barrie (4) from the top of the blueline to below the goal line.
This year, on November 27th, the 11-11-4 Golden Knights flipped the switch by trying a zone defense against the Nashville Predators.
In contrast to Neal chasing pinching defenseman Barrie around the ice, Mark Stone (61) hands pinching defenseman Roman Josi (59) off to Paul Stastny (26).
The offensive and defensive gains have been immediate, according to data from SPORTLOGiQ.
With fewer moving parts in their defensive zone, the Golden Knights are keeping the slot more secure by allowing fewer passes in that high-danger area. Their Slot Pass Completion Against Rate Per Game at 5-on-5 was 30th in league (45.8%) before the change. Since November 27th, it’s first (35.3).
All this while giving their opponents more Offensive Zone Possession Time Against Per Game: They allowed 4:04 (seventh in the NHL) before the change, 4:42 since (20th in the league). This suggests that while Vegas is ceding the perimeter defensively, they’re clamping down in the house.
“The scoring chances, I wouldn’t say they’re down against us, but I’d say they’re not as clear-cut Grade-A chances,” Gerard Gallant offered. “I think we’re keeping teams to the outside.”
Nate Schmidt noted that stopping slot passes at a higher rate was a perhaps unintended by-product of simply having more manpower in that area: “It wasn’t so much slot passes, it was more guys getting beat, we weren’t having someone there supporting. If their D comes down the wall, beats the forward, you have all this room in the middle of the ice.”
The defenseman added: “You have more guys in the middle of the ice. Usually, perception-wise, it will deter teams from trying to use that area.”
From better defense has come better offense.
Besides a closely-guarded slot, the Golden Knights’ new defensive zone scheme has put their forwards in more optimal offensive positions. Now, instead of chasing pinching defensemen below the goal line, Vegas wingers are usually higher up in the zone, closer to going the other way at the drop of a dime.
Schmidt joked, “Except for Shea [Theodore], you really want the puck in the forwards’ hands.”
He elaborated, speaking for his fellow defensemen: “We’re the ones breaking pucks up, getting pucks up to the forwards. Instead of two forwards and a d-man, now it’s usually three forwards [attacking], and we’re allowed to be the late guy.”
Nic Hague noted that it’s not just Vegas forwards who were chasing attackers all over the defensive zone: “It’s more efficient, the way it works now with us as d-men not chasing around. If our guy goes up to the blue and then we’re up in the blue, we’re kind of out of our natural position.”
Greater efficiency has generated more speed for an already-fast group.
Per SPORTLOGiQ, the Golden Knights’ 5-on-5 transition offense has exploded, in quantity and quality, since November 27th:
|Golden Knights, 5v5||Before 11/27 (NHL rank)||After 11/27 (NHL rank)|
|Rush scoring chances||5.6 (3)||7.0 (2)|
|Odd-man rushes||2.9 (19)||3.8 (4)|
|Goals off the rush||0.42 (22)||0.68 (4)|
|Controlled entries||30.5 (15)||36.8 (4)|
Since going to a zone defense, Vegas has experienced a spike in Rush Scoring Chances, Odd-man Rushes, Goals Off the Rush, and Controlled Entries Per Game at 5-on-5. They’re back to being one of the top transition attacks in the league.
Here’s how efficient defense can lead to rush offense — from December 10th against the Chicago Blackhawks:
Erik Gustafsson (56) creeps down the left wall. Stone stays with Gustafsson until the goal line and hands him off to Hague (14).
Below the goal line, Gustafsson tries to hit Dominik Kubalik (8) in the slot, but Stone, who has switched onto Kubalik, blocks the pass. Instead of beginning below the goal line or giving the puck to a defenseman, Vegas’s top offensive forward can kickstart the rush from a more dangerous place.
So is Vegas faster?
“Yeah, we are,” Jonathan Marchessault asserted. “I think the system fits well with the type of players we have on the team.”
Gallant agreed, revealing: “It looks quicker. I thought we were in a rut the first 15 games of the season. We were playing okay hockey, but I just didn’t see the same as I saw in Year 1 and 2. But lately, I’ve seen it a lot better, where we’re picking up our pace a little bit. Our transition game is a little better.”
“We needed to clean up how we were playing. We were wasting a lot of energy,” Schmidt admitted. “In turn, we found these positive by-products.”
The Golden Knights running once again — that’s a scary thing for a Pacific which doesn’t have a clear frontrunner yet. Vegas has taken pole position in the division with a 13-4-2 record since November 27th.
“The biggest thing for me, when I see our D moving the puck up to our forwards, we get our transition game,” Gallant said. “When we’re playing our best hockey, that’s what we’re doing.”