The Vegas Golden Knights were the Cinderella story of the NHL last season. An expansion team that made its way not just to the Stanley Cup Playoffs but all the way to the Cup Final in year one. There was plenty of off-season discussion about their ability to sustain that level of play. This season, they have started at a 7-10-1 record, putting them second last in the Western Conference. However, what is ironic is that despite the standings, the 2018 Vegas Golden Knights underlying numbers show that they are still a strong team.
2018 Golden Knights Slow Start Should Change
The 2018 Vegas Golden Knights have started their season in what could be described as a “sophomore slump”. However, this is more just bad luck than anything else. The Golden Knights have actually done an extremely good job at controlling possession this season.
The Knights rank second in both Shot Attempt Differential (CF%) and Expected Goals Percentage (xGF%). Both of these show evidence of likely better future success, or regression. The Knights currently have a 57.43 CF% and a 57.06 xGF%. While it is still early in the year, the sample size is large enough to indicate this Knights team is a solid team.
If they put up those kinds of numbers over a full season they would be considered elite. There may be some regression, however, there is nothing to suggest that this is a bad team.
So What’s Different?
Missing Key Players
One of the biggest hurts for this season has been the lack of key players for the Knights. The 2018 Golden Knights saw lots of turnover on the roster from the Cup Finals team. Players like James Neal and David Perron left. While additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny were brought in.
However, Pacioretty has missed a few games earlier in the season. He has struggled to find is feet with a new team. Putting up just two goals in 14 games. There’s nothing to suggest that this will continue all year though. Pacioretty is a consistent 30 goal scorer, and even with this slow start can be expected to hit over 20 in most years. Pacioretty has also been a streaky scorer throughout his career. Once he gains some chemistry it would come as a surprise to no one if he starts to light it up.
Part of the lack of chemistry is the guy Pacioretty was suppose to be linemates with, has also been out. Stastny has played just three games this season after being injured early on. He is not expected to be back for a little while and that is a huge loss for the 2018 Vegas Golden Knights.
Lastly, top pairing defenseman Nate Schmidt was suspended for testing positive for PEDs. This was right before the season started and while controversial, could not be overturned and is a huge loss to the Knights.
Once they get some of these key players back, it’s reasonable to believe an improvement will be seen. Adding shooting and defensive talent should greatly help the Golden Knights.
One of the biggest drops for the Golden Knights has been goaltending. Last season, they used many different goalies at the beginning of the year and they all got it done. They finished 12th in team save percentage last season. A big part of that was starter Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury ranked seventh out of 31 starters with 40 plus starts in goals saved above average (GSAA). A metric that ranks shot quality and shooter when determining if a goalie should have stopped a puck or not. He also ranked fifth in 5v5 save percentage. This means when he had as much of a chance as every other goalie, Fleury was lights out. He was a big part of making the playoffs. His play in the playoffs was even more impressive.
This year, however, for the 30 goalies who have played at least nine games, Fleury ranks 28th in GSAA and 27th in save percentage. His stats have taken a huge hit. Some of that may be because of the injuries previously mentioned. However, overall, you’re just not going to be a successful team with league-worst goaltending. Fleury has also started in 15 of the 18 games played by the team. Not only is he playing poorly, but he’s playing the majority of games too.
This one is the most straightforward really. The 2018 Vegas Golden Knights have been extremely unlucky shooting the puck. They rank second last in shooting percentage in the league at 5.59 percent at 5v5. They also rank 2nd last all situations at 6.89 percent. Compare this to last year where they were 6th and 8th in the league respectively and you can see what is wrong.
It would be reasonable to suggest that Vegas’s early bad luck shouldn’t continue all year. Although you can never truly know over a full season, the Knights do have enough shooting talent on their team. Expecting them to be around the middle of the league seems like a fair expectation. Their luck with shots could easily change this season going forward.
Why This Will Change
A last and helpful look at why the Vegas Golden Knights luck may just change can be seen from their shot locations this year. Taken from hockeyviz.com, these heat maps show their shots for and against this season.
On the left-hand side, we have the shots Vegas has taken. As you can see by the red around the front of the net they are getting lots of high danger chances. A bulk of their chances are coming right in front of the net. Meaning that they should see an improvement in shooting percentage if this keeps up. This is because shooting percentage shoots up in high danger chances.
The right side is the shots against for Vegas. The giant blue in front of the net means they have played a solid defensive game in front of Fleury. This once again should see some regression. Even if Fleury has an off year and doesn’t bounce back fully if they keep limiting high danger shots there should be an improvement on how many pucks end up in the net.
Going forward, the Golden Knights should be fine. While this team certainly isn’t a favourite to head back to the Stanley Cup Final, they should definitely be competitive in a playoff spot. In a weak Pacific Division making up ground will be much easier than in the Central.
All the stated reasons above of what’s different are things that very likely shouldn’t stay as bad as they are all year. They’ll get their players back and see regression in shooting and save percentage. It may not be at the very top of the league but there is also not much to suggest it should stay at the bottom. If the Knights keep playing like this, they have a promising season ahead of them still.
All stats were taken from Corsica.Hockey.
Main Photo: LAS VEGAS, NV – SEPTEMBER 30: Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Vegas Golden Knights tends goal against the San Jose Sharks during a preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on September 30, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)