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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin - USA TODAY Sports

What Can We Learn – Vegas Golden Knights

Yesterday, I kicked off a series looking at the four Conference Finalists and trying to identify reasons for their success. In case you missed it, you can read over the Tampa Bay Lightning one here.

Now, we look at the Vegas Golden Knights.

If you told me at any point in 2017 that the Golden Knights were going to be one of the four teams left in May, I wouldn’t have believed you. No one would’ve. That’s okay — it’s okay to be wrong about things and Vegas has been doing everything to prove people wrong.

Justin Bourne with The Athletic wrote a similar thing about Vegas before the Golden Knights made it this far and it was part of the inspiration for this series. Honestly, I didn’t expect Vegas to make it past San Jose before the second series started and this idea began to percolate. With that in mind, I will take some slightly different angles than Bourne did.

Note: Yes, this is CanucksArmy and thus there will be some projections onto the local team but the intention is not to criticize the Canucks.

Let’s dive into the Vegas Golden Knights.

Speed is King

Like the Lightning, the Golden Knights play the game at a fast pace that can be difficult to handle. They caught teams throughout the regular season and now in the postseason.

They made the Kings look especially slow and that carried over to the series against the Sharks. San Jose could keep up, but it seemed like the Knights were just constantly coming and able to take advantage of mistakes and sub-par goaltending from Sharks netminder Martin Jones.

It would’ve been really easy for the coaching staff to have them play a defensive or trapping style where they batten down the hatches and then hope for some luck. That would’ve been the easy road. Instead, it was about pushing the pace, getting the puck moving, reading and reacting to the play and then getting some good goaltending.

Sportsnet columnist and PDOcast host Dimitri Filipovic offers a nice observation here:

That idea won’t always work — and it could’ve easily burned them — but it created an exciting product for an expansion team that needed to generate some buzz. Honestly, it allowed some of the Knights players to be creative and do things that a defensive style likely wouldn’t have allowed.

It exposed slow teams and kept the NHL’s elite on their toes.

Teams make mistakes – take advantage of it

The Golden Knights were in a position that may only get repeated again in the sense that the expansion draft gave them an opportunity to take advantage of teams previous mistakes. That will likely occur again when Seattle joins the fray, but otherwise, it’s not something that can be replicated.

But, taking advantage of other teams bad contracts is something that can be done. We saw it with Arizona taking on Pavel Datsyuk and Dave Bolland, New Jersey (and Florida) taking on Marc Savard’s contract and Carolina taking on Bryan Bickell’s contract to acquire Teuvo Teravainen — these are some examples of ways to add assets. You have to have an owner who is willing to eat that money but if you have space the opportunity is there to leverage cap space into value. You can acquire more draft picks or other players to help in the now.

The Golden Knights seized this opportunity to acquire a plethora of picks and then some players that are part of their team right now like Jonathan Marchessault. They have been then able to peddle those picks to build up their prospect pool (which started at zero) or turn them into now-players like Tomas Tatar.

They also leveraged their cap space to acquire Ryan Reaves for the cost of a mid-round pick and cap space. They acquired Derrick Brassard, ate some salary, and then sent him to Pittsburgh (all in one day). You can quibble with the player that they acquired, but at the end, they gave up a 4th round pick and an AHL player to acquire a player that they felt would help their NHL lineup. It’s even better to look at when you consider that the Penguins gave up 20 spots in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft to acquire Reaves, allowing St Louis to move back into the first round.

Not every time will work out, but the thought process behind it is something to keep in mind when it comes to the opportunity cost that is lost when you max out your cap space when it’s not really needed.

That opportunity cost is a market inefficiency that more teams could take advantage of.

This should also serve as a lesson to avoid unrestricted free agency to the best of your abilities. Every team has bad contracts and the majority come from that frivolous spending done in the early days of July. Vegas was able to avoid this naturally and thus had cap space throughout the entire season. Those last two points should be an important takeaway.

The Pacific Division is not good

This may be the only fully Canucks angle in the whole series.

The Golden Knights benefitted from the Pacific Division not being that good. At the bottom, you had the Canucks, who are rebuilding. The Coyotes appear to be trending upwards and then followed by the two Alberta teams who had varying levels of disappointing seasons.

Anaheim and Los Angeles appear to be in the past with their style of play, roster makeup and prospect pools. That leaves us with San Jose, who just can’t get over that hump.

All of this is to say that the Pacific Division is anyone’s guess next year, and the Golden Knights could replicate their success. A lot of your playoff success can be dictated by your matchups and the Golden Knights have reasonably easily dispatched the two California teams they faced and the argument can easily be made that any other Pacific Divison team would’ve met the same fate.

The Canucks have a long way to go before there can even be the suggestion that they can secure a playoff spot within the Pacific, but crazier things have happened. Like an expansion team making the freaking Conference Finals.

Giving those depth players chances

This was a topic that was covered by Justin Bourne is his version of this exercise, so I will try to expand on that.

The basic premise of one of the bullet points was that the Golden Knights were built on bit parts that were given expanded roles and thus flourished from there.  Applying to other teams, and Justin articulated it quite well, why not give you depth players a chance to succeed when they do get inserted into the lineup. If you have an offensive winger, put him on an offensive line in your top-six. If you have a puck-moving defenceman who has succeeded in every level on the powerplay, throw him out there with the man advantage.

Every point matters in an NHL season but there is the opportunity to put some of your younger and utility situations that can allow them to flourish and develop.

Even looking in the crease for the Golden Knights, their duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban had been passed in the depth charts of their previous organizations and weren’t expected to give the Knights above average goaltending. After both battled through injuries, they were given chances to work through their dips and provide everything the Knights needed to win the Pacific Division.

Conclusion

We likely won’t ever see anything like what has happened with Vegas again. There was no way to predict that they would carry this momentum all the way here. But we can find some lessons in what they did and figure out to apply it to other teams.

The market inefficiencies is a huge aspect of the success that Vegas saw this year. They put themselves in a position to build for the future but were able to pivot and use some of those futures to add a player at the deadline. It didn’t work out perfectly but it’s a representation of what opportunity that could be available.

The Golden Knights are a really hard team to pin down and figure out what exactly made them successful, simply because there were so many things that went their way internally and externally. Good coaching, players stepping up, good goaltending and momentum all played a part in their success on the ice. Off the ice – they did well in assembling a team that the rules allowed and then took advantage of teams in a bind or who were fixated on not losing specific players.

There are some lessons to be taken here though and it will be interesting to see if any of those trends pick up over the next few seasons or if Seattle is able to do the same things.

Tomorrow, we will look at the Washington Capitals.

  • In a way, Vegas did a traditional “build from the goal out” build. They got an NHL starting goaltender, accumulated a huge pool of defencemen (though in anticipation of a D-man trading frenzy rather than to build depth), and got some Top 6 forwards (some known quantities like Marchessault, Smith and Neal but some unexpected results like Karlsson and Perron). Then they all bought into the system of a good coach who knew better than the analytics whiz kids.

    • Freud

      lol

      Selective ignorance, a lazy narrative and an agenda allows Team Lemming to really show the writers they are not as smart as they think they are.

      You sure put CA in their place with this gem.

  • Killer Marmot

    The Canucks have a long way to go before there can even be the suggestion that they can secure a playoff spot within the Pacific, but crazier things have happened.

    I don’t think the Canucks have that far to go. They need a good goalie, they need better defense, they need a few exciting forward prospects to get into the lineup and find their game, they need fewer injuries, and (it pains me to say it) they needed the Sedins to retire.

    One of those things has come true, and the others items could make significant progress next season. The defense, though, might take a while.

    • LAKID

      That looks like light years away. I don’t think it’s fair to ask what the Nuk’s could learn from Vegas. Vegas has a long way to go to repeat their season this year. Vegas has 11 players up for new contracts so it will be interesting but they still will be better than the Nuckle heads even if half the team leaves. Vegas has Superior Management and coaching and it looks like scouting is better than Nuks also. The Canuck’s unforetunately will finish 31st.

      • LiborPolasek

        The word, “NUK’s” in most of your comments/post can also be changed to OILERS… How can a team that had picked FOUR 1st overall picks since 2010 still be this inept ?!?!

      • Killer Marmot

        And in order to move up the standings in the West they need to acquire all that at a rate faster than the teams they are looking up at.

        Which they have done. The Canucks’ prospect pool is far more impressive than that of the Sharks, Ducks, Kings, and Oilers.

        • liqueur des fenetres

          Add me to the parade planning committee then.

          The team ended the season more than 20 points out of the playoffs, and had 14 fewer wins than each of the CA teams you listed, while this impressive prospect pool has yet to play 14 NHL games, combined.

          • Killer Marmot

            The reason that the Canucks’ prospect pool has so few NHL games is because, well, they’re prospects. The Canucks wisely let players like Pettersson, Juolevi, Demko, and Dahlen play out their seasons in other leagues rather than trying to insert them into last year’s losing cause.

      • We are in a much better long-term position than other teams such as San Jose, Anaheim, LA and Edmonton. Save for the Oilers, they’re all on the verge of a significant decline that we’re pulling out from (whereas Edmonton is in perpetual decline).

        – San Jose is aging out with Marleau gone and Thornton (38), Couture (29), Burns (33) and Pavelski (33) are not far behind. They lack replacements that are of the same caliber.

        – Anaheim’s core of Getzlaf (32), Kesler (33), and Perry (32) locked up in long-term contracts. Their defence is looking good but they also lack Top 6 prospects.

        – LA is a bit better off but as they have Vilardi on the way to replace one of Kopitar (30) or Carter (33). Doughty (28) may leave and Dustin Brown (33) isn’t worth his contract.

        – Edmonton is a perpetual mess, that’s an article in itself.

        Arizona, Vegas and Calgary are the teams to watch out for. Calgary seems to have inexplicably plateaued although but it doesn’t help that they don’t have a real starting goaltender. But then again, they drafted Mason McDonald and passed over Thatcher Demko in 2014. Arizona is so brimming with talent, they have to break out soon. And Vegas is incredible out of the gate thanks to McPhee and Gallant.

    • argoleas

      The answer so far may be that we do not know.

      The forward prospect group looks very promising (even beyond Pettersson), but it is just a prospect pool. They could shine in 1 yr, in 3, or never.

      Defense is a huge issue, even if you believe, like I do, that Juolevi will work out as a top pairing Dman. They ‘may’ have some D prospects whose absolute ceiling may be as 2nd pair Dmen, but that’s speculation at this point. Hope that this and the next draft, as well as a potential Tanev trade, deal with this deficiency.

      I think the goal position is the most promising. Lots to be disappointed with Marky this season, but his overall numbers this season were actually not bad (EV much better than PK, as a future article on this site will detail), and it is his first full season. If he builds on the work that he did in the least 20 games, and takes that into the next season, that could be a game-changer. And Demko just keeps reinforcing that he is a AAA prospect.

  • wojohowitz

    Good comment about coaching. Gallant did not over-coach by attempting to be in control of everything at all times. If only Travis Green could learn how to turn loose the hounds. Then there`s the depth. Imagine four lines that can really skate rather than the Canuck version of a checking line.

  • TD

    I loved watching Vegas play. They all skated well, but the speed at which they played was great. No one watched plays develop, instead their players were on the move immediately and they never hesitated to move the puck. It was very entertaining to watch and very hard for opposing players to defend against the constant movement.

  • liqueur des fenetres

    re: market inefficiencies. It merits pointing out that a bottom feeder with cap space, protected players and bold leadership could have made out like bandits prior to the expansion draft.

  • Jimjamg

    To me the Vegas success is interesting, but really it is an indictment of 30 other general managers and owners and how they manage their teams and what they value in their players, when a brand new team can come along, pick up the castoffs from everyone’s else’s roster and immediately win. Yes, you can say “but they had the most generous expansion rules ever….” but so what, they were still picking from supposed 4th and 5th defencemen and 6th and 7th forwards. Clearly many teams blew their evaluation of their own players and wasted assets egregiously. And no, it can’t be blamed on Jim Benning. Sbisa has arguably been the least useful player on the Vegas roster.

    But all teams should be re-examining how they evaluate their own talent and who on their own rosters are simply not being given opportunity. It also should open up opportunities for the Canucks to make some trades for underappreciated assets on other teams, if only we had decent pro-scouting. The Leipsic trade I think of as a step in the right direction (ironically from the Knights own roster), and there are more opportunities like that out there, and GM’s ready to make mistakes.

    • Killer Marmot

      You call them cast offs, but due to the rules of the expansion draft, a team with deep, mature talent was almost sure to lose a good player.

      Vancouver was “lucky” in that their talent pool was too young (read: some critical players were ineligible) and too shallow for the draft to hurt much. When Seattle makes its selections, it’s going to hurt more.

      • Jimjamg

        Sure, “good” players, but not “great” players. What does it say about the “tanking to get good theory”. Other than Fleury at the tail-end of his career how many former top 5 picks did Vegas end up with? And none of their own draft picks are playing yet.

      • Defenceman Factory

        why will it hurt more? I think it’s only painful if we don’t have young replacements for Ericksson or Sutter (yes both can be exposed in the expansion draft). I don’t see anything painful to lose on defence or in goal and the core forwards will be young enough or there will be enough spots to protect them. I think the Canucks should be well positioned to expose expensive older players.

    • Canuck4Life20

      Benning was one of the best prepared GMs in the league for the expansion draft even if he didn’t pull off any of the wishful moves that we can now point out in hindsight.

  • Freud

    Other things we learned that relate to Vancouver.

    The best way to counter the “heavy” Pacific teams was to get heavy yourself – myth.

    Physical play and awarding ice time to players just because they compete hard physically is important – myth

    Uneducated GMs don’t need assistance with decision making processes – myth.

    GMs with a good, creative rebuilding plans, who had set themselves up with cap space and trade chips, could have also taken advantage of the expansion draft along side Vegas – truth

    If you were willing and able to be creative and take on Clarkson’s contract, you could have had a first and a second round pick – truth

    Schmidt, Theodore, Miller were available in June, some GMs thought Del Zotto was the better option in July – truth

  • argoleas

    And yet some fans have already earmarked $20M of Canucks salary cap for E. Kane and Tavares, because those will surely work for the next 10 years to take this team to the promised land.

    Oh I forgot about trading our 1st and Pettersson for Karlsson, his repaired tendon, and a $12.5M/yr 8yr extension.

    But fear not, because my some feat of magic that these fans tells us the incompetent Benning cannot have, yet somehow will, Eriksson’s 6M cap will go away! Hallelujah! It will all work out.

  • argoleas

    Could the Tatar deal be their first big misstep? They have many FAs coming up now and in 1 yr. That’s a minefield that could quickly turn them into a typical, mismanaged franchise. They defied gravity for a while, but no one can do so indefinitely. Before any team tries to replicate the “VGK” model, they need to see how it works out in a few years.

  • argoleas

    Ryan, great article. Any thoughts about expanding this beyond the conference finalists, to see what they did right/wrong to end up where they did?

    Two teams come to mind. The first one is obvious – the Leafs. Most would point to their defensive deficiencies, but a closer look would be useful.

    But the other team is the Bruins. Much has been said about their successful refresh, but I wonder if that refresh is sufficient? Do they have the necessary prospect depth to deal with so much of their core being on the wrong side of the curve? In other words, has their refresh accomplished the task of making them a legit cup contender, or has it missed its mark?

    • Ryan Biech

      Thanks – if I can find the time, I will look at. Ideally, I would’ve included data in this series as well. So if I do those, my goal will be more data involved.

  • Ser Jaime Lannister

    Well with a lot of their roster due for raises i hope JB can try and snag Collin Miller, he would be a great upgrade over Stecher and Gudbranson, even Shea Theodore would be a nice piece on our blue line. Make it happen JB!

  • TheRealPB

    As you say in the post, it’s hard to see Las Vegas as a model for anything other than another expansion team in this particular moment. Though it’ll be interesting to see if as many current teams panic and over-pay the Seattle franchise like they did Vegas. Marchessault was dumb but the Panthers compounded their mistake by also giving up Reilly Smith for a 4th rounder (with taking Marchessault being a condition of that trade I think). All the other players that they got were not really castaways, more like high end prospects with unrealized potential — William Karlsson, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Malcolm Subban being just four. And look at their goaltending tandem — Fleury and Subban look a hell of a lot better than what Tampa Bay started out with as backstops in their inaugural season (Wendell Young and Pat Jablonski). I don’t think there’s much in the ways of lessons to be learned from Vegas; besides it’s too early to tell what will come back to bite them. The Shipyachov signing didn’t hurt but that trade for Tatar seems like quite an overpayment.

    Also, I am not sure why coaching doesn’t play a bigger role in this story. Gallant is a terrific coach, as showed both here and in Florida. The way he’s managed to get so much out of a group of players who haven’t been together is amazing, though perhaps not as impressive as keeping the team competitive as they cycled through so many goalies due to injury.

    Given all that, I’d love to hear CA’s take on Gallant’s views on Gudbranson who he apparently “valued [for] how hard he could make it on opposing forwards.” Apparently Gallant loves tough and feisty players who make it hard to play against. You might even think that Jim Benning’s being quoted. None of this lines up with what I’ve seen of Gudbranson, though what do I know against the instincts of a two time Jack Adams finalist?

  • LiborPolasek

    Mcphee (a long time GM in the league) was shrewd enough to take advantage of the expansion rules. Also, since hockey is a game that relies alot in the performance of a goalie, Mcphee was able to acquire a championship calibre goalie in Fleury.

  • truthseeker

    Love what Vegas has done and what they are doing. Don’t begrudge them a thing. Hope they win the Cup too. I personally don’t get the whiners of teams that haven’t won who for some reason are upset by their success. It’s not like it’s their fault. Just little whiny jealous you know whats.

    Vegas is good because they have a good coach with good systems and players who have bought into that system. The most important factor in the modern NHL in my opinion. Far more important than having a couple of huge talents on your team. Plus they do have talent. These days there is very little separating the Crosby’s and McDavids from the second tier right beneath them. So if those superstars don’t have a cohesive team with a coach with a good system they won’t win either.

    As I always say….plenty of ways to build a winner. Vegas is an example of that. Nashville too. They are the model I want the canucks to follow because of the cap era. Deep teams with no real expensive superstars. Just good solid players up and down the lineup at value against the cap.

    Oh and speed isn’t king. Speed and finish are king. Speed by itself is just speed. Like Mayson Raymond. A whole lot of action that looks great but doesn’t get anything done. It’s not about one single element.

  • Kootenaydude

    Just an example of money buying a contender. Getting the opportunity to cherry pick a top a four defenceman and a top six forward off every team. Then if you were a team with two good goalies. You lost one. Every player they got to pick was an NHL player. They don’t have any bottom pairing defenceman. They don’t have any fourth line forwards and both their goalies are better that the Canucks. The other NHL owners cared more about the expansion money in their pockets than their fans.

    • LiborPolasek

      Ditto and if I was the Seattle GM I would do the samething that Mcphee did…. Currently, Vegas is winning on the ice and if it continues there brand will ultimately be the one to benefit while sufferring team(s) will continue to suffer on/off the ice. After all it seems pretty obvious that the focus was the expansion fee; then every teams “owner” wins…… for now.