We are currently in the All-Star break, a little over half way through the 2019-20 NHL season, and are a month away from the February 24 trade deadline. The Vegas Golden Knights have had their struggles this year, particularly in their own end, so the buzz in the rumour mill has been discussing what kind of moves they could make to get better on D. So I wanted to take a look at the defensive pairings and try to figure out what their issues may be.
First we are looking at all seven D, we have their individual 5-on-5 numbers in time on ice per game, points per game, and scoring chances per game as well as 5-on-5 on-ice numbers in goals for and against per 60, goals for percent, scoring chances for an against per 60, scoring chance for percent, shooting percent, save percent, and PDO. The chart is colour coded from best to worst in each category: dark green, green, yellow, white, orange, red, and dark red.
Overall Engelland, Theodore, and Hague have had generally positive performances this season while McNabb has been particularly bad. Schmidt’s on-ice numbers haven’t been great but he has played well individually so his problems may have more to do with his partner. Merrill has been good but not great while Holden has been bad but not terrible.
For these charts we will be looking at how each of the D performed when on the ice with the others. The values are the 5-on-5 performance when each of these D were on the ice together and the charts are colour coded to depict whether they performed better with (green) or without (red) that particular partner. The first group is colour coded for the D we are examining while the second group is colour coded for his partner.
Theodore has played a bit with everybody, although the one he spent the most time with is the one he has played worst with, so pairing him with Hague my be a mistake. Recently he has been skating with Holden which also seems to be a bad decision. based on the data Theodore should probably be skating with either McNabb (better possession) or with Merrill or Schmidt (better defense and Sh%/Sv%). Almost everybody does better with him than without him (maybe not Engelland but that is a tiny sample size), so there are options for who he skates with.
McNabb spent most of the season with Schmidt and they have been terrible together, both of them worse together than they are apart. The need to split that duo, but the only other partner he spent much time with was Theodore, which they did play remarkably well together so it wouldn’t be a bad idea. In very small sample sizes he has had success with Merrill and Holden, so they could be options, and we should actively avoid playing him with Hague or Engelland (although ironically he and Engelland do quite well together on the PK).
Practically the only person Schmidt has skated with this year is McNabb, and as mentioned they have been rather terrible together. The sample sizes for the rest are rather small, so while we know they should split up him and McNabb we can’t say for certain who the best option may be. We can suggest that Holden and Engelland are not good options, leaving us with either Theodore, Hague, or Merrill.
Holden spent much of the year skating alongside Merrill but that seems to have turned out quite bad. He put up good numbers with Theodore and Engelland, but both did worse with him than without (except that they were better defensively). The rest are small sample sizes: Hague okay, McNabb pretty good (for both of them), and Schmidt rather bad. The best option may to have him as the 7th D occasionally rotating in to replace Hague or Merrill.
Engelland has played well with all of the D he spent to most time with and performed quite poorly in small sample sizes with the others. Pairing him with Hague gets them the best offense but poor defensive skill whereas he had lackluster offense with Merrill or Holden but quite good defense. Whoever he is paired with, however, he has performed admirably well in his new 3rd pairing role.
Unfortunately Merrill was at his worst with Holden whom he played the msot minutes with, however both hi and his partner did well when he skated with either Engelland or Theodore (although with Theodore the possession numbers were less good). In small samples he was good with both McNabb and Schmidt but not with Hague. He has been better lately but I’m still not overly comfortable with him as a Top 4 D.
Hague was at his best when he skated with Theodore but unfortunately Theodore was worse in these situations. However both him and Engelland were decent together so all things considered that isn’t a terrible combination. In small sample sizes he was bad with Merrill and not great with McNabb or Holden, but him and Schmidt may have promise. There is some argument to be made for having him sit, but he is getting better the more he played so I think it is best to let him continue to develop.
What is missing?
Out of curiosity I also want to take a look at some of the D that Vegas got rid of that are playing in the NHL this year. There are four of them, but one of them is a rookie who didn’t play with the Golden Knights before being traded. I colour coded them based on which of the Vegas D they rank under on the list we used up top, with the goals and scoring chances I was able to look up relative values since different teams have different play styles so the raw numbers are less helpful for our comparisons.
I can’t say that I am all that sorry to have seen Colin Miller of Erik Brannstrom gone. Neither are awful players, but ultimately they aren’t any better than what is already on the roster (and Miller too highly paid for a 3rd pairing D anyway). However, the other two could have actually been fairly nice additions to the lineup if they were still around. Luca Sbisa isn’t all that great, and wasn’t a very good fit when he was in Vegas, so I’m less concerned with him, although his numbers are similar to Holden but he is more capable of skating 2nd pairing minutes. However, I think the team did make a mistake when they traded away Brad Hunt, he was as good or better than Miller when he was in Vegas and would make an excellent 3rd pairing D and PP specialist working for league minimum. Of course if they did still have him then they probably wouldn’t have room for Hague since they are used in pretty much the same role, so we’d still be left with less than stellar options for the #4 D.
Much ado about nothing?
For most of the season people have been suggesting the team need to make a trade to shore up their defense, but I think they have the right pieces they just need to do a better job putting them together in the right combinations. They really need to split up McNabb and Schmidt because it just isn’t working this year, and looking at the numbers that might actually be all they really need to do to improve.
The McNabb-Theodore pairing has done well together and unless they plan on trading McNabb for a different Top 4 D it may be the best option. Of course then they would need to find a partner for Schmidt, which in small sample sizes suggest it should be Hague or Merrill (I’d rather have Hague as a Top 4 guy than Merrill). Of course they could instead try a Theodore-Schmidt pairing since they are the top two D on the team and were decent in small sample sizes, but that would still most likely result in Holden or Merrill playing Top 4 minutes alongside him.
Engelland has been great as a 3rd pairing D not to mention his PK performance, so it stands to reason that no matter what decisions they make in Top 4 pairings he should be the 3rd pairing right D. In that case the best options for him would be Merrill or Hague. Of course these pairing then seem to suggest that Holden will be the odd-man out and one of Merrill or Hague would skate Top 4 minutes. Adding a Top 4 D at the deadline wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it would be a costly trade I’d rather let Hague develop into a Top 4 guy rather than trading for one.
If they do make a trade I’d like for it to be at the expense of Merrill or Holden rather than Hague, although technically it would be at the expense of both of them since they would slide further down the depth chart to sit in the press box. Or if they do bump Hague up to the Top 4 alongside Schmidt then perhaps a more effective partner for Engelland on the 3rd pairing (and some PK minutes), although Merrill and Holden both did well enough as 3rd pairing D so I don’t think it would be necessary.
Ultimately I think they will be find with the lineup they have, they just need to adjust the usage a bit. I’d like to see them try using McNabb-Theodore, Hague-Schmidt, and Merrill-Engelland for a little while to see if that helps improve things a bit. I have a feeling that it might. And they would still have the option of using other pairings situationally, like giving Merrill-Theodore some time after a PK when Engelland and McNabb are a bit worn out.