Examining what drives the Vegas Golden Knights’ success

Gene Principe previews the upcoming Western Conference Final, with two teams- the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights- both prepped to make history, as neither team has made the Stanley Cup Final for far different reasons.

In the beginning, the collection of talent the Vegas Golden Knights cobbled together was largely viewed as an eclectic group of castoffs. These were players whose previous employers had deemed expendable in the grand scheme.

That ragtag label bestowed upon them early on made for a neat story as they jumped out to a hot start, and forced us to scramble in pursuit of justifications for how and why they were managing to exceed expectations, without levelling off.

While all of it undoubtedly still seems surreal and may never be replicated, 50-plus regular season wins and two playoff series victories later, it’s long past time for us to update the lens through which we view this expansion team.

Particularly at the top of the lineup, where the unlikely trio of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson has teamed up to obliterate all reasonable projections we may have had based on their individual historical outputs prior to this year. Whenever the three of them have been out on the ice together, the playing field has been tilted decidedly in the Golden Knights’ favour.

Metric Regular Season Playoffs
Time on Ice 692.12 125.95
Shot Attempt % 55.1 59.2
Shots on Goal % 56.4 60.7
Scoring Chance % 55.8 57.6
High Danger Attempts % 55.5 59.1
Goals For % 66.9 81.1
Expected Goals For % 56.6 59.9

There are two things that stand out here:

a) As good as they were in the regular season, they’ve elevated their games to a whole new level in the playoffs, showing an uptick in every relevant performance indicator all across the board.

b) Context shines an even more favourable light on what they’ve accomplished through the first two rounds. Against both the Kings and the Sharks, not only did coach Gerard Gallant not shy away from going power versus power up front against the opposition, he welcomed it.


In the first round, Karlsson (with his mates reliably by his side) went up against Anze Kopitar’s line for 51:31 of the 71:46 of ice time he saw at five-on-five in the series. The Knights won the matchup in those minutes, out-attempting the Kings 56-51, outshooting them 28-25, and outscoring them 2-1.

In the following series the deployment of Karlsson’s line was more evenly spread out at five-on-five, but that’s presumably because San Jose’s scoring talent was more evenly distributed across its top two lines. While Pavelski’s line was technically the de facto top unit on paper, there’s a very viable case to be made that the line featuring Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl was the more dangerous of the two based on how they were playing.

However you choose to stack them up, of Karlsson’s 92:04 minutes played, 71:17 of them came against those two combined (39:07 against Pavelski, and 32:10 against Couture to be exact). In that time the Knights out-attempted the Sharks 75-68, outshot them 39-37, and most importantly outscored them 6-1.

As impressive as all of those results are, just as important is the manner in which they’ve gone about accomplishing them. There’s a certain intrinsic simplicity to their game that fans should pay attention to to better appreciate — and that people in the sport should take note of to potentially try and replicate.

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Of all the things to commend Gallant for this season — of which there are many — arguably the best thing he’s done is to just let his players play. In a league that’s filled with overcoaching and conservatism, he’s stripped things down and allowed his team to play a read-and-react style reminiscent of how you used to play in the backyard with your friends growing up. The core principle of that system is centered around movement, both of the puck and the individual chess pieces. You get the puck, you move it, you then go fill open space on the ice, and get it back in a better position than where you began.

A stagnant offence is a predictable one, which makes it easy to defend against. But once you start moving the defenders out of position and stretching them out, it eventually creates chaos and openings to attack. The strong possession numbers show in the cycle game around the net, and it’s a big reason why this line has been so effective in the offensive zone throughout the year.

The other area where this line, and the rest of the Golden Knights, have excelled is in using their speed to transition quickly from defence to offense. In accounting for the requirements of the modern game, GM George McPhee and his staff clearly prioritized skating ability when deciding how they wanted to craft this team from scratch.

That’s really paid dividends in the neutral zone. Traditionally we think of size and physicality as key tools for defending, whether on the forecheck or around the net. But teams like the Lightning and Golden Knights have shown that footspeed and stickwork can be an equally disruptive force. Vegas gets on opposing players so quickly when they have the puck it forces them to make quicker decisions than they’re normally accustomed.

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For example, look how quickly Smith and Karlsson close ground on the Sharks here with their forecheck as San Jose tries to break out of its own zone. By taking away time and space to make a clean outlet, Vegas forces a turnover in the neutral zone. Amidst that chaos and miscommunication, the puck is coming back the other way before San Jose knows what hit it:

Just how long they can keep this up, and how much further this dynamic top line can ultimately take the Golden Knights remains to be seen. We’ve been waiting for it to end and for them to come crashing back down to earth all season, yet they’ve shown no real signs of slowing down.

But they also haven’t had to go up against a juggernaut like the Winnipeg Jets up to seven consecutive times, which is the next challenge that stands between them and a truly unfathomable shot at competing for the Stanley Cup.

The Jets present a unique set of problems, because they’re brimming with dynamic scoring talent from top to bottom, and seemingly have very few identifiable weaknesses to be exploited. Even if the Golden Knights’ top line is able to maintain its sparkling level of play and holds its own against the other team’s big guns, the Jets have so many other weapons to throw at them in the moments Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith aren’t on the ice (including a second scoring line that would merit top billing on most other teams).

But the fact we’re having this discussion about Vegas at this point of the season is remarkable in and of itself, regardless of what happens next. Once considered castoffs, this top line has carried their team all the way to the final four.

[all stats in this piece were curated from Natural Stat Trick and Corsica]

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