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Comparing Sides: Can the Wild’s offensive depth overcome the Knights’ top forwards?

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What we should expect from Vegas’s forward matchups and power play.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Most analytics “believers” would consider the Vegas Golden Knights to possess something like the fifth-best offense in the NHL. According to MoneyPuck.com, they have the following 5-on-5 stats:

  • 2nd-highest goals-for per 60 minutes
  • 2nd-highest xG per 60 (measures offensive shot quality based on shot location)
  • 2nd-highest shot attempts per 60
  • 1st in high-danger shots for
  • 3rd-most hits taken (indicator of puck possession)
  • 28th-most giveaways

These indicate a team that’s able to possess the puck constantly, and has the confidence to convert this possession into a high volume of shots. Not only do they create a high volume of shots, but they look for quality shots - this is why their xG for per 60 is so high. It’s also why they give the puck away so often: they are constantly in possession and looking to put the puck in dangerous spots - while they often turn it over, they also often convert. Their goal-scoring rate is sustainable too, because it’s shadowed by every stable and predictive metric of scoring chance quantity (Corsi-for rate) and value (xG-for rate).


Vegas’s Forward Lines

So, how does this team do it? In terms of personnel, Vegas has two lines that are absolutely set in stone: a trio of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith, in addition to the top line of Max Pacioretty, Chandler Stephenson, and two-way stalwart Mark Stone. They’ve played the second and sixth-most minutes respectively, of all forward combinations in the NHL.

Of line combinations that have played more than 200 minutes, these groups have generated 2.9 and 2.84 xGoals per 60 minutes, although this stat is buoyed by their powerplay time together. They’ve generated xGF% metrics of 53% and 57%, meaning that they’ve produced more quality scoring opportunities than they allow defensively.

The only weakness of this top-six forward group is that Mark Stone’s first line is only average defensively, and the second line is leaky defensively. The good news about this is that they “defend” by possessing the puck and keeping it out of their defensive zone, rather than “playing defense” in the traditional sense. William Karlsson’s line has a similar weakness. The Wild play a similar possession style of hockey, so if they can even the odds, the top six forward group in Vegas could be vulnerable to counter-attack.

After this top six, the lineup gets muddier in terms of sample sizes - the next-most common lines deployed by Vegas have been Carrier-Nosek-Reaves and Glass-Roy-Tuch. Nosek and Reaves are both day-to-day with undisclosed injuries, but my best guess is that both will be good to go for playoffs - especially Reaves.

Assuming both play, let’s preview the bottom-six. Glass-Roy-Tuch is a solid third line that can score reasonably well while taking on checking responsibilities - they’re like a diet Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno line. Their xG% is 58%, tops on the team aside from Nosek-Roy-Tuch - in other words, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch play well together. The Cody Glass version plays the best defense of any of Vegas’s lines, and the Nosek version scores way more goals, but also give a lot up defensively. It’s important to note that both of these combinations have played a small sample size this season, especially Nosek-Roy-Tuch, so these analytical conclusions must be taken with a grain of salt.

Carrier-Nosek-Reaves has played decent hockey from an analytical perspective with a 50 xGF%, and you have to assume that Reaves’s penchant for pissing off his opponents plays a positive factor that can’t be quantified. This is the leakiest line that Vegas has by xGA per 60, so expect the Wild to put Fiala or Kaprizov on the Xcel Energy Center ice when this line plays, unless Reaves scares them off.

For a reference of other players who may slot in for injuries, Vegas’s players are shown below:


Vegas’ Forwards

Because we, at Hockey Wilderness, celebrate our individual differences.

All stats that follow are 5-on-5 metrics.

Vegas has a deep forward lineup that loves to create high-danger shots. The Knights’ forwards are led in goals per 60 minutes by Pacioretty (1.13), Nosek (1.11), Stone (1.08), Marchessault (1.01), Tuch (.96), and Stephenson (.92). Give each of these guys 15:00 per night, and the Knights should score 1.55 goals from their top six shooters every night, before accounting for the power play, the other 6 forwards, or the other six defensemen.

The leaders in xG per 60, which indicates players who are on the end of great chances, are as follows: Nosek (.98), Tuch (.97), Carrier (.94), Pacioretty (.93), Kolesar (.88), and Marchessault (.85) - sound familiar? While these numbers are lower than the actual goals/60, you would expect that the shooting talent of these guys, plus the passing talent of Mark Stone, to elevate actual goals above expected goals.

MoneyPuck.com estimates the shooting talent of players once they reach a certain playing time threshold. They believe that the following players have shots that are x percent above average: Stone (15%), Pacioretty (12%), Stephenson (10%), Marchessault (8%), Karlsson (7%), and Smith (4%). It’s important to note that this isn’t their expected shooting percentage, but the amount that they elevate the value of a shot above average. Tuch, Glass, and Kolesar will likely join this positive shot-value group once they reach the necessary threshold as well. So when you see these guys get on the end of a shot, watch out.

The team has many players who are comfortable generating offense at the net - the share of xG on shots after rebounds is extremely high for Nosek, Kolesar, Reaves, Karlsson, Marchessault, and pretty high for Carrier, Glass, Tuch, and even Stone. Don’t expect a soft game from Vegas, even if they do have skill - they know the ugly goals count the same as the pretty ones.


Home Matchups

So, how should the Wild lineup counter these fearsome forwards?

Games three and four will be played at the Xcel energy center, where Minnesota will have the advantage of “last change.” What this means is that after Vegas puts its five skaters onto the ice for any faceoff, Minnesota will choose their personnel. This allows head coach Dean Evason to counteract Vegas’s line combinations.

Remember that Vegas’s top two lines are susceptible to counter-attacking, as long as you can get the puck back from their strong possession play. Another option is to deploy defensemen who can prevent these lines from penetrating to the high-danger areas which this team loves to explore. Minnesota has the personnel to do this very effectively. If I had power over the Wild bench, I’d deploy personnel like this:

  1. Pacioretty-Stephenson-Stone: Sturm-Bjugstad-Bonino should be able to limit this line. They only allow 1.5 xG against per 60 minutes, and I think slowing this Vegas top line down is good enough. You don’t need to counter-attack it, just play some good keep-away. While ther lines may be able to exploit this matchup better, it opens you up down the lineup
  2. Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith: Counter-attack this line. While they are essentially line “1b” rather than line two, they do allow more defensively than any other line of Golden Knights. Getting Kaprizov-Hartman-Zuccarello line out against them should have the defensive prowess to get the puck back now that the swap has been made at center. Vegas will play this line a lot, so you want to match it with your stars if possible - it’s a good thing that Kaprizov will get this ice time. He’ll likely need help from Spurgeon-Suter (especially on D-zone faceoffs) due to the defensive deficiencies on the wings, but the five-man group’s speed in transition will allow them to effectively counterattack Karlsson and co.
  3. Glass-Roy-Tuch: Fiala-Rask-Johansson, because I don’t think we want Kevin or Kaprizov on the ice with Ryan Reaves running around - especially Fiala, who is prone to losing his cool. While Vegas will probably enjoy the opportunity to pit their checking line against a pure scoring line, Rask has actually been a good defender according to Evolving-Hockey’s defensive analysis. If you give this group enough support from the Minnesota’s top-four defensemen, it’s reasonable to expect that solid five-man play can enter the zone and create chances against Vegas’s third line.
  4. Carrier-Nosek-Reaves: Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno. The GREEF squad. Each guy has the size to deal with Reaves, and Eriksson Ek may just reverse-Reaves him with the Swede’s penchant for pissing off opponents. What’s more, Minnesota’s “checking line” actually has some skill and scoring touch that could take advantage of the leaky defense of Vegas’s fourth line. Vegas also probably won’t want this matchup, which opens up the GREEF Squad to playing checking shifts at other points of the game when necessary.

Road Matchups

Starting on the road, the Wild will be able to dictate the ice time of their own lines, while Vegas will dictate the opponents in response. Evason has a few options on the road:

  1. Get your stars (Fiala and Kaprizov) as much ice time as possible, no matter what Vegas does. Vegas has more smooth-skating defenders than physical ones, but Kaprizov and Fiala are some of the league’s best stickhandlers in transition. While one of these groups will likely be stymied by the Roy and Tuch line, the other should be able to counterattack Vegas’s top line. These matchups are pretty favorable, especially if the Kaprizov-Hartman combo can stay hot. The only issue is that if Evason wants to keep Fiala on a line with Rask and Johansson, that line could get chewed to pieces by either of Vegas’s top lines because they won’t be able to get the puck back in the face of effective possession play.
  2. Roll lines to take advantage of the Wild’s forward depth. Minnesota’s roster is constructed to have one of the best fourth lines in the NHL, so why not take advantage? It also allows the Wild’s stars to stay rested and avoid injuries. The main issue with this strategy is that with Vegas setting the matchups, they’ll probably have three line matchups that beat the Wild, especially if we roll four lines equally.
  3. Figure out Vegas’s matchup scheme and give as much ice-time to Vegas’s worst-case scenario. Assume for the sake of argument that Vegas likes a certain combinations of their top three lines against our top three lines. Hypothetically, that leaves Sturm-Bjugstad-Bonino against Carrier-Nosek-Reaves. The Sturminator has been driving play on the fourth line all season, quietly destroying competition with a 69.5% xG rate - this means that our current fourth line is producing double the scoring chances of their opponents while on the ice. Hello, Nick Bonino playing 20:00 of ice time.

I’m exaggerating, but it shows a way that the Wild can take advantage of the perceived disadvantage of Vegas having last change - we get to choose how many minutes each of those matchups play. While it would limit Fiala and/or Kaprizov’s ice time (it’s unlikely that Vegas’s line-matchups would be favorable for both of Minnesota’s superstars), you get a better chance to produce scoring chances. If Dean Evason really does deserve the Jack Adams buzz he’s been receiving of late, then his lineup should make it so hard for Vegas to game-plan against us that the Wild have one or two favorable matchups, especially near the top of the lineup.


Meet the Vegas Power Play

Vegas has a decent power play, but the real danger is that they get to use it so often often. At they’ve played the ninth-most power play minutes in the league. This squares with their identity as a puck possession team, and allows them to become a well-oiled machine as they prod opposing PK units again and again, finding tactical weaknesses and wearing down their stamina.

Vegas has had 12 players join its powerplay for more than 60 minutes of PP time this season: Stone, Karlsson, Marchessault, Pacioretty, and defenseman Shea Theodore with the most minutes. Cody Glass and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo have only played 27 and 41 games respectively, but have played often on the powerplay when healthy. Also playing often are Marchessault, Smith, Stephenson, and Tuch. These ten players seem to be Vegas’s primary options on the PP, with center Mattias Janmark and defenseman Alec Martinez filling in as necessary.

With only two defensemen spread across two power play units, it would appear that Vegas often utilizes four forwards on the power play, using a defenseman as a distributor at the point. Given that all but Tuch and Janmark have positive-value shooting, I’d say this is a sensible approach.

On the other hand, Vegas has only scored at average rates this season in spite of its shooting talent. The Knights have the 22nd-highest power play goal scoring rate in the league on the 14th-most power play expected goals per 60. That’s downright average. They have the 20th-highest percentage of power play shot-attempts blocked, the 14th-most shot attempts that miss the net. If the Wild PK can get in the way of Vegas’s shooters, there’s a very good chance that the Knights’ PP stays bad.