Heading into the season, the Vegas Golden Knights moved to sign the premier free agent in the market, Alex Pietrangelo. Arguably, it was an instance of the rich getting richer. Anytime a designated top defenseman becomes available, it makes sense to sign them. But is it still worth it if such a decision moved them beyond the cap, causing all sorts of lineup problems during the season?
Let’s find out by looking at those defensive pairings and how they stack up against those of the Minnesota Wild.
Know Thy Enemy
Brayden McNabb - Shea Theodore
The Golden Knights have the ability to send out what many would consider two top-pairings. While Alex Pietrangelo gets all the attention — more on him later — Theodore and McNabb draw the majority of the soft starts, and it’s helped turn Theodore into one of the better defensemen in the league. McNabb and Theodore have the heaviest offensive zone start percentage for any Vegas pairing, starting 69% of their shifts there according to Natural Stat Trick, and it gets results. Amongst pairings with 200 or more minutes, the pairing manages a 55 CF% and a 60 xGF%, ranking 15th and eighth in the league respectively.
The pairing relies on carrying the puck out of their zone using their high-level skating skills. No dumping the puck or lazily clearing it off the glass for Brayden and Shea, no sir. As you can see in the following chart from the amazing Corey Sznajder (who has watched more hockey than any of us could in a hundred lifetimes), McNabb and Theodore rank in the upper echelon of the league in their ability to walk the puck out of their zone safely.
The brass tack numbers are eye-popping for half the pairing; Theodore had eight goals and 42 points in 53 games, McNabb had a measly two goals and eight points in 41 games. So the offensive production is a little tilted to one side of the ice.
This is a pairing that very much fits into the mold of an offensive defenseman — Theodore — with a free safety behind him in McNabb. What defensive Theodore lacks, McNabb makes up for by being almost exclusively focused on it.
Alex Pietrangelo - Nick Holden/Alec Martinez
Alec Martinez typically holds down the fort on this 1B pairing with Alex Pietrangelo but has been out with an undisclosed foot injury. He missed the final two games of the regular season, and ahead of game one, was also missing from practice. He’s nearing a return, so the Minnesota Wild likely see him at some point. In the meantime, top-four defenseman Nick Holden to the rescue!
With Pietrangelo and Martinez, this is a pairing that is almost as productive as the Theodore-McNabb duo. In over 250 minutes together, they had a 51 xGF% and 54 CF%. As a Pietrangelo-Holden duo, they've been just as effective, if not much better, with a 58 xGF% and a 59 CF%. It’s important to take those Pietrangelo-Holden numbers with a huge brick of salt, as they’ve only played around 38 minutes of total ice time together.
But they’ve been surprisingly effective in such a small sample.
As for how they work, they are similar in their structure of the play to Theodore-McNabb; Pietrangelo does the yeoman's work on offense, while Holden plays conservative. While Pietrangelo is undoubtedly good, his value to this team is not up to what they thought they were getting with the signing. In 41 games this year, he’s tallied seven goals and only 23 points. That’s on pace for his worst offensive output since the 2015-16 season. While some of this may be attributed to a decrease in responsibility and opportunity, as Theodore is this team’s clear-cut number one, Pietrangelo has been a mild disappointment.
This isn’t to say that Pietrangelo and whomever he is paired with are bad, though. As you can see in the previously referenced zone exit chart above, Pietrangelo is tops amongst the Vegas blueliners in his ability to get the puck out of his own zone without giving up possession. The combination of himself and Theodore to start the counter-attack so effectively drives the Vegas offense and is the catalyst for all the odd-man rushes we saw this year against the Wild.
If the Wild are going to try and limit the damage both these pairings can do — not on the scoresheet but with the flow of Vegas’ game — they will have to pressure them at their own blueline with the forecheck and force them to make mistakes.
Nicolas Hague - Zach Whitecloud
Have you heard the term “bum-slayers”? These two personify that characterization.
Hague and Whitecloud are hardly premiere names amongst NHL defensemen, but these two roll. They are second behind Theodore-McNabb with a 58 xGF% and very slightly behind them with a 55.41 CF%. They are the only Vegas pairing to be extremely stable, with over 500 minutes of ice-time together. No other pairing tops 450 minutes together.
They are a defensive-minded pair, and they excel at it.
They are frustratingly stout in denying zone entries, as illustrated in the chart above. They are likely going to be tasked with foiling the Wilds second unit, whichever line that may end up being. But they are no threat on the offensive end; Whitecloud has two goals and 12 points in 51 games and Hague five goals and 17 points in 52 games.
Did I mention their size? Hague is a towering 6’ 6”/230 lbs, and Whitecloud is a little more diminutive 6’ 2”/211 lbs. They aren’t the most threatening names on the lineup card for the Golden Knights, but they are very effective in their role and shouldn’t be viewed as a pairing that can be exploited.
Here’s how the entire Golden Knights defensive corps stacks up: they have two formidable top pairings and a deceptively good third pairing. Their top two units are good but not elite. Neither of their premiere defensemen in Theodore or Pietrangelo rank in the top 30 blueliners in Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metric for this season. Alec Martinez does rank 25th, so the Wild’s life is a little easier as long as he is sidelined.
Here are how the GAR rankings look for the Knights defense:
It’s only happened for around 180 minutes this season, but even if the Golden Knights hit DEFCON five and pair Pietrangelo with Theodore, they’ve been middling in their results.
Going into this season, it felt like the Golden Knight’s addition of Pietrangelo was making a stacked defense all the more formidable. But in reality, this is simply a strong defense, not the best in the league.
The Golden Knights have had to deal with injuries and the cap implications of dancing along the ceiling for most of the year (they somehow ended up with the pocket-change amount of just $34,476, according to CapFriendly.com). The result of that was an evolving rotation of defensive pairings. Here in Minnesota, we’ve had nearly the polar opposite.
The Wild have essentially had three pairings all year:
Jared Spurgeon - Ryan Suter
Jonas Brodin - Matt Dumba
Ian Cole - Carson Soucy
Heading into the post-season, and this likely remains unchanged. According to Evolving Hockey that’s a good thing, as they have the 6th best team defense and have allowed the least high-danger chances in the league according to Natural Stat Trick.
This is their focus, and outside of Dumba, there isn’t much offense generated. Jared Spurgeon leads the way with seven goals and 25 points, which would only rank 3rd on the Golden Knights.
They have stability, routines, and habits. Looking at the defensive heat chart for Minnesota from HockeyViz.com, they make life easy for Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kähkönen, largely keeping opportunities to the outside.
I won’t go into the depth we did for the Golden Knights’ pairings, as you are pretty familiar with the high-level play of the Wild defensemen. They are solid and restricting quality looks and make life hell for opposing forwards if they try to get the cycle going.
Here’s a look at how the Wild defensemen stack up as a group:
Barring injury or catastrophe, it’s unlikely we will see Brad Hunt. Outside of that, they aren’t any glaring weakness in their group. Even the oft-criticized Dumba has been valuable this year.
It’s a strong group from front to back.
This is close. Very close. But ultimately, the Wild are going to have the edge in this matchup.
Pietrangelo has gotten Norris attention in the past, but there are better defensemen on the Wild. Take a look at the sort of opportunities the Golden Knights give up, compared to the Wild’s heat map:
The Golden Knights’ generate lots of offense with their blueliners, and they no doubt hold the advantage there. When it comes to who will have the greater impact on the coming series overall? The men on the back end for the Wild have got the edge.
All stats via Evolving-Hockey.com unless otherwise noted.