So by now you’ve surely heard: the Vegas Golden Knights have continued with this unfathomable start as the Tampa Bay Lightning have slipped into a mid-season malaise and now find themselves atop the NHL standings, 16 weeks into the season.
While it still doesn’t make all that much sense to many of us, most now have wrapped our heads around the basics behind the team’s instantaneous success. They are fast, they are skilled and they are remarkably deep for an NHL roster that only added its first body seven months ago. A pool of kindred talent has fully grasped the directive from a real good coach in Gerard Gallant and their goaltending hasn’t let them down to this point, even though tested down to its fifth string.
Given the forgiving nature of the NHL, good coaching and goaltending can be enough to keep makeshift talent reasonably competitive. Through 46 games however, the Golden Knights have proved that they’re much more than that.
Here’s what’s truly defied expectation in this franchise’s unexplainable start:
What they have in ‘Wild Bill’
Chosen from one of the smallest talent pools and, really, overshadowed by the draft pick he came over with from the Columbus Blue Jackets, William Karlsson wasn’t much more than just another guy when the Golden Knights first unveiled their selections.
He had 15 goals in 162 games across his two established seasons at the NHL level, contributing to his 39 total primary points in 183 total NHL starts across four seasons split between the Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks. It was nothing more than bottom-six level production, and no one should have expected that in Vegas he would blossom into one of the game’s best goal scorers.
At the fulcrum of Vegas’s top line Karlsson has contributed 25 goals so far, which is the sixth-most in the NHL and seven more than he counted in his career before landing with VGK. He’s hitting the back of the net once for every 33 minutes played after averaging one goal for every two hours and 20 minutes before that.
In a season that’s seen an entire roster attain its ceiling, Karlsson is the one that’s crashed through his.
It’s happened with league-average goaltending
Well, that’s not totally fair.
One glance at the numbers that their current (and preferred) tandem has put together this season clearly shows they are plus at the position, and considerably so. But when you take into account their entire season and record as a whole, and remember back to the days where they couldn’t keep their netminders off the training tables, it’s been that: average.
And with average goaltending they have amassed the best record in the NHL. Quite impressive.
With a .913 total team save rate, the Golden Knights are just ahead of the median at 14th overall. And only one team (the Washington Capitals) are holding down a top-three seed in their division with a worse total team save percentage, albeit minimally so.
This bodes well down the stretch, assuming the Marc-Andre Fleury-Malcolm Subban tandem doesn’t suffer another injury setback.
No task too tall
It’s not to suggest the Golden Knights would have been too fragile to overcome a few losses early on in the season, but looking back at that 8-1 start seems so important now, doesn’t it? Look at how other teams, all of which came into the season as much more proven, have wilted in the face of early-season adversity.
The Golden Knights are slowly converting non-believers one at a time and that process began inside the dressing room in the first few weeks of the season. How else would they have the confidence to tackle the much more difficult challenges ahead?
Winners of their season series with the Lightning, Predators and Leafs, boasting wins over the Blues, Blackhawks, Penguins, Capitals, and defeating the Ducks and Kings on the road during a back-to-back, the Golden Knights have been unbelievably and consistently game, all season.
Only getting better
What may have not made sense earlier in the season was backed by the numbers. Now so too is their dominance over the field.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Golden Knights season so far is that familiarity is working in their favor, not the opposition’s. Meaning, teams aren’t starting to figure them out; they’re figuring out the league.
Vegas’s advanced even-strength metrics have significantly improved (and levelled out to sustainable levels) from the start of the season to the month of January, where they have been outstanding to date.
(All stats via Corsica)
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