Golden Knights prove historically great at even strength
Historic. Many have used that word to describe Vegas’ lightning-quick transition from darling expansion team to Western Conference dynamo, capped off on Tuesday night with the organization’s first Stanley Cup.
It’s historic for another reason, too. Lost in Vegas’ blistering run through this year’s postseason was how lopsided the games were most nights. In fact, this Vegas Golden Knights team – one built by the brain trust of George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon, with some help from head coach Bruce Cassidy in his first season – is arguably the most dominant Stanley Cup winner in the modern era.
I want to underscore the word dominant. It’s not to say Vegas was the most talented champion we have seen; for my money, they would have to wrestle with (at minimum) the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings for that crown, and perhaps others. But Vegas dominated every opponent they faced, and they did it the way they have always done it, blowing the doors off the competition at even strength.
Consider the below table of playoff teams with at least 15 games played (2007-23) by way of goal differential. Vegas finished eight goals better than the 2010-11 Boston Bruins, and when unitized, that gap actually grows – in large part because Vegas needed just 22 games to win the title:
I have been thinking about takeaways and lessons to be learned from this Vegas team, especially in light of these numbers.
At first blush, I argued that the takeaway should be about the theory behind building a contender. It’s one thing to ice a great team in a given year, but if you really want to win a title you need many bites at the apple. We have seen countless examples of this in years past predating the Golden Knights (you may recall their first Stanley Cup appearance was a loss to the Washington Capitals, who also required many bites at the apple). And to that end, the Stanley Cup chase is about building a sustainable contender – a team that’s good to very good every year, and a regular postseason qualifier.
After more consideration, I think the real answer is about dead weight – or lack thereof. So many teams, including the four opponents they faced during the postseason (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas, and Florida in order) had one or more obvious weaknesses across their lineup. That’s not to say they didn’t have offsetting strengths – be it the Jets backstopped by an elite goaltender like Connor Hellebuyck, the Oilers awe-inspiring power play anchored by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and so on. It’s why they made it to the dance.
But in the playoffs, the margins are razor thin, and whether you agree with it or not, officials increasingly avoid intervening in these games. With fewer and fewer penalty calls, the importance of puck control and sustained offensive pressure at even strength becomes even more important. You can’t accomplish that without rolling four lines.
At the end of the day, that’s precisely what Cassidy and the Golden Knights did. Over their 22-game stretch, not a single skater – not one – was outscored at even strength:
It’s an extraordinary accomplishment across the board. And before you argue small samples, I’ll direct you to the regular season data: only forwards Paul Cotter (-5) and Phil Kessel (-7) carried a negative goal differential over the season, neither of whom appeared in the Stanley Cup Final.
When the level of competition is this close, sometimes the game comes down to your weakest link or weakest links. The reality is Vegas just didn’t have any this season.
Perhaps other teams of hockey lore had higher ceilings than this year’s Golden Knights team, but I’m not sure many teams had a higher floor. On Vegas’ worst days they were competitive, on their best days unbeatable. When that’s the math, you’re an extremely difficult out over a seven-game series.
Congrats to Vegas. Enjoy the off-season!
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference