There is quite a battle of young star blueliners brewing between Vegas’ Shea Theodore and Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen in the Western Conference final.
To say the series has been a bit of a coming-out party for Theodore and Heiskanen would be an understatement. The skill level of both players has been on display for some time now – they are exceptional skaters, are capable of making most every seam pass, are dangerous scorers from distance, and carry an exceptional amount of defensive-zone breakout burden on their backs.
These playoffs have put them on a bigger stage, and there is an argument to be made that they have been not only the best skaters for their respective teams this postseason, but two of the best skaters we have seen, period. (Outside of Tampa Bay forward Brayden Point, it’s hard to think of any other player deserving of more praise.)
Even as the competition has heightened – Vegas is struggling to crack the low slot area of the Dallas defensive zone; Dallas is playing far too many shifts chasing the puck – both defenders continue to excel.
In fact, over the course of the playoffs, the best shifts tend to come with both players on the ice. This is true in all game states but particularly noticeable at even strength.
The Stars, for example, have outscored opponents 18 to 13 with Heiskanen on the ice at even strength. That +5 differential is good, doubly so when you consider that the Stars have been outscored 31 to 22 with Heiskanen taking a breather.
The same trend is observed in Vegas: the Golden Knights have outscored their opponents 22 to 11 (+11) with Theodore on the ice; when he’s on the bench, the Golden Knights have been outscored 21 to 19 (-2):
I provided the current net shot and net expected goal differentials to emphasize that this isn’t just a lot of offensive-zone shooting luck or goaltenders bailing them out on the defensive side of the ice.
Heiskanen and Theodore tend to play the majority of their shifts attacking through the neutral zone, easing the workload off their goaltenders and applying pressure to the opposition defence.
The best forwards from both Dallas and Vegas tend to be the regular beneficiaries of their work, but both players have played ample minutes with just about every forward on the active roster. Radek Faksa, Blake Comeau, Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski have been the biggest beneficiaries of Heiskanen’s presence so far; in Vegas it has been Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone and Reilly Smith.
To say it’s noticeable when Dallas or Vegas pair up their best forwards with their best defenders would be an understatement, too. The combination of Heiskanen and Pavelski (93 minutes together) have outscored their opponents 8-2 (+6) this postseason, which is a team best.
It’s a similar story in Vegas, where Theodore and Smith (92 minutes) have outscored their opponents 7-2 (+5) this postseason.
It’s not that we didn’t already know that the 25-year-old Theodore and the 21-year-old Heiskanen were great. It’s that they have completely taken over the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a way that historically was reserved for dominant forwards.
And one of these two defenders will soon be anchoring his team in the Stanley Cup Final.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey