Vegas Golden Knights rising fast in Western Conference

Max Pacioretty is doing his part to help the Vegas Golden Knights succeed. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Max Pacioretty is doing his part to help the Vegas Golden Knights succeed. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Entering their third season as an NHL franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights were widely considered one of the best teams in the Western Conference — if not the whole league.

Having spent much of the previous season-plus acquiring top forward talent (Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny in summer 2018, Mark Stone at the deadline last February), it didn’t really take much to make a strong case for their legitimacy. Sure, the defense was spotty and they had to make a few transactions they probably would have liked to avoid, but there was no denying the power of that everyday lineup.

And while their October was acceptable — they played at about a 99-point pace — it wasn’t really what anyone would have liked, and more specifically there were some major warning signs about their play. By mid-November they were on a 3-6-3 run and while their underlying numbers were solid, they certainly weren’t overwhelming.

When you’re this talented and well-coached, the results should be there — and to that point — they simply were not. The reason why? A lack of conversion on their league-best expected-goals rate (by nearly three-quarters of a goal per hour, 3.49 expected versus 2.83 actual) and some rather poor defensive play. It wasn’t just that the Knights were conceding the 10th-worst expected-goal rate in the league, it’s that the goalies were actually even worse than expected.

And when that’s the case a quarter of the way through the season, you can apply a number of excuses, but for a team this talented, it also can’t be acceptable. Like the Maple Leafs, a big part of their record comes as a result of poor play from their backups. Through Nov. 25, Malcolm Subban, Garret Sparks and Oscar Dansk combined for just two points from seven results (0-5-2) thanks to an .873 save percentage and 7.75 goals below expected.

That more than offset the perfectly good job Marc-Andre Fleury had done in his 20 appearances (2.67 saved above expected) and if you wanna call it two or three points in the standings lost due to goaltending, that feels about right.

But since that late-November date, Subban’s been great (5.5 saved above expected) while Fleury has struggled (6.2 below). On the balance, then, Vegas currently sits second in the division and fourth in the West overall despite sub-average goaltending. And that’s because the forward group is delivering just about everything you’d want.

Pacioretty is having his bounce-back year, leading the team in goals and points and wins above replacement. Getting to play with Mark Stone a lot will do that for ya, sure, but Pacioretty has bounced around between Stone/Stastny and the William Karlsson/Reilly Smith duo as well. This is, I guess, the benefit of having two lines that would be as good as the first line for at least 80 percent of the league.

The wins are coming now — and coming fast — because the offense is finally delivering on its promise; it’s still underperforming expected-goals in all situations, but only just. They’ve been at or near the top in xGF for most of the year, but only in the last month or so has the team shooting percentage normalized to a number you’d expect from a group this talented. In that month, they’ve gone 9-3-2.

It should come as no surprise that a team that plays this well overall doesn’t need much to flip the results in its favor. Slightly below-average goaltending and a regular old shooting percentage should lead to good results with talent like this.

And the good news for their long-term prospects is that it hasn’t taken much to make up lost ground. Even a run in which they won just two of 10 — which brought their record to a dismal 11-11-4, as they sat ninth in the West — wasn’t enough to keep them down in the iffy-at-best Pacific Division. They now have the same number of points as Arizona — though with one extra game played — and they’re a couple points up on Edmonton and Calgary.

Moreover, they’re surging along with the Flames, while Oilers fades and the Coyotes face an uncertain few weeks with Vezina candidate Darcy Kuemper on the shelf.

This recent run hasn’t even really gotten them back to where they should be based on their quality, but it’s moving them into that position, and their divisional foes held the door open for them in the meantime.

If they keep this up and start getting goaltending, there’s little to stop them from continuing this ascent up the standings.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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