Are the Vegas Golden Knights getting worse each year?

Looking at the numbers, the Vegas Golden Knights have been declining since their first year.

At least at one point this postseason, the Vegas Golden Knights were being given the best odds to win the Cup. But the Golden Knights’ odds unfortunately just went to zero, with a crushing OT loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 5.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say the Golden Knights have come a “long” way, given the fact this is only their third season in the league. But at least as far as expectations go, the Golden Knights have come all the way from the very bottom to the very top, in a very short period of time. They are rightly considered a perennial contender, and that won’t change for next year.

Following their early exit from the Edmonton bubble, fans are predictably beginning their search for answers. The most pressing questions should be these two. First, why do they seem to be drifting father from contention every year? Secondly, shouldn’t they be getting closer?

Looking at the acquisitions of Pacioretty, Stone, Statsny and Lehner, they would certainly seem better than ever. But I’m sorry to say that the Golden Knights might not be a better team. And they might have even gotten worse.

At First Glance

The  Golden Knights’ inaugural year remains their highest for Win-Loss, and Goals For and Goals Against (even when adjusting 2019-20 over a full season). However, their Corsi differential was highest this last season, although their CorsiFor% was still higher in 2017-18 (again, factoring in the shortened 2019-20 season).

So it’s at least debatable that while the Golden Knights’ actual on-ice product has declined, their analytics performance has increased. In other words, 2017-18 might just be a statistical fluke.

Of course, analytics are not without their limitations. Corsi fails to distinguish shot quality. Nor does Corsi count blocked shots. Even a stat like Dangerous Fenwick (which does assign value to shot quality, and counts blocked shots) fails to distinguish an individual player’s finishing ability, nor does it tell you where the shots were blocked from.

Even still, there are a couple of compelling reasons to think we are not seeing a fluke:

  1. The players that left the Golden Knights (Shipped Players) actually contributed more offensively than the players that replaced them (Replacement Players);
  2. The players that stayed with the Golden Knights (Remaining Players) have regressed, both from an actual and analytical perspective.

Methodology

I am primarily relying on standard stats – goals, assists and points. Though I thought about applying Corsi and Fenwick, I decided against it. They are team stats that pretend to be individual stats.

  1. Separating the individual shot attempts from the team shot attempts: This mean I can’t tell what specific impact the individual player had on overall shot attempts, and what impact his teammates had.
  2. Eliminating duplications: This means I can’t simply count the shot attempts up and conclude that, for example, the Replacement Players necessarily generated any more or less Corsi than the Shipped Players.
  3. Separating Replacement Players’ shot attempts from Remaining Players’ shot attempts: This means I can’t determine whether a Replacement Player’s performance affected a Remaining Player’s performance.
  4. Comparing different percentages to each other: I could eliminate duplications if used ratios of Corsi (or Fenwick), but ratios can’t readily be quantified and compared next to other ratios.

I will however consider Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR), since these attempt to distill individual performance. Their validity is debatable as well, particularly given their emphasis on Goals For and Against. But I want to include at least some analytics, just for comparison’s sake.

Roster Changes

Here are the Golden Knights’ former skaters.

  1. David Perron
  2. Erik Haula
  3. James Neal
  4. Colin Miller
  5. Cody Eakin
  6. Brad Hunt
  7. Luca Sbisa
  8. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
  9. Ryan Carpenter
  10. Brendan Leipsic
  11. Oscar Lindberg
  12. Tomas Tatar
  13. Brandon Pirri
  14. Tomas Hyka
  15. Jason Garrison
  16. Stefan Matteau
  17. Vadim Shipachyov

Here are the skaters that replaced them.

  1. Mark Stone
  2. Max Pacioretty
  3. Paul Statsny
  4. Chandler Stephenson
  5. Alec Martinez
  6. Nick Holden
  7. Nicolas Hague
  8. Nicolas Roy
  9. Cody Glass
  10. Nick Cousins

The Golden Knights shipped players scored 131 goals and assisted on 203. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights replacement players (would have) only scored 114 goals and assisted on 173 (if we adjust for a full year).

So while the top end talent of Stone and Pacioretty certainly helps buoy the Golden Knights out, they are still missing productive depth players like Eakin, Lindberg, and Carpenter.

Losing Colin Miller was an especially damaging blow to the Golden Knights’ depth at D.  He was their highest scoring defenseman in 2017-18. This offensive gap hasn’t been truly replaced, even considering Shea Theodore’s progression.

Some may find this offensive regression surprising in light of their acquisitions. But it does correspond with their reduced Team Corsi For. Perhaps they are a better team defensively, but once again, their Goals Against would have still been higher in 2019-20 than it was in 2017-18.

The Replacement Players may indeed be better defensively. When I look at the Goals and Wins Above Replacement (I got my numbers from evolving-hockey.com), the Replacement Players, on the whole, are credited with more GAR/WAR than the Shipped Players. And several of the Shipped Players (including Lindberg, Sbisa, Tatar, and Eakin) had negative GAR/WAR.

This falls into the same thread as the Team Corsi we saw earlier. Analytics seems to say that the Replacement Players are better than the Shipped Players. Actual offensive numbers say that the Shipped Players did more. But I don’t think it’s necessary to resolve this issue, for the reasons that follow.

The Remaining Players

The Golden Knights remaining players are as follows.

  1. William Karlsson
  2. Jonathan Marchessault
  3. Shea Theodore
  4. Reilly Smith
  5. Nate Schmidt
  6. Alex Tuch
  7. William Carrier
  8. Brayden McNabb
  9. Deryk Englelland
  10. Ryan Reaves
  11. Tomas Nosek
  12. Jon Merrill
  13. Zack Whitecloud

I can see that from 2017-18 to 2019-20, this group’s numbers (once again, Goals and Assists, adjusting 2019-20 for a full season) were close – 137 goals with 239 Assists in 2017-18 and (what would have been) 139 goals with 223 Assists in 2019-20.

That may strike some as surprising given Karlsson, Marchessault , Garrison and Tuch’s drop in play, but other players, especially Theodore, Smith and Carrier (and somehow, Ryan Reaves), bridged the gap. There is regression though, however slight.

But when I consider the Remaining Players WAR/GAR (once again, from evolving-hockey), I see a definite and significant drop in their performance: specifically, from 76.4 GAR in 2017-18, to 35.8 GAR in 2019-20.

So at least when it comes to the Remaining Players, both standard stats and analytics agree – their performance has regressed.

The Aging Core

Of course, that regression isn’t surprising when you look at the Golden Knights’ Remaining Players’ ages. According to this illuminating and oft-cited article from Evolving Wild:

  1. players improve from ages 18-22;
  2. 23-25 is considered their prime;
  3. from 26-30, they decline; and
  4. after 30, their play drops sharply.

On October 1, 2017:

  1. 7 of 13 Remaining Players were either in their prime or entering it. Of those, 4 of 13 players were 18-22 and 3 of 13 players were 23-25;
  2. 6 of 13 Remaining Players were past their prime. Of those, 5 of 13 players were 26-30, and just 1 player was over 30.

But on October 1, 2019:

  1. Only 4 of 13 Remaining Players were either in their prime or entering it. Just 1 player is 18-22, and only 3 of 13 players are 23-25;
  2. 9 of 13 Remaining Players are now past their prime. 7 of 13 players are 26-30 and 2 of 13 players are over 30.

So clearly, we can see that the Remaining Players are mostly past their prime.

What’s more, the Golden Knights’ key acquisitions, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, are also past their prime. In Pacioretty’s case, he’s well over 30. The chance of a big drop in his performance grows each year.

Goaltending

Robin Lehner obviously made the back end better. How much better is a matter of debate. Whether Marc-Andre Fleury stays is another question altogether.

But Fleury had a great year in 2017-18. He posted a .927 Save Percentage. He was 36 last year. On the other hand, Robin Lehner posted a .920 Save Percentage last year, playing for Chicago and Vegas. His save percentage wasn’t quite as good, but his sample size was quite small.

So it’s fair to say that the jury’s still out on their goaltending.

What It All Means

Just by looking at the age of the Golden Knights’ core roster, we should be able to see that their best days are behind them. And that’s not a hypothetical. There’s evidence backing that up.

This should be a cause for concern. Somehow, in three seasons, the Golden Knights went from being a brand new team, to being one of the oldest teams in the league. Their Cup Window is still open, but getting dimmer.

The good news is that the Golden Knights’ core is locked up and signed long term.

The bad news is that core is over the hill.

And given their age, we should reasonably expect diminishing returns on this team moving forward. Even if those returns are only diminishing slightly from year to year. Their best year remains their first year. And I believe it will be for a long time to come.

Next: Top 5 Trade Candidates This Offseason

 

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So I wish the Golden Knights and their fans the best of luck. Because they might not have a team that’s as good as they used to be. And if that team isn’t good enough to win now, they might be in for one heck of a long haul.

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