I don’t really have much dislike of the Vegas Golden Knights. I don’t bemoan the expansion process that was designed to give them more of a competitive advantage than past expansion teams in the NHL. I don’t hate that their fanbase didn’t have to struggle for decades before a Stanley Cup Final berth.
I’m jealous and bummed that their successful style of play probably won’t be copied on South Broad Street.
Looking at the Flyers’ roster vs the Golden Knights, neither team looks like a Cup finalist. The Flyers’ forwards definitely have more star power. Wild Bill Karlsson, Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron had great seasons, but there’s none of the track record like those of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds there. Youngsters like Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny give the Flyers depth. Even on defense, Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere would be top pair guys for Vegas, and even guys like Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald and Robert Hagg would likely get regular use on Vegas’ blueline.
The one area that is clearly superior for Vegas is in goal, where Marc-Andre Fleury followed up an excellent regular season (29-13-4, 2.24 goals-against average, .927 save percentage) with a stellar playoff run. Certainly the injured duo of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth didn’t come close to matching Fleury’s brilliance in the post season. But at the same time, Fleury was hurt early and untested guys like Malcolm Subban and Oskar Dansk played well. Certainly, Fleury’s strong play is a big reason that the Knights are headed to the final, but at the same time, it’s hard to chalk up a 109 point season with 51 wins (47 regulation/overtime wins) to a “hot” goalie.
Gerard Gallant and his staff did a magnificent job coaching this team to its strengths. While Dave Hakstol’s success is lauded as part of the reason NHL teams are more open to hiring NCAA coaches, that success pales in comparison to the work Gallant has done this season. Hakstol, from the outside looking in, is a conservative coach who likes the “safe” approach. He’d rather his guys not take too many risks. His in-game deployment and roster utilization underlies this. With a lead, Hakstol shortens the bench and double shifts his stars with his safe veterans. The underlying message to kids is that if you make the safe play you’ll get more ice time.
Meanwhile, Gallant answered a question from The Athletic’s Michael Russo (about Stefan Noesen not getting benched after a penalty) like this:
I just think guys make mistakes, it’s going to happen in a game. Players don’t want to make mistakes, but the games would be pretty boring if nobody made mistakes. There’d be no 2-on-1s, there’d be no breakaways. So, you try to be confident in your guys. They hold each other accountable. They really do. So, as a coach, play our guys, play your players and give them a second chance.
That sounds refreshing to me. The Knights’ players have fully bought in, as well. Several media accounts have mentioned the players speaking in glowing terms about their coach and the way he handles the team. It encourages the team to step up and take accountability and have one another’s backs. Players know a mistake isn’t going to lead to missed shifts and benchings.
The other thing Gallant’s team does is play aggressive hockey. They forecheck like demons. They back check like guys chasing after a thief that grabbed their kids’ ice cream cones. They don’t give opposing teams any time with the puck and when there’s a turnover, they pounce like a school of piranha on a ox that wandered into their stream and go on the attack. Watching them play San Jose in game one of the second round, they were up 5-0 late in the second and were still pressing play like they were down a goal with 5 minutes left.
That’s something I’d like to see the Flyers embrace. They have the horses to do it. Guys like Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux, Konecny, Nolan Patrick, and Sean Couturier turned loose could be a tough team to defend. Guys like Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere can already move the puck well and will hopefully be joined by guys like Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers next season who are adept at making a smart outlet pass and transitioning from defending to attacking. Removing the shackles stylistically also means moving away from players who have trouble executing outlet passes and cause the team to get hemmed into their own zone.
The Golden Knights exceeded expectations, even their own. They focused on players that fit their plan-and that plan was skating hard, playing aggressive and taking the game to the opponent. Vegas didn’t totally discount old school hockey or defense. They have size and toughness, and even traded for Ryan Reaves at the trade deadline. But their aggressive posture was a much bigger factor and led to a team of castoffs getting ready to play in the Stanley Cup finals. They realized a team that spends too much time defending will eventually crack and give up goals. I just hope that Ron Hextall and his coach are watching closely.