With a half season complete, now's a good time to check in on the Golden Knights roster and grade out each player. Here's Part Two, time for some defense!
A loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 27 signaled the midway point of the Golden Knights' 2019-20 campaign, their third season in the National Hockey League. Those 41 games have been quite the roller coaster. Many ups, many downs, and a bunch of in between.
Ultimately, this has culminated in the Vegas Golden Knights being right in the playoff mix in the Pacific Division. Despite their recent success, the defense corps has been a bit of a mixed bag early on. Now on the "back nine" of the regular season, here are my first-half player grades for the d-men.
Time to hate me Vegas. Deryk Engelland, while a great teammate, spokesman for the team, and samaritan is no longer a bona fide NHL defenseman. His presence in the Golden Knights lineup has led to the young Nic Hague being a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.
Engelland is looked at internally as a leader, a steady defensive-defenseman, and a mentor to the young players in the system. Hague has commented that Engelland is "easy to play with", but his actual on-ice performance ranks toward the bottom of the league in nearly all metrics.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 113
He remains in the top-six, despite being outplayed by Merrill, Hague, and even Nick Holden. His willingness to block shots and kill penalties has been long revered by the team. He has been fine as a bottom-pair defenseman, but his spot could be better served as a way to get a younger player into the mix or a more consistent basis. His contact is up at the end of the season and you'd have to think it's the last for the 37-year-old vet.
It's hard to give Nic Hague an overall grade for a few reasons. One, he is a young defenseman learning how to play in the NHL. Two, he has been seeing bottom-pair work, for the most part, when active. Three, he rotates out if the lineup on occasion. Then of course four, his partners - sans Shea Theodore - are not particularly good.
"I like the kid a lot.....He will be a great defenseman in the NHL."
- Gerard Gallant
As the only remaining player without a goal, Hague should be frustrated, but in speaking with the young man one can deduce that he's not. Hague knows that "it will come" if he keeps playing the way he's supposed to. He still has some work to do to fulfill his overwhelming potential, but it will come in due time.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 152
Each game he gains more confidence and asserts himself more at both ends of the ice. He's got 10 helpers this season, good for eighth on the team. He's performed as expected and looks to be on the rise. The Golden Knights made a good choice giving Hague the NHL job out of camp.
One would be hard pressed to find anyone that had big expectations for Nick Holden's 2019-20 season. Maybe that was a good thing. He has played shockingly well and has even contributed on the offensive side of the operation.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 134
After playing 61 games last season, Holden has seen more frequent usage and has already topped his 2018-19 goals total. His four goals rank second on the blue line, behind a guy you'd expect to score in Shea Theodore. His 53.1 Corsi For % is very nice. Essentially, the pending UFA has been a pleasant surprise.
Physical, responsible, dependable. Those would be the three most commonly used terms when his teammates talk about Brayden McNabb. Nate Schmidt raves about how "Nabber" makes it easier on him in-game, allowing Schmidt to get in on the offense. McNabb is outstanding in his own zone and provides stability for a sometimes volatile Golden Knights defense corps.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 96
McNabb has been exactly what one would expect. He continues to lay the body at the blue line and has been steady in his own end, playing on the top pair and penalty kill unit. The 29-year-old's advanced stats are slightly down, but this rings true across the board for the Golden Knights. With two goals, 5 assists, and a minus-4 rating, McNabb has been adequate.
Of all the defensemen, Jon Merrill has had the most interesting season. He's played defense, he's been a healthy scratch, and he's even gotten a game at forward. Yes, Merrill was the fourth-line LW in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan 2. Naturally, he scored a goal in that contest.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 155
Merrill has been scratched more than he should be. He has performed better than both Engelland and Holden and played just fine beside both Shea Theodore and Hague this year. His 52.2 CF% at even strength is solid, tying him with Schmidt. The pending free agent is making a good case for a new contract with his play, but he's seemingly stuck as the 6/7 defenseman, with Engelland entrenched in the lineup.
This grade will be a bit of a shock to some. The Golden Knights' number-one defenseman has had a strange season. He hasn't been as dynamic as in past seasons and that could be due in part to a knee injury suffered in the opening period of the season. He has four goals and 14 assists to his name, but Schmidt has the potential for so much more.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 63
The enigmatic defenseman currently ranks fourth among Golden Knights defenseman in even-strength CF%, with Merrill, at 52.2%. Where Schmidt's game seems to be changing is that he has been surprisingly susceptible to the stretch pass this season. He's been burnt on occasion, maybe overly trusting his partner McNabb. A breakout could come at any time, but Schmidt has yet to scratch his true potential in 2019-20.
Although he plays on the "second pair", Theodore is a top-pair defenseman. His game has come a long way since his days in Anaheim and it's clear to see why the Golden Knights locked him up for seven years back in September 2018.
ESPN Fantasy Ranking: 30
Theodore can do it all. He's great offensively and smooth through the neutral zone. He's made great strides in his own end, shedding the label of offensive-defenseman. Unfortunately, with Marc-Andre Fleury around his run of All-Star enevitible nominations will have to wait. He's currently sixth on the team in points (6 goals, 20 assists) and his advanced stats make the nerds go crazy (57.0 CF%, 5.1 CF%-rel). Simply put, he's elite.
You may have noticed a similar theme for a few players. Most guys have been just alright. They've played within their skillset and expectations, but haven't done anything too Earth-shattering to separate themselves from the pack. Without Colin Miller in the mix - traded to Buffalo - the defense is built in a less dynamic fashion.
I tend to grade with a baseline of expectation, therefore the pedestrian B grades were no surprise as I worked through this. A few outliers exist - Holden has been a pleasant surprise, Engelland has been rough, and Theodore has been great - but it has been a pretty ho-hum first-half for the blue liners.
Be sure to keep an eye out for Part Three of the midseason grades. Next up are the forwards!
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