Of all the headliners that can be found on the Vegas strip, who would have imagined the Golden Knights, in their expansion year, would be right up there with Cirque du Soleil, Inferno and Chris Angel?
They shoot, they score, they entertain, and most impressively, they win. Only Tampa Bay averages more goals per game than Vegas does this season.
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant has performed a miracle that’s one part Herb Brooks, another part David Copperfield.
How can a coach bring together a collection of castoffs from across the league and build not just the best expansion team in league history, but one of the top hockey teams in the entire NHL, all while playing an uptempo, fan-friendly system?
“That’s a good question,” Flyers forward Jakub Voracek said. “They’re just skating very well, all of them. Obviously it’s hard to play against someone that’s skating so well.”
When these two teams played for the first time in Las Vegas in early February, the Flyers found out firsthand as they were outshot 39-18, the most lopsided shot total of any game this season, but were opportunistic in a 4-1 win.
Under Gallant, the Golden Knights have developed into one of the quickest puck-moving teams in the league and are constantly on the attack. Sean Couturier doesn’t believe there’s another team in the league that plays that style as well as Vegas does.
“I don’t think so,” Couturier said. “Not as good as they do. I think a lot of teams try and play like they do — spread the offensive zone, cycle the puck, control the play and get defenders out of position, but they’re really good at it.”
So if it works for the Golden Knights, why couldn’t the Flyers adopt a similar system?
For starters, Vegas general manager George McPhee was able to handpick his entire roster from a list of unprotected players — good players, at that. So if speed, puck control and skating ability were key attributes, then McPhee had the luxury of assembling that type of roster.
“What stands out when you watch them and when you play against them? Their speed presents a real challenge,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, whose team has 81 points, good for third in the Metro behind Pittsburgh (84) and Washington (83), and three points ahead of New Jersey (78). Washington hosts Winnipeg Monday night.
“You have to be ready to defend that and you have to be ready to counterattack against it.”
Secondly, the Golden Knights possess balance with no real “star power.” For most of this season, every line that Gallant has assembled has had to prove it's worthy of ice time, including the current top line of leading goal-scorer William Karlsson (35 goals) at center and Jonathan Marchessault (22 goals) and recent pickup Tomas Tatar (17 goals), formerly of the Red Wings. That trio has combined 74 goals on the season. The Knights also have 20-goal scorers in Erik Haula (24), James Neal (24) and Riley Smith (22).
“The biggest part of it is to have 23 players here, all kinda misfits who were left unprotected. So when they came with a simple system, it has to be 20 guys every night. You can’t have one line hot and the other three coasting,” said former Flyers forward Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, whom Vegas plucked in the expansion draft last summer. “[Gallant] played the guys who were working the hardest, and that was the indicator for the other guys, it doesn’t matter who your name is.”
Which probably wouldn’t work for Hakstol if Voracek, Couturier or Claude Giroux didn’t exactly bring their best effort every game. Gallant has been dealing from the same deck all season, a “use-it-or-lose-it” philosophy, you could say.
Impressively, it’s the same approach Gallant took with the Summerside Capitals of the Maritime Junior Hockey League back in the mid-1990s.
“The way I coach is the same I coached in junior hockey,” Gallant said. “Come to the rink, have fun, work hard and be competitive. I don’t prepare my team much differently than anyone else does. For me, it’s having fun and having a good attitude and make sure your players are ready to play.”
Proof what happens in Vegas certainly shouldn’t stay there.