The Vegas Golden Knights came into their inaugural season with absolutely no expectations. Seemingly everyone, including myself, thought they would have no business being close to the playoff picture. This was because they were supposed to have a weak forward core and be a complete wasteland up the middle en route to a lottery pick. But now, two months into the season they are an above 50% shot share team with an estimated 59% chance of making the playoffs. If this was going to be possible coming into the year I would have guessed it would be on the back of great goaltending and James Neal. While goalie carousel has been fun and Neal has been great, a large part of what has made the Knights so competitive this season has been two unsung heroes stepping up as a top pairing defenseman and a 1st line center.
1st Line Center?
As mentioned above, everyone thought the Golden Knights would be brutal up the middle. However, this year William Karlsson has stepped up as the legit number 1 center every competitive team needs. William Karlsson is certainly not a flashy name so most people probably think I’m a little crazy for suggesting he is a top line center in the NHL, so hear me out and let’s take a deep dive into his numbers this year and it suddenly becomes almost impossible to argue otherwise. (Data from Corsica.Hockey)
Points generally receive the most weight in evaluating forwards, and Karlsson impresses here with his points relative to his ice time (P/60) is in the 85th percentile. This puts him in the top 50 point producers in the NHL so far (minimum 200 minutes played) which is not only first line territory, but it’s bordering on elite. For a team that was expected to have nothing up the middle, a top 50 point producer at the center position is enough to begin the conversation of first line center.
Of course, there is more to hockey to points and as we move towards more underlying metrics, Karlsson stays strong. To get a sample of how well he drives play first we can look to shot attempts relative to team, (Corsi Rel) where Karlsson sits in the 83rd percentile. This means only 51 players have been better than Karlsson at tilting the shot clock this season, which again is first line but not quite elite territory. For another note on how impressive he has been, he is currently sandwiched between two more impressive play drivers: Johnathan Toews and Mikko Koivu. Again, Corsi isn’t everything so next let’s turn to expected goals.
When the shots are weighted for danger (XG Rel) we see a very familiar picture with William Karlsson being borderline elite ranking in the 88th percentile. This is impressively close to what you would expect from a star number 1 forward for an NHL team as it ranks him 36th among forwards (assuming there is 1 #1 forward per NHL team). So combine this with his ability to tilt shot quantity from above, and we have a first line play driver. For a better idea of this, we can examine his hockey.viz heat map. Red represents where the shots are coming from when Karlsson is on the ice and blue represents where they are not. This makes it really easy to see what the expected goals indicated. The Knights are an impressive team when Karlsson has been on the ice this year, they are peppering the goalie with shots with shots from the highest danger areas, directly in front of the net and in the slot. This makes him a scoring chance machine who has been able to combine good shot quantity with great quality.
To put a cherry on top of Karlsson’s performance we can turn to his penalty differential, where he ranks in the 80th percentile. One last time, this puts him in first line, yet not elite, territory as he helps contribute to the Golden Knights fantastic penalty differential. In summary, William Karlsson has produced points at a first line rate, been a first line play driver, and drove penalty differential at a first line rate, meaning thus far he has been the undisputed number 1 center that every competitive team needs, and the Knights first unsung hero.
The Old Dog With New Tricks
Of course, it takes more than just a centerman stepping up to keep the ragtag expansion team competitive. They need some help on the blueline too. It was expected that the Knights strength would be on the backend, but betting on 35-year-old Deryk Engelland to be the man magically stepping up as a top 2 defenseman after being a replacement level defensemen for the past few years is not something I saw coming.
Calling Deryk Engelland a top pairing defenseman is probably significantly harder to believe than William Karlsson being a first line center, so again you will have to hear me out as we dig deeper into his performance so far this season where his results speak for themselves.
So… ya, these results surprise me just as much as they probably surprise everyone reading this. After years of maybe not even being an NHL quality defensemen, Engelland (in a small sample) is suddenly putting up points in the 95th percentile among defensemen with 200 minutes played this season. This puts Deryk Engelland in elite territory as top 10 scorer on the blueline so far. I can’t believe I just typed that as I’m not sure even his biggest fan would have hoped for this out of Engelland early in this season. Granted he is riding a PDO wave so far, so it’s not realistic to expect the elite point production to sustain, but once we keep going there is more to suggest Deryk Engelland is doing things that make him valuable well beyond the points.
Going beyond points we can look at Corsi Rel to see Engelland has suddenly summoned the ability to tilt the shot clock. His Corsi Rel sits in the 61st percentile and 71st overall, just outside the top pair range. Again this seems completely insane to me as Engelland has not been able to drive play for multiple seasons now, and 35-year-old NHL players generally don’t get better with age.
Engelland’s ability to drive play somehow gets even better when the shots become weighted for danger (XG Rel) where he shoots back up into the top pair range and the 78th percentile. Between the expected goals and the Corsi, the evidence is suggesting that the Knights are a fantastic team while Engelland is on the ice in terms of shot quality and quantity.
So he is producing points and driving play which is fantastic, but this is a guy who has yet to play a full NHL season with less than 50 penalty minutes so maybe he is giving it all back by putting himself in the penalty box? Nope, penalty differential has been the second strongest skill of this old-school defenseman where he is again in top pair territory and the 84th percentile. This makes it a trio of major metrics in which Engelland has been a top pairing defenseman this year with his Corsi not being too far behind. That solidifies the fact that Engelland has put up top pairing results for the Golden Knights so far this season. Of course, as I keep saying this very off-brand for him so I wouldn’t be so sure it’s going to continue, however, the fact remains that Engelland being a top pairing defenseman out of nowhere has been another large part of the Golden Knights success which makes him their second unsung hero.
So the Vegas Golden Knights are way more competitive than anyone thought possible and projected to make history by being an expansion team making the playoffs in their inaugural season. While there are many names that deserve credit for where the Knights are right now, this scorching start would not have been possible without the play of their two unsung heroes: William Karlsson and Deryk Engelland.