Expert NHL Handicapping: Why the Vegas Golden Knights are So Good So Soon
This is truly crazy. Depth is so important in the NHL, so expansion teams usually need a long time to become competitive. Yet the Vegas Golden Knights are sitting in second place in the deep Pacific Division and have a five-point cushion after 30 games played. It is truly remarkable in every way.
It's not like the team approached the expansion draft with the focus of competing now at all costs, either. In several cases there was a better player that could have been had from a team, but they went for the player who fit better long term - or they made a deal with the team to get long-term assets like draft picks in exchange for taking a weaker player. They just simply should not be this good, yet for weeks now we have been waiting for them to fall back to earth and they refuse to. They are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games, which is a pace more than good enough to be a playoff team this year or any year. Obviously, we need to try to understand why this is happening and what we can expect going forward. Here are six factors to consider:
Dominance at home: The team is an incredible 12-2-1 one home ice in their shiny new arena on The Strip. There are only three teams that have secured more wins at home, and all of them have played at least four more home games so far. Teams need to win at home in the NHL, and Vegas is certainly doing that. They have picked on some weaklings at home, but there are some real quality wins as well - like St. Louis and Winnipeg. They were only 2-1-1 in their last four at home before Thursday, but smothering and beating the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs doesn't happen by accident. This play at home is probably the biggest reason that things are going as well as they are for the squad. It's worth noting, too, that they are above .500 on the road, which is something more than half the league can't say.
Overcoming adversity in net: This team drafted Marc-Andre Fleury to be the face of the franchise, and it worked out well - until he got hurt early on. They grabbed Malcolm Subban off waivers from Boston in a savvy move to grab a backup goalie, and he played well - until he got hurt, too. They have had to work good chunks of the season with the combo of Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk, which is definitely not ideal. Adversity in net has sunk a lot of teams - Montreal was awful this year when Carey Price was banged up, for example. But Vegas just kept chugging along. Dansk is a perfect 3-0 and has played surprisingly well. Lagace only barely held his own, but he wasn't a disaster. Now the top two are back. For the team to have come through injuries like that - which would have sunk a lot of teams -- is incredible.
Offense: The team drafted a whole lot of defenseman, likely thinking they would find more of a market for the excess than they have so far. When you looked at the team on paper before the season it seemed reasonable to think that they would be sound defensively but that they would really struggle to score. The defense has been on the low side of reasonable expectations. What is shocking, though, is that the team sits third in the NHL with 3.4 goals scored per game. In a lot of cases it is hard to imagine players sustaining current output. Leading scorer William Karlsson has 26 points in 31 games, which is better than he totaled in either of the last two seasons for Columbus where he played 81 games each time. Jonathan Marchessault had a serious breakout year last year for Florida. It is a mystery why the Panthers let him go, and he has managed to keep momentum going. James Neal is producing like he only has in Pittsburgh when he had stellar linemates. David Perron is having a career year after a decade in the league. Reilly Smith is on track for career highs after four already solid years. And there are more overachievers, too. What the team is doing right now is obviously working, but it's tough to imagine it working all year.
Pacific teams with upside: Vegas is doing well, but the Pacific is full of teams that are real disappointments so far. The Kings, who are leading the division, feel like they are overachieving as well. But San Jose, sitting third, is on the low side of reasonable expectations. Calgary, tied with San Jose in points with two more games played, is struggling to find consistency. They should improve as they continue to find their defensive game. Anaheim can't stay healthy, and it's having a major impact, but the healthier they get the tougher they will be. And Edmonton is an absolute mess so far, playing sub-.500 hockey after being the second favorite to win the Cup heading into the season, but they have been a little better of late. They face an uphill battle but could get back into the discussion with a stronger second half. The Knights are likely to have to hold off a large group of hard-charging teams from behind them.
Schedule: The team did what they need to do, winning six of seven on their season-long seven game homestand. But then they went on the road for their season-long six-game road trip and went only 1-4-1. The season is really going to be made or broken from Jan. 16 to Feb. 23. They start out that stretch by playing seven of nine on the road and then have another seven-game home stretch right after that. If they survive the road and thrive at home then they could actually hold on to a playoff spot. Underachieve, though, and the clock could strike 12 on this Cinderella season.
Betting performance: The surprising offense and mostly acceptable defense has meant that this team has gone "over" the total with very nice frequency. They have gone over the total 19 times in 31 games and have pushed two more times, and they have produced nice profits both at home and on the road.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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