Friday, October 13, 2017

Can the Golden Knights win without James Neal?

So far, the Vegas Golden Knights are having an incredible opening season. They have gone 3-0 in their first three games played in the regular season, a feat no other expansion team in the NHL has ever managed! Marc Andre Fleury has been one of the reasons why. He had an amazing first three games, and kept his team in the game when they were struggling offensively. The other reason is James Neal. When the Golden Knights picked Neal up from the Predators in the expansion draft, it was because they knew he could score consistently, and he definitely has in the three games since he returned from hand surgery.
James Neal
Neal, 2017
By Resolute (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
James Neal has so far in three games scored five goals! This would put him on track to score 131 goals this season if he continues to score at the current rate of 1.66 goals per game. Now we all know that is not actually going to happen. So far, Neal has scored more than half of all the goals made by the team this season with five out of nine. That brings us to the question of what happens when he goes on a dry spell?  If Neal goes for five or six games straight without making a goal, can the Vegas Knights still win? Last season, Neal made 23 goals for the Predators during the regular season. The month of April, he did not make any goals, and only made one goal each in October and February, and only three in January. So, like any player, he is going to have his off games and even off months.

Now, so far, the Golden Knights are averaging three goals a game, and Neal is responsible for more than half of those goals. When he inevitably has a game or string of games that he fails to score in that is going to drastically effect the Golden Knights chances of winning. In the season opener, Neal scored Vegas' only goals, so take them away and it is a clear win for the Stars. If we take away Neal's goal in the second game, which was in overtime, either it would have gone to a shootout or possibly the Coyotes would have managed to edge them out for the win. Their third game on paper, they would have still won 3-2 taking away Neal's two goals.

When a game goes to overtime, the dynamics and energy of the game completely changes. So an overtime game can easily go to either team playing. The Nashville Predators, who Neal played for last year  had 14 games go into overtime. Of those games, they lost 10 games in and won only four, so they only won 40 percent of their OT games. Marc-Andre Fleury had seven of the Penguins 11 overtime losses last season. This means that Fleury lost 63 percent of the overtime games he played in last season. With such low odds of winning an overtime or shootout game, I am going to consider that on paper, the Golden Knights would have lost two of their three games without Neal's goals.

What the math does not take into effect is the emotional component of the game. So, with math I can show that if Neal had not scored, the Golden Knights would likely have lost two games. Now consider what having Neal going scoreless would do to the spirit and energy of the team. In the one game they would have statistically won, even if Neal had not scored a goal; the score would have been 3-2 with more than six minutes left in regulation. If the game had been that close, it is very likely that the Coyotes would have played harder and had more energy in the final minutes of play. The Golden Knights would not have had the confidence that Neal inspires when he is playing well, and would likely have been more stressed to try to hold onto the lead. This makes mistakes on their part more likely as well. Now I am not saying that they definitely would have lost that game, but I can also not say they certainly would have won. I believe when you factor the emotions in and the energy boost that the Coyotes would have gotten for having the opportunity to tie the game up, added to the lower confidence and energy that the Golden Knights would have had from Neal failing to find the back of the net, it is quite possible that they might have lost this game too.

Just the energy and confidence that one player brings to the ice can make a huge difference in winning or losing a game. For example, in a one-month period between November 28, 2015 and December 28, 2015, Montreal played 13 games. Out of those 13 games, Max Pacioretty had 11 games where he did not score, and the Canadiens lost every one of those games. That is 85 percent of the games he did not score in, his team lost. The two games in that time that Pacorietty did score in, his team won both games. In the following month, from December 29 through February 2,  Montreal went on to lose eight of the next 13 games where he again went scoreless. That is 62 percent of games. In this time where Pacioretty again did not score, the Canadiens lost. For three of the four games they won in that next month, Pacioretty scored at least one goal. From just this two-month time span in the 2015-16 season, we can see the impact that a single goal by just one specific player can make. This trend continued throughout the rest of the 2015-16 season. In this season, the Canadiens had 38 wins and 44 losses and they missed making the playoffs. If Pacioretty had scored a single goal in those 19 games, or even just scored in half of those games, the season would have ended very differently for the Montreal. They probably would have made it into the playoffs at the very least.

Another example is Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks. In mid-October of 2015 he fractured his fibula, which caused him to miss nearly three months of play.  During the time that Couture was out injured, the Sharks lost 18 of their next 32 games. This is nearly 60 percent of the games Couture missed - the Sharks lost. At the end of December of 2015, the Sharks were at 18-16-2 record. After Couture was back on the ice by the end of January of 2016, they were 26-18-4.  During that three month absence, no one thought the Sharks would even make the playoffs. After Couture's return, the Sharks won 60 percent of their games for the remainder of the regular season. This is the incredible difference emotionally and in energy on the ice that just one key player can make. This was the season that ended 46-30-6 for the Sharks, and they made it to the Stanley Cup final. If Couture had been out longer, or not returned that season, there is little doubt that the Sharks would not have made it to the final round in the playoffs for the first time. They might not have even made it into the playoffs.

The Vegas Golden Knights have two players at the moment who inspire this kind of emotional response on the ice. One is Marc-Andre Fleury, and the other is James Neal. While Fleury is a vital part of the team, and at this point I don't think the Golden Knights would survive without him either, he is not an offensive player. The other is James Neal. While there is zero chance that he is going to score the 131 goals projected if he continues at the rate he started, 30 to 40 goals is a reasonable expectation. What happens to the Golden Knights if Neal has a 10 or 11 game scoreless streak as Pacioretty did with Montreal in 2015-16? Last Season, with the Predators, Neal had two different seven-game streaks where he did not score, and one eight-game streak where he did not score. The Predators survived and made it into the playoffs, in 16th place, but they made it in. However the Predators also had a number of other players who were scoring on a consistent basis. They had Viktor Arvidson with 31 goals, Fillip Foresburg with 31 goals, and Juuse Saros with 21 goals.

I know the season is still very young, but with one player scoring more than 50 percent of the team's goals, this is a potential problem. We hope that nothing happens to Neal and that he continues to get the 30 to 40 goals that can be reasonably expected of him. However, if Vegas can not get more players scoring more consistently, there will be problems. The Golden Knights are looking at a very long down hill season if Neal starts having long spells where he is not scoring like he did last season. From what we see here, at best, the Golden Knights would win only one in three games where Neal did not score; that is 33 percent, at most.  Worst-case they would lose all of those games. Last season, Neal did not score a goal in 50 of the 70 games he played in. That is 71 percent of games played that he did not score a goal. That would mean that if the Vegas team loses every time Neal doesn't get a goal, and he had a comparable season to last year, they would lose 70 percent of their games. Statistically speaking, they would win at least a few of those games where Neal fails to get a goal, but the math here paints a very bleak picture.

So as much credit as I give Neal and Fluery for getting their team to an incredible 3-0-0 opening, I would really like to see more depth in the scoring. I don't expect that they will make the playoffs this first year. Very few if any expansion teams do in their first year. They have had a number of milestone achievements so far, and it would be incredible to see them make the playoffs in this first season too, though like I said I still see that as being unlikely. That said, though, if they want to continue to be competitive, they definitely need more depth on their score sheet.

1 comment:

  1. A great read! You know the proper way of delivering the story. The Golden Knights will most probably overcome this issue within a short period of time.