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October 22, 2019

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This small change in Golden Knights defense could stabilize blue line

Golden Knights Shut Out Ducks

Jae C. Hong/AP

Vegas Golden Knights’ Nate Schmidt, left, controls the puck under pressure from Anaheim Ducks’ Hampus Lindholm during the third period of an NHL hockey game Friday, March 1, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. The Golden Knights won 3-0.

Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant made a minor announcement Monday, one that won’t perk too many ears but will get hardcore fans rethinking what the Vegas blue line will look like this season.

By saying that Nate Schmidt is going to play on the right side, it confirmed the suspicions that both of the Golden Knights top-four right defensemen will be left-handed. Schmidt and Shea Theodore will anchor the right side, with Brayden McNabb pairing with one of them.

“When he plays good over there, that’s where you want him to play, where he plays his best hockey,” Gallant said. “Similar to Shea Theodore ... it changes but they’re both playing real well on that side.”

As a lefty, Schmidt likes playing in the defensive zone to help him extend his stick but keep his body facing the play, and it’s easier to fire off a shot after taking a pass along the blue line in the offensive zone.

But there are also challenges, notably on defensive zone breakouts and carrying the puck through the neutral zone where he is on his back hand. When he’s in the offensive zone it’s a tougher to pick the puck up when it’s rolling around the boards.

“Both of them have their benefits,” Schmidt said. “Personally, I like it when I’m defending and when I’m in the offensive zone are the two best times.”

Statistically, Schmidt is better on the right side than the left. He played most of 2017-18 and a lot of last season as a right defenseman with McNabb on his left. In 39 games last year, Schmidt boasted a 51.2 Corsi percentage and 54.17 expected goals percentage when on the ice at 5-on-5 from the right side. When he shifted to the left for the final 22 games alongside Deryk Engelland, he sat at 48.9% Corsi and 49.0% expected goals.

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The trickle-down effects of Schmidt playing on the right are intriguing as well, namely who he pairs with. Schmidt playing on the right this season eliminates the possibility of returning to the right-handed Engelland as his partner. Considering how well Theodore and McNabb played together last year, it’s safe to say they will remain together.

Schmidt has skated alongside rookie Nicolas Hague during training camp, but nearly every veteran is paired with a rookie so there isn’t much to read into there (it could, however, be interesting if Hague wins a roster spot out of camp). Jon Merrill and Nick Holden are Vegas’ other unaccounted-for returning left-handed defensemen. Schmidt will play top-four minutes, meaning whoever he pairs with will be elevated to that role as well, something Merrill, Holden and obviously a potential rookie have not done consistently with the Golden Knights.

Odds are, where Schmidt or Theodore or McNabb play on opening night is not where they play for 82 games. Injuries happen, adjustments are needed and things just change over the course of a hockey season.

“I’m not saying (Schmidt) can’t play the left side in some situations,” Gallant said. “Just in case of that so you won’t come back at me and say ‘Why are you playing him over there?’ ”

The plan is for Schmidt to play the season on his off-side. Who he pairs with will have a major impact on team success. Both Schmidt and Theodore were better on the right side last year, but that was with McNabb on their left and no real way to differentiate which variable, the position or McNabb, is more to credit.

If Schmidt’s numbers look more like they did when he was on the left, it would not be hard to draw the conclusion that McNabb’s presence is a boon to his partner.

Only time will tell. Schmidt was excited about returning to the right side. His numbers were better, and it’s putting both him and the team in the best position to succeed.

Justin Emerson can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Justin on Twitter at twitter.com/@j15emerson.

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