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Golden Knights’ blue line turned loose by Pete DeBoer

One moment from the Golden Knights’ round-robin game against the Dallas Stars on Aug. 3 illustrated a key emphasis for coach Pete DeBoer.

The Knights were trailing 3-2 in the third period when Stars defenseman Esa Lindell snapped his stick and turned over the puck. Defenseman Nate Schmidt grabbed it, passed to right wing Reilly Smith to start a rush and never stopped skating.

Schmidt was only a few strides behind his forwards when Smith attempted a pass that caromed off a Star’s leg. Schmidt was right there to get the puck, fire it past goaltender Ben Bishop to tie the game in the blink of an eye.

The play, start to finish, took six seconds. And it showed how DeBoer wants his defensemen active and in the rush to stress opposing defenses in ways the team wasn’t before.

“That’s exactly how we want to play,” DeBoer said. “When we turn it the other way, we want to make sure our defensemen are involved in the rush and we’ve got that wave coming. … I thought that was a real good example of a big piece of our game.”

DeBoer’s defensemen have been giving opposing coaches headaches for years.

San Jose Sharks blueliner Brent Burns scored 322 points in 361 games under DeBoer, 38 more than any other defenseman in the NHL during that time. The next-best player, Erik Karlsson, also spent parts of two seasons with DeBoer.

The Sharks’ blue-line depth went beyond those two players. San Jose finished first once in points by defensemen and tied for first another time in DeBoer’s four full seasons. The team finished third the other two years.

“Pete brought his unique system changes where we used our D-men a lot in the offensive zone,” Sharks captain Logan Couture said.

DeBoer brought those same ideas to the Knights when he was hired Jan. 15. He helped add juice to a group that was solid but didn’t seem to scare anybody.

Under previous coach Gerard Gallant, the team’s blue line had a combined 80 points in 49 games. Only the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings — the bottom two teams in the NHL standings — had fewer points per game by defensemen.

Things changed in a hurry after the coaching switch. DeBoer encouraged his defensemen to be active and join the rush. Breakout drills were designed to involve them at the top of the defensive zone or the neutral zone. In the offensive zone, defensemen had the green light to venture below the circles and make a play.

The difference was felt throughout the lineup. Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Nick Holden started scoring more after the coaching change. Trade acquisition Alec Martinez went from having eight points in 41 games with the Los Angeles Kings to recording eight in 10 games with the Knights.

The blue line’s 2.4 points per game under DeBoer would have ranked fifth over the entire season. He added another dimension to the team’s game, and it’s far more dangerous for it.

“I think in today’s game, the D being offensive and adding to a team’s offense is huge,” Holden said. “That’s something we’ve talked about as a group, making sure that we’re jumping up and adding to the rush and adding to the offensive play. Obviously it’s nice when the D can contribute, and it helps the team big time when we can add some offense.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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