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Let’s Experiment in EHM: A Star-Studded Under-22 Team in the 2019-20 NHL Season

How would a super team made up of some of the best NHL players at age 22 or younger would do in the 2019-20 season? In this week’s EHM experiment, I can tell you that they would do very, very, very, very, very, very well.

Four players on the super Under-22 team made the NHL All-Star First Team. You love to see it. Unless you played against them.
Four players on the super Under-22 team made the NHL All-Star First Team. You love to see it. Unless you played against them.

In last week’s experiment, I ran the opposite of the a WAR-optimized team - a WAR-minimal team - to see how they would do. They did not make the playoffs, but they were far from the worst. This week’s experiment was back to making a more-easily specialized team. A team of young guns. As suggested by alslammerz:

As a future FM inspired experiment, how about a “you can’t win anything with kids” roster. The salary cap might be tough to do and the goalies might be bleh, but a full roster of just young players, like a cap compliant Young Guns team from the lone World Cup we’ve gotten in awhile.

I figured out that as an under-23 roster, this was possible. Auston Matthews, forward Sebastian Aho, Matt Tkachuk, Patrick Laine, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, and Jakob Chychrun all have enough cap value to reach the cap floor per CapFriendly. If could fill the rest of the roster with players with mostly maximum value entry level contracts, then I could reach that $60.2 million mark while also making Carter Hart and Cayden Primeau to be the goalies. I managed to do so. It may not even be the very best roster. But they performed amazingly well.

The Experiment

Construct a 23-man roster of players below the age of 23 and play through the 2019-20 season.

The Approach & The Team

I asked alslammerz which team should be used. As this is a Devils blog, I have primarily used the Devils. But it was asked to use other teams to mix things up. As per alslammerz suggested, I used the youngest franchise: Vegas Golden Knights. As for the GM name, I looked to the 1988 movie Young Guns. One of the stars of that film is acting star and NHL voice-over man, Keifer Sutherland. There we go. The man perhaps best known as Jack Bauer. The place to be is in Paradise, Nevada. The team are all under the age of 23. Here is the roster I put together to meet the cap floor:

Goalies (2): Carter Hart, Cayden Primeau

Defensemen (7): Zach Werenski, Jakob Chychrun, Rasmus Dahlin, Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dante Fabbro, Charlie McAvoy

Wingers (8): Patrick Laine, Brady Tkachuk, Matt Tkachuk, Andrei Svechnikov, Kailer Yamamoto, Joey Anderson, Kaapo Kakko, Luke Kunin

Centers (6): Auston Matthews, Sebastian Aho, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nico Hischier, Elias Pettersson, Jack Hughes

Is this the best 22 and under roster I could make? No. If I could do it all over again, I would have swapped out Pettersson or Hughes for Nick Suzuki. Or swap out Kunin, Kakko, or Anderson for Alex Nylander. Or Fabbro for Adam Boqvist. However, I think you will be very pleased with how this team performed.

For starters, there was plenty of versatility. Makar can play both sides of the defense, Aho can play all three forward positions, Pettersson could play right wing, Dubois could play left wing, Kunin could play center, and the only wingers that could not play on the other side were Brady Tkachuk, Anderson, and Kakko. What this meant is that if someone had a poor or mediocre game, I could swap them out easily. Except for right defensemen as the seventh defender would be a left-only sided defender.

For this game, I used the latest roster database from The Blue Line. This was current as of the NHL Pause back in March of this year. This way the young players have been playing like we know they have in real life. This also meant some teams were going to be way worse off than others (sadly, New Jersey).

The Limitations

Per the rules of the experiment, this is meant to be a 22 and under roster. The oldest player on the roster was Werenski, who would turn 23 on July 19, 2020. So everyone picked met would meet the age requirement during the season.

I decided to set a rule for myself to only use players under 23 for call-ups as well. Since Vegas was used, I had to use players from the AHL affiliate in Chicago. This was fine for skaters. For goaltenders, it could be an issue. The Wolves have Oscar Dansk and Garret Sparks, who are both 25. But the ECHL affiliate, the Fort Wayne Komets, had 21-year old Dylan Ferguson. So if a goalie goes down, I have to go with Ferguson first. If I could not call-up a player under 23, then and only then can I go older. Would I need to go that deep? Let us find out.

I also decided to not make any transactions with the picked roster. There were no such transactions in the World Cup. Team North America could not make any trades. So why would this one?

The Experiment Results

The season started with a 2-4 loss to San Jose. Two days later, the Young Gunz (my own nickname for them) went to the SAP Center and did this:

This is how you respond to a season opening loss. And this was not even the Young Gunz’ biggest win over San Jose in this season.
This is how you respond to a season opening loss. And this was not even the Young Gunz’ biggest win over San Jose in this season.

This set the tone for the season. And the remainder of the season series against the Sharks, which had a second 9-2 win and closed out with a 9-0 win.

This team just went out, kicked a lot of butt, took a lot of names, and kept roaming through teams. It did not take long for the Young Gunz to take first place in the West and they never looked back. They were averaging over 44 shots per game and fewer than 25 shots against per game. They maintained such rates throughout the 82-game season. Not that they beat a lot of other non-Shark teams by scoring 9 goals, but they won a lot of games by healthy margins.

What is shocking is that I did not really do a lot to set this up. All I did with the tactics were to give the first three lines an attacking mentality, a high tempo, the instruction to shoot the puck a lot (but not a barrage), and the instruction to never dump the puck in. The fourth line had a balanced mentality instead of the other changes. That was it. I made no real changes to the power play or penalty kill. I figured the young men could figure it out and AI Peter DeBoer could fill in any gaps. I rotated players in and out as needed due to performances and minor injuries. They just kept on scoring and winning. If the opposition’s goaltender was not going to put up a ‘9’ performance and the Young Gunz were not going to have an off night, then there would be a win by a good amount. Swapping Pettersson and Hughes in and out? Still winning. Putting in Chychrun in for Dahlin or Quinn Hughes? Still winning? Hart or Primeau? Still winning? One game where I mis-clicked and did not realize I dressed only 19 games? You guessed it: still a win.

I will say I was very lucky in terms of injuries. The longest a player was out throughout the entire campaign was two weeks. Kailer Yamamoto had a “chest injury” for fourteen days, and he had to wait a bit longer until someone to falter before re-entering the lineup. I was never in a situation in the regular season where I had to call someone up.

What was most amazing was the team’s run in the 2020 portion of the season. They were already dominating the NHL with a record of 35-5-3 as of New Year’s Day with 207 goals scored and 104 goals allowed. The Young Gunz finished the season at 71-8-3 with 378 goals and 195 allowed. Yes, the Under 22 team that was in Vegas scored 178 goals, allowed just 91 goals, and won 36 out of 41 games in the 2020 calendar year. The center piece was a NHL-record smashing 32 game winning streak from January 9, 2020 to March 29, 2020. This torrid run of victories featured:

  • Vegas securing a playoff spot on February 15, 2020.
  • Securing the Western Conference first seed by the trade deadline.
  • Securing the President’s Trophy in March.
  • Patrick Laine scoring his 100th point and his 50th goal by mid-March.
  • Sebastian Aho scoring his 100th point by the streak’s end.
  • Carter Hart breaking Martin Brodeur’s record for most wins in a season by streak’s end.
  • Breaking the NHL record for points in a season, set at 132 by the 1976-77 Canadiens.

The first line of Aho, Matthews, and Laine was the most terrific offensive unit I ever put together. The first pairing of Werenski and McAvoy was as good as you could ask for. Being able to mix up the second, third, and fourth lines among the forwards still yielded all kinds of successes. Hughes and Pettersson were the poorest performers, but still relegated to the bottom six and still put up at least 25 points in the season. I was just in awe that every time I hit “Continue” to have the game simulated, Vegas just kept winning. I was mildly surprised that they lost a game near the end of the season.

I expected this team to be good. I did not expect them to have a better season than the WAR-Optimized team. Here are some final results from the season:

The NHL Overall Results.  The Vegas Golden Knights, Young Gunz Edition, set a NHL record for regular season dominance.
The NHL Overall Results. The Vegas Golden Knights, Young Gunz Edition, set a NHL record for regular season dominance.

71 wins! 145 points! An 88.4% point percentage! 28 points ahead of the second highest team in the league standings, Pittsburgh! This is dominance in its nearly purest form.

The regular season stats from the 2019-20 season for Vegas.
The regular season stats from the 2019-20 season for Vegas.

Laine, Aho, and Matthews were #1, #2, and #3 in league scoring. Tkachuk finished tied for 21st in league scoring as well. Among the rookies, Cale Makar’s 65 points led the entire rookie class. Kakko’s 41 points placed him fifth. Quinn Hughes finished eleventh; and Jack Hughes and Dante Fabbro both finished tied for twelfth. What was telling is that very few of these players were at risk for penalties. Only Matthew Tkachuk put over more than 50 PIM, which is not that much . The team has more players with fewer than 20 PIM than players that exceeded that already-low penalty minute count.

The Young Gunz by average rating.
The Young Gunz by average rating.

Thanks to a last few games, Pettersson just crawled over into the average rating of seven even. Even so, the majority of this roster finished with a rating above 7.4. Six players finished above the amazing great rating average of eight. Two achieved the rarefied air of above 8.5: Aho and Laine. To put it in another perspective: the top 50 players in the league had an average rating of 7.72 or better. Vegas had 9 players in the top 50, with Aho, Laine, Matthews, and Makar occupying the top four spots. The Young Gunz were legitimately the most amazing team in the season.

Laine was absolutely wonderful all season long. As were Matthews and Aho, who missed just two games due to a minor injury. I can tell you that the EHM databases tend to view Laine to be Finland’s Ovechkin. He certainly did that for the Young Gunz. But pretty much everyone contributed. Matt Tkachuk was a cold streak from going point-per-game as the team’s second line winger. Makar and Werenski went off from the blueline. Dubois was very good except for a real struggle in the last few weeks, but he sorted himself in the playoffs. Luke Kunin started as a scratch and worked his way into the lineup and came close to a 30-goal season. I rolled lucky on Kaapo Kakko; less so for Jack Hughes and Elias Pettersson. Even those two put up 13 goals and at least 26 points each despite limited action and plenty of healthy scratches. I feel bad for not getting Chychrun in more often because he played rather well when he was in the lineup. His issue was that the roster had Dahlin, Quinn Hughes, and Werenski at left defense, so that was just not happening.

The most positive surprise was Joey Anderson. I picked him primarily because I wanted a fourth-line / spare right winger with a maximum value ELC contract. He turned out to be a very, very solid winger throughout the campaign. An average rating of 7.47 for a fourth-line right winger is fantastic. And he would take it to the next level in the postseason.

The Young Gunz goaltending stats.
The Young Gunz goaltending stats.

Hart played better than I expected. Primeau played about as well as I would have thought. My experience with rookie goaltenders in EHM is that they tend to not be that good. As it turned out, Hart was more than adequate. Primeau was rarely bad enough for the Young Gunz to not overcome. When you have a team that scores goals loads of goals, defends a lot of shots, and takes a lot of shots, then the goalie just has to be good enough. These goalies were good enough.

After setting what would be a NHL record for the regular season, the Cup was surely the Young Gunz’ to lose, right? Well, things got a little more dramatic.

The first round was against Chicago, who somehow beat the Young Gunz twice out of three games. At the start of it, Luke Kunin’s agent sent an email to Sutherland that his client was unhappy and wanted a contract extension. Since these experiments last one season, I just gave it to him. I did not want the locker room to be unhappy. Alas, someone else was not happy either. Dubois started being unhappy and wanted a new contract, but Sutherland was not given an email so no new deal for him. Oh, there was a playoff series to play.

The series was even to start. After a solid 5-2 win, the Blackhawks stunned the Young Gunz in Paradise in Game 2. They lost 1-4. Game 3 in Chicago went to overtime thanks to a late equalizer by Calvin De Haan and Chicago took it with a power play goal by Nylander in the second over time. Could the Young Gunz crack under the pressure? They got their minds right, won Game 4 by 4-2 with an ENG, won Game 5 thanks to a three-goal third period in a 3-1 win, and won Game 6 more comfortably in a 4-2 win with a three goal first period. The Young Gunz would move on.

Right before the second round would begin against Calgary, Nico Hischier sent Sutherland a message. He wanted to be traded. I have never seen this in EHM. I have seen players become unhappy with wanting to move on. But an email requesting to be put on the block during the playoffs on a 71-win team? Never. So there was that to manage before taking on the Flames. They lost Game 1 in OT with a quick power play goal from Austin Cznarik, 3-4. While the Young Gunz got revenge with a decisive 5-2 win in Game 2, they fell to Calgary in Game 3 in another overtime affair with a PPG by Elias Lindholm, 2-3. Worse, they went up 2-0 in the first period and saw the game go away over time. Maybe this young team would crack now? Just like the first round series, Vegas turned it around. A 4-2 win featuring a third period comeback in Game 4 tied up the series. Vegas took control with a 4-2 win in Game 5 that was tight for the last ten minutes until the ENG went in within the final minute. The Young Gunz secured their trip to the Western Conference Finals with a 5-0 smashing of the Flames in Game 6. Joey Anderson scored twice at the end to bring him up to ten points, placing him close to the top scorers in the postseason on the team, which were, as you would guess, Aho, Laine, and Matthews.

The Western Conference Finals featured Vegas against the team that ended their historic 32-game winning streak, Winnipeg. This series went more like I expected the other two to go. A 4-1 win in Game 1, a 5-2 win in Game 2, a little slip up in Game 3 with a 2-3 loss, a response in Game 4 by winning 4-1, and a series-ending 4-1 win in Game 5 in Las Vegas. However, the drama would come in Game 5. In the first period, Carter Hart had to be replaced due to injury. Cayden Primeau took care of business but this was concerning. Hart was the goaltender in all of the other playoff games. He outperformed Primeau. And now the Young Gunz were to go to the Stanley Cup Finals without Hart. His injury was only a groin strain. But it would mean the Knights would be going to the final series with an unhappy Dubois, an unhappy Hischier, and a goalie tandem of Primeau and the called-up goalie from the ECHL affiliate Dylan Ferguson.

The opponents were Philadelphia. When I make these teams, I take the original players from the roster and try to move them to the team I took players from. Since I took Carter Hart for this team, I gave Marc-Andre Fleury to the Flyers. As it turned out, he was doing very well. Plus, Philly was doing well and seemingly improved after trading Nolan Patrick to Buffalo for Tage Thompson. (Oddly, Buffalo immediately waived Patrick and the Devils took him in their quest to tank - which Ottawa beat them at that.) But getting Eric Haula before the trade deadline was a bigger pick up and they were going to present trouble.

Game 1 featured the Young Gunz going up early and then watching the Flyers claw back with a two-goal comeback within the final 13 minutes of regulation. If that did not hurt enough, Travis Konecny scored near the end of the second overtime for Philly to take it. Vegas sought revenge for another OT loss and obtained it. They won 4-2 with a big four-goal second period to even up the series. They went up 2-1 in the series with a 4-3 win in Philly. They started terribly by going down three first, but responded splendidly to take the game. But Game 4 went all wrong. Despite scoring three in a flurry in the second period, they conceded an equalizer in the second period and Konecny converted a power play within the final five minutes for a 3-4 Vegas loss. Just before the crucial Game 5, Carter Hart recovered from his groin strain and would take the crease from Primeau. However, the Young Gunz put themselves in danger with another OT loss. Ivan Provorov tied up the game 2-2 in the third and Kyrou, another Flyer acquisition, ended it early in the first overtime. There could be no more bad nights or unfortunate shooting luck. Could Vegas avoid a disappointing end to what was a historic season?

I know in Football Manager, you can (and should) give a pep talk to players before the game, at halftime, and after the game to improve their morale. I do not think this is in EHM. However, I like to think AI Peter DeBoer said something because the Young Gunz went off. Kailer Yamamoto scored a natural hat trick in the first period. He scored a fourth goal in response to the Flyers’ second goal of the game in the third period. While Haula converted a power play with less than five minutes to go to make it 4-3, the Young Gunz responded ferociously. Dubois scored on the very next shift to make it 5-3. Laine scored two minutes later to make it 6-3. Matthews scored a power play goal in the final minute to make it 7-3. Of course Philly would take a hooking minute in the 59th minute (Giroux, too). And everyone left the arena in Philly in shock. It would all come down to one game.

As anxious as all of the Vegas fans were after seeing Konecny scoring 23 seconds into the game, the Young Gunz continued to pummel Fleury with shots. Matthews broke through in the second period to tie it up. Derek Grant provided a go-ahead goal near the end of the second period to put everyone even more on edge. But that was tied up with a last minute PPG by Svechnikov. 2-2 going into the third period in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. The next goal would be massive. A big opportunity occurred when Jakub Voracek took a double-minor in the third period. Laine finished a feed from Makar to convert the PPG. 3-2. Grant took a minor to help maintain of the game. Within the final minute, Kakko sailed in an empty net goal. The win was secured. The home fans were taken to Paradise despite that being the location of the arena. The Young Gunz version of the Vegas Golden Knights came back in the series to win the Cup. They showed that you can win and win it all with a roster full of players under the age of 22.

The final Playoff Tree for the 2020 Playoffs, won by the Young Gunz.
The final Playoff Tree for the 2020 Playoffs, won by the Young Gunz.
Playoff scoring by the Young Gunz.
Playoff scoring by the Young Gunz.

The playoff scoring was understandably led by members of Vegas. Not just because they went all the way to the end, but also because they were productive. The issue they kept running into was that the other team often had good goaltenders playing very well. Crawford, Rittich, and Fleury all slowed down the Young Gunz at points. Still, you can only slow down Dubois (11 goals!!), Kakko (8 goals!), Yamamoto (OK, four of his eight goals came in one game), Brady Tkachuk, Matthews, Laine, and especially Aho for so long. The league’s very best first line was the playoff’s very best first line overall. Aho is not as high up the all-time playoff scoring list as one would think, but 30 points in the playoffs is worthy of all of the praise you can muster.

Players by average rating in the playoffs.
Players by average rating in the playoffs.

The very best first line was indeed the very best in the playoffs. Only one game of Malcolm Subban and six games of Mikko Ratanen had a higher average rating than Aho’s spectacular 8.67 average rating. Similar to the regular season, the vast majority of this team was fantastic. Dubois produced more than his average rating would imply, but he did improve as the postseason went on. I did rotate out Kunin, Pettersson, and Jack Hughes. I ended up sticking with Jack as he was at least productive. I was able to get Chychrun in for Dahlin for five games and Fabbro for one game and that went OK. The big drop off was in goaltending. Having Hart out for just ten or so days led to Primeau showing why he was just a backup in the first three rounds. I am glad his injury was not more significant.

The Young Gunz of Vegas did not dominate the postseason like the WAR-Optimized team. But they did get to the goal they should have achieved given how they thoroughly thrashed through the NHL regular season. Keifer Sutherland bagged another achievement.

To close out the results, here is a list of awards won by the Vegas players. As you would expect from the team that won 71 out of 82 games, they won a lot of awards.

  • Art Ross Trophy: Laine (117 points). Runners-up: Aho (107 points), Matthews (98 points)
  • Rocket Richard Trophy: Laine (56 goals). Runners-up: Aho (48), Matthews (46)
  • Ted Lindsay Trophy: Laine. Runners-up: Matthews, Kris Letang
  • Norris Trophy: Letan. Runners-up: Makar, Jeff Petry
  • Vezina Trophy: Hart. Runners-up: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Fleury
  • William Jennings Trophy: Hart & Primeau
  • Calder Trophy: Makar. Runners-up: Quinn Hughes, Fabbro
  • King Clancy Trophy: Aho. Runners-up: Laine, Matthews
  • Jack Adams Award: DeBoer. Runners-up: Alain Vigneault, Mike Sullivan
  • GM of the Year: Sutherland. Runners-up: Chuck Fletcher, Jim Rutherford
  • Hart Trophy: Letang. Runners-up: Laine, Aho. (!!?!?!?)
  • Conn Smythe Trophy: Aho. Runners-up: Laine, Matthews
  • NHL First All-Star Team: Aho-Matthews-Laine, Letang-Makar, Vasilevskiy
  • NHL Second All-Star Team: Landeskog-Lindholm-Rantanen, Hedman-Reilly, Hart
  • NHL Rookie All-Star Team: Nylander-Suzuki-Kakko, Makar-Hughes, Shestyorkin

For realism’s sake, I am not surprised that Carter Hart lost the Vezina to two goalies who had at least a 1% higher save percentage. 52 wins is 52 wins to GMs. I do not know how the game decided that Kris Letang was the Hart Trophy winner despite superior seasons by Laine, Aho, and Matthews. Nonetheless, this team won a ton of individual hardware and accolades to go with a 71-8-3 record and a Stanley Cup. It was a beyond-great season for the Under-22 superstar team; the Young Gunz of the Vegas Golden Knights.

Experiment Conclusions

Amazingly, this team that I mostly chose to meet the cap floor ended up putting in the best regular season I have seen in any of these EHM experiments. And, to think, it could have been even better. It’s stunning.

I was surprised to see as many struggles in the postseason as I did. I did not expect a 16-1 run like the WAR-Optimized team in the playoffs, but needing to win two Game 5s to end two series at six and needing to win two straight for the Cup is surprising given how much they wrecked things in the season. In all of those games, the Young Gunz significantly outshot their opposition. I received some bad luck with the opposition goaltenders or something. I do not know if there is anything in the game that would coincide with the cliche that “you can’t win anything with young kids.” But if they did not win the Cup, I could not help but wonder. It would have been a massive disappointment to see them get knocked out at the end, much less to Philadelphia. Yet, the team did pull through.

Overall, this team showed that a massive amount of burgeoning talent can be utterly dominant - at least in this simulation. I had a legitimately strong blueline and the very best first line with amazing and flexible support. Hart did not need to be a top-tier goalie, he just needed to be better than decent and he was. Primeau just needed to not be totally awful and he mostly was not. I did get lucky with a lack of significant injuries, but I would like to think the team still would have been very tough to beat. If I had to play the ECHL goalie, then maybe that would have sunk things. But I did not so it does not matter.

Nonetheless, this team was utterly fabulous. So what’s next?

What’s Next & Your Take

We just saw an Under-22 team run through the league like a hot knife through butter. Now it is time to see the reverse. EliasStillRocks responded to alslammerz’ suggestion with this:

Or the opposite…. an old geezers team…. No one under the age of 32, but that’ll definitely be tougher to do as older players generally have bigger paychecks. But it would be an interesting challenge.

We just had the Young Gunz. Now it is time get old. Meeting the cap will be easy. Putting together a really good team will be more difficult. Can it be done? I will do my best. And we shall see how they perform in next week’s post.

As ever, please leave any thoughts about the Under-22 team that crushed it in the regular season and got through a more difficult postseason to win it all in the comments. Who would you have chosen for the Under-22 team? Couldn’t it have been better than this? If you have any additional suggestions for future EHM experiments, then please leave them in the comments as well. Thank you for reading.