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Offseason Outlook: Defensemen

Through the course of the playoffs, the surprise unit for the Golden Knights were the defensemen. They completely shut down the Kings, they stifled the Sharks, and they bent but didn’t break against the Jets. Then, in the Stanley Cup Final, it kind of fell apart for the Vegas blueliners.

So, as we head into the offseason the burning question for George McPhee and the Golden Knights front office is whether or not they need to add to bolster their defense or of the missing piece is already on the roster.

Here’s a look at who the Golden Knights currently have under their control.

Nate looks like he’s become a star in the NHL. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Established and Signed
Brayden McNabb, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill, Brad Hunt

While this list contains 310 games played and three players who played all 20 playoff games, there are really only two fully reliable options as full-time starters moving into 2018-19. McNabb and Schmidt are expected to be stalwarts on the Golden Knights blue line this season and moving forward. They may not be paired together again next season, but they’ll certainly be in the top four.

Engelland is a bit of a mystery as he probably had the best season of his career at the age of 35. The question is can he continue playing at that consistent level as he heads into the final few seasons of his career.

Then there are Merrill and Hunt. Hunt is a player that’s bounced around the NHL and AHL and has never really gotten a full-time shot to prove himself. The reason for that is because he’s a bit of a liability defensively due to his size. He’ll have to play well in camp once again to make the roster, but even if he doesn’t, Hunt will be a good option in the event that a puck-moving defenseman becomes unavailable during the season. Merrill is a bit of a different story as he’s more of a defensive-minded player but has the ability to pinch in and help out offensively. The Golden Knights signed Merrill to an extension last season which indicates they believe in him, but it’s still not probable that he’s a 60+ game defenseman next season.

Established and under VGK control
Colin Miller, Shea Theodore

Theodore should remain a major part of the Golden Knights future. He’s a young puck-moving defenseman who skates like the wind and has terrific vision on the ice. He’s got to clean up some of the mistakes in his own end, but the good outweighed the bad all year in 2017-18 and that will only get better as he gets more experienced.

Colin Miller is a weapon offensively. Unfortunately, he’s not always sound on the defensive side of the puck. He’s got the hardest shot on the team, skates better than most of the forwards, and is excellent on the power play. Throughout the course of much of the season, he was paired with Hunt, Merrill, and Luca Sbisa. If he finds the right partner, Miller could be one of the most important defensemen on the team, but that’s yet to happen, and who that partner may be still remains a mystery.

There’s one more thing to consider with these two, trades. Miller and Theodore are the best defensive trade chips the Golden Knights have and at least one would almost certainly have to be involved if there’s a deal for Erik Karlsson.

Unproven prospects
Zach Whitecloud, Erik Brannstrom, Nic Hague, Jake Bischoff

Whitecloud is the most likely to become a full-time contributor to the NHL team, but if Brannstrom or Hague can dominate Development Camp and Rookie Camp they could completely change the outlook on the blue line. Bischoff is unlikely to make the team, but he’s one to keep an eye on when training camp rolls around after a strong AHL season.

Wildcards
Philip Holm, Zac Leslie, Griffin Reinhart

Holm and Leslie were both acquired via trade during the 2017-18 season. There are some rumors of Holm considering leaving North America for the KHL in Russia, but if he doesn’t do that he should be given a real chance to make the team next season. He played against the Golden Knights for Vancouver and was acquired a few days later. In other words, Vegas must have liked what they saw.

Leslie remains an unknown as he went straight to the AHL and didn’t make a ton of noise while there. However, McPhee doesn’t make moves for no reason. He must have seen something at some point to go out and acquire this player. Odds are it wasn’t for the 2018-19 roster though.

Could Reinhart replace Sbisa? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Finally, there’s Reinhart. As always with him, the talent is there, he was a top five pick in the NHL Draft. However, he’s just never panned out anywhere he’s gone, including in Vegas. He made the roster but never played in a game and it always seemed like they were just biding their time to try and slip him through waivers. However, the risk to hang on to Reinhart and play the waiver game to get him to the AHL proves the Golden Knights did not want to lose the player. Maybe 24-years-old is when it all clicks for Reinhart.

**

All in all, the Golden Knights need to find at least one more permanent starter. One of the guys from the wildcard group would be the best (and cheapest) option, but are unlikely. So, yes, they will likely have to go the free agent or trade route. Whether that means Erik Karlsson, John Carlson, or Mike Green, who knows?

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7 Comments

  1. Albert Powers

    Perfect assessment. We do need to add a solid blue liner over a Tavares or JVR.

  2. Brian

    John Carlson……come on. Dude can get a doozy of a house here for what he’d save in State income tax from the DC area in just his FIRST year of a deal !! Second on the points production list of all UFA’s. What an impact he could make on the blueline, and he brings no drama. Sign him up !!

  3. RJ

    Great article.

    I love our blue line depth, but I do think we have only one ‘true’ top pairing D-man and that is Nate Schmidt. Colin Miller is close, but I think he is much more effective as a second pair guy.

    John Carlson is pretty much the lone big fish top pair defenseman. I started writing this comment thinking my position would be that signing John Carlson would be too expensive. Once I started looking into it, I’m not sure. Of course there is a point where the price is too high, but that price might be higher than what we might have in mind.

    John Carlson had a career year last year, scoring 68 points-most of any defenseman in the league. If he is actually good for 60+ points and above average defense, then he can write his own contract, 6 years at $10-12M (Burns/Weber/Subban money) is probably about right. The truth is someone will probably make that offer, and more power to them. If Carlson actually reproduces close to his career high numbers over the course of that contract then it WILL be worth it.

    More likely, John Carlson is going to produce closer to his career average of 30-40 points and above average defense. What’s that REALLY worth? I’ll guess 4-6 years at $6M (Staal/Alzner/Petry money). However since he is a UFA his value gets inflated. His market value is going to be more than his actual value. Nothing to do about it, we gotta pay him extra if we want him. That’s how free agency works.

    Kevin Shattenkirk got 4 years at $8M last season with a full NMC. He was kind of a bust this season, but I think that contract was appropriate as a barometer. I think that’s appropriate for Carlson as well. If whatever team gets Carlson pays much more than that, it is probably too much. Some dumb GM will probably offer it and I hope it isn’t ours. If McPhee can convince Carlson to take a contract in which he is only overpaid a moderate amount and not an obscene amount, then Carlson could be ours.

  4. BL

    I think Engelland has a couple more good years. And I think he matches well with Theodore. For Miller, my sense is he needs a strong stay at home defender to back him up. Maybe try with McNabb? I believe Schmidt can be paired with anyone and he makes them better. Would be interested to see Whitecloud there.

    If going for an FA, what about De Haan? Maybe the type of defenseman to pair well with Miller. Similar to Burns and Martin when Martin could still skate. Then Theodore and Schmidt as an offensive pairing and McNabb and Engelland as grinders.

  5. Mark

    I said this 8n the podcast thread, but I believe Theodore is ready to take another step. Even without a move, I am confident they would still be ok

    Schmidt/ Theodore

    McNabb/Miller

    Engelland/ Rookie or Hunt or Merrill

    I would rather see the off-season move be a top 6-9 forward.

  6. DP

    DP
    If Schmidt is our best defender, than we need to pair him with a right handed shot to get the best offence out of him. Miller has improved but is a third line player as his 41 total points and a -4 rating indicates. A trade or URF is needed for this defense to improve. Schmidt will be a better offensive player if he could play his natural side. The Golden knights only have 2 right handed shots in the system Miller and Englland.

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