When the Golden Knights traded Colin Miller it appeared to leave a massive void in right-handed defensemen. With Miller in Buffalo, it left the Golden Knights with just one right-handed defenseman on the NHL roster, Deryk Engelland. Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, Jon Merrill, and Nick Holden all shoot with their left hand.
However, that’s not to say the Golden Knights don’t have players who can play on the right side. In fact, Gerard Gallant confirmed a pair of them he likes on that side.
From what I remember (Schmidt) played real good on the right side last year so that’s where he’s going to play again this year. When he plays good over there that’s where you want him to play, where he plays his best hockey, similar to Shea Theodore. -Gallant
He did leave a bit of room for leeway though.
But I’m not saying they can’t play the left side in some situations. Just in case that happens I don’t want you to come back to me and say “why are you playing him over there?” It changes, but they both play well on their off-side. -Gallant
Here’s where things get tricky. The two best rookie defenseman through two weeks of camp have been Dylan Coghlan and Zach Whitecloud. Both are right-handed and both play primarily on the right side.
Last year, Engelland played 72 of 72 games on the right. Schmidt played 40 of his 62 on the right while Theodore played just 21 of his 80. But, late in the year, Gallant made the switch pairing Theodore with McNabb and Schmidt with Engelland swapping Nate and Shea. His comments on Monday indicated that he likes both on that side, leaving just three left-side spots available.
Since becoming a part of the Golden Knights organization, a plethora of rookie defensemen have gone through a lot preparing for their moment. Development camps, training camps, preseason games, and an AHL regular and postseason, it’s all been done to develop them to pass the test when the time comes.
For Zach Whitecloud, he’s been studying for this training camp to win this open job since the moment he signed his contract with the Golden Knights.
During the broadcast of one of the rookie games in Irvine, VGK Insider Gary Lawless told the story of the first time Whitecloud attended a game as a member of the Golden Knights. He sat in the press box as a healthy scratch and before the game began asked Gary for a piece of paper and a pen. Over the course of the next two hours, Whitecloud went on to fill up both sides of that sheet with an abundance of notes.
I wanted to make sure I was taking notes of what the defensemen were doing, what the different calls were, where forwards would be in what spots, just in case if I were to be put into a game in an emergency situation I knew where I could put pucks because I hadn’t gotten my reps. -Whitecloud
He was literally acting like he was sitting in a college lecture, writing down notes so he could prepare for the upcoming test. Since then, he’s played in an NHL game, he’s gone through a full professional season in the organization, and he’s back for training camp looking to take the leap he’s dreamed of since he first put on hockey skates, to become a full-time NHL player.
Last year coming in it was my first full camp with the team and going through that process and navigating that was a learning experience. -Whitecloud
This year, he’s no longer here to learn.
You always want to compete at your 100% level. If you aren’t doing that, you are wasting people’s time. You are wasting management’s time, you are wasting your teammates’ time, you are wasting the fans’ time if you aren’t competing 100% to go in and earn a job. -Whitecloud
One problem. Nic Hague, Dylan Coghlan, Jake Bischoff, and Jimmy Schuldt have all been studying for the test too.
It’s been a busy weekend of throwing magenta ping pong balls and raising a butt-ton of money for charity, which has left us at SinBin.vegas a bit behind. But, if Golden Knights hockey happens, you best believe we’re going to watch it, and thanks to this fantastic thing called the Internet, we’ve been able to go back and watch the rookie games we’ve missed, (Here’s the link) and now I’m here with takeaways from the Vegas rookie loss to Colorado.
The best player on the ice for me was Zach Whitecloud and to be honest it wasn’t all that close. There were flashes from many other guys, which we’ll get to in a moment, but Whitecloud was a steady calming force on the back-end, consistently making the right read and play. His gap control continues to impress and his skating is so solid that he’s able to keep his positioning in any situation that’s thrown his way. He was reliable on the penalty kill and helped allow Nic Hague to get forward time and time again. Whitecloud plays a VGK style of defense, which is a different way to say, simple yet effective. Not that this should come as a surprise, but there’s absolutely a shot he wins the job and finds himself in the Golden Knights starting lineup on October 2nd.
Behind Whitecloud, there were two other major standouts, Paul Cotter and Jonas Rondbjerg.
Cotter, playing center with two non-roster players (Pavel Gogolev and Charles Antoine-Roy) consistently drove offense. He has an incredibly high compete level that reminds me a bit of Jonathan Marchessault. Cotter believes that every puck is his and he’s not afraid to bully his way through someone to take it from someone or to get it back. The best skill he displayed though was his vision through the neutral zone. Three or four times Cotter carrier or passed the puck through the neutral zone to lead directly to scoring chances. Great first step towards his goal of being in the AHL rather than OHL this year.
Rondbjerg has the Golden Knight style of hockey written all over him. He’s a ferocious forechecker who uses his stick well to rip the puck off defenders. There had to be five different instances that the Golden Knights lost the puck in the offensive zone and Rondbjerg either got it back himself or helped to get it back to keep a play alive. Then there’s his backchecking, which might be even better than his forechecking. He’s non-stop getting back into his own zone and he has the foot speed and the stick to go along with his willingness to defend. Gerard Gallant is going to love this kid, and if he finds even an ounce of finish, so are VGK fans.
When the Golden Knights take the ice on October 2nd there will likely only be one change along the blue line. Out went Colin Miller and in comes the winner of the rookie defenseman battle between Jimmy Schuldt, Nic Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff, and Dylan Coghlan.
However, the way they line up may have to change with the new makeup of the defense. With Miller in Buffalo, the Golden Knights are left with just one right-handed defenseman among the guaranteed mix. That leaves plenty of options in how Gerard Gallant and Ryan McGill will set the pairs.
Here’s an attempt to breakdown what each defenseman does best and who they might match up best with.
(Each player is listed with their best match as a partner, other options they could succeed with, and players to avoid. The match is to maximize that player’s skills, it is not necessarily to create the best pair. Other options are ranked in order from best option to worst. Players to avoid are listed in no particular order.)
Schmidt is the swiss-army knife of the Golden Knights defense. He really does it all and it allows for him to be partnered with pretty much anyone. As a mobile puck-mover, he can be paired with a stay-at-home player or he can be put with another puck-mover to create a dynamic pair. Schmidt is able to contribute offense, but he’s also one of the most reliable players the Golden Knights have in their own end. Schmidt has played on both sides, and played with Engelland and McNabb for the majority of last season. However, they have paired him with Theodore on multiple occasions, including in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. It’s never really gone well, but there’s been a willingness to try it. Best Match: McNabb Other Options: Schuldt, Engelland, Merrill, Theodore, Hague, Whitecloud, Coghlan, Bischoff, Holden Avoid: None
The defensive stallwart, McNabb almost has to play with a skater. That being said, McNabb has really been at his best with Schmidt as his partner. Late in the year last season, they put him with Theodore, and while Shea thrived it often led to McNabb being caught in vulnerable defensive positions which was highlighted by the OT goal that ended Vegas’ season. Throughout the two year history, the Golden Knights have really only used McNabb with Theodore, Schmidt, and Engelland and one of those pairs was a nightmare. McNabb has spent the entirety of his Golden Knights career playing on the left side. Best Match: Schmidt Other Options: Theodore, Schuldt, Coghlan, Whitecloud, Hague, Avoid: Engelland, Bischoff, Merrill, Holden
Now that the wait is over and fan favorite Deryk Engelland signed his new contract to stay in Las Vegas, it’s time to discuss his future impact. First off, let’s note that Engelland will receive less money in 2019-2020 but will have a chance to make up for it.
Deryk Engelland has re-signed with the Golden Knights for the league minimum of $700,000 with performance bonuses which could reach as high as $1.5 millon.
At 37-years-old you’d assume his overall presence would begin to drop off. After all, his time on ice dwindled from 20:17 ATOI in 2017-18, to 19:53 ATOI in 2018-19. I’m being sarcastic, that’s not much of a difference. Same can be said for his penalty kill minutes, it’s virtually equal to VGK’s first season and I could argue he was as good if not better in 2018-19.
Just take a look at Engelland’s 2019 Postseason penalty killing performance.
Game 1: 4:26 PK Minutes (Game Leader), 1 Goal/5 San Jose Power Plays
Game 2: 9:19 PK Minutes (Game Leader), 1 Goal/8 San Jose Power Plays
Game 3: 4:16 PK Minutes (Team Leader), 1 Goal/3 Power Plays
Game 4: 4:31 PK Minutes, 0 Goals/4 San Jose Power Plays
Game 5: 3:15 PK Minutes (Game Leader), 1 Goal/3 San Jose Power Plays
Game 6: 2:45 PK Minutes, 0 Goals/2 San Jose Power Plays
Game 7: 7:56 PK Minutes (Game Leader), *4 Goals/9 San Jose Power Plays
Total: 36:28 PK Minutes, 5 Goals/34 Power Plays, 0.13 San Jose PPG when Engelland was on the ice.
*You all know why there’s an asterisk
So just on defensive special teams alone, Engelland’s return is a positive one. However, the issue could be on even-strength. How will the Golden Knights coaching staff deploy the elder statesmen this season? Is it possible Jon Merrill, Nick Holden(if still on the roster), or Rookie d-men see more time on 5v5 than in 2018-19. That direction would balance Engelland’s minutes under 18-19 minutes a game. Which could be more beneficial for the team.
A big part of my game is killing penalties-Deryk Engelland
Another element to Engelland’s 2019-2020 usage will be who he is paired up with. Over the past two seasons, it’s been a consistent dose of Engelland and Shea Theodore. I’d assume with the uncertainty of the younger defenseman, that pairing would remain the same to start training camp and the season. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way, and frankly I don’t think it will. With the possibility of a rookie in the lineup nightly, Vegas may want to break in the young blueliner with an experienced, reliable defenseman like Engelland. It worked for Theodore.
In a perfect world, Engelland would see less even-strength minutes and continue to be a rock on the penalty kill. Keep in mind the Golden Knights paid him less money to stay which could be a sign the organization sees Engelland playing a lesser role this season. Or it’s just another shrewd business move by the front office.
Either way, subtracting 5v5 minutes means fresher legs on the PK. It’s an easy, obvious approach to distribute minutes and get the most out of the 37-year-old in 2019-2020. It’s almost too obvious if a half-wit like me can figure it out. Clearly he’s valued and trusted on the ice by the coaching staff which would lead you to believe they expect the same #5 out there. And how can you fault them after two successful seasons with Vegas?
It’s taken quite some time, but it looks like the rookies are finally fully cooked and ready to play in the NHL.
With the move of Colin Miller the Golden Knights roster currently stands with just five NHL players under contract and likely a sixth when Deryk Engelland re-ups in Vegas.
While the trade was made to help with cap compliance it was also made to provide some hope for the young defensemen we have in the organization. We really believe we have some terrific young defensemen, different flavors, bring different things to our lineup. -McPhee
There are five players with a legitimate claim to that open spot. They are Nic Hague, Jimmy Schuldt, Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff, and Dylan Coghlan.
So this is going to be a year where we’re going to add a rookie on the blue line and we have different flavors and I’m not sure which one at this point will do it, but it brings some enthusiasm and some freshness to your lineup and we believe will make us better because these kids are good, they are good players. -McPhee
Over the past weekend, I spent four days in San Diego watching the Chicago Wolves play three games in the Western Conference Final of the AHL’s Calder Cup. My focus was specifically on the Golden Knights draft picks and the players Vegas has under control for beyond this season.
To make this easiest to write, and hopefully to read, I’ve listed every player that either played or I was able to talk to while in San Diego, that has time left on their contract with VGK or are RFAs.
Cody Glass (1st Round, 6th overall in 2017, $863,333 AAV through 21-22)
Anyone who reads/follows me closely knows I haven’t been as high on Glass as the rest of the world seems to be. I’ve come to the realization that the reason for this isn’t because I necessarily view him as a player much differently than most, but that my expectations are substantially higher. As the 6th overall pick in a draft class that includes Elias Petterson, Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar, Nico Hischier, and many others that have already had major impacts in the NHL, my expectation for Glass is massive. Top-six forward, impact player, one of the faces of the franchise. That’s what I’m looking for, and still, even though the next paragraph is going to make it sound otherwise, I’m not sure he’s going to be that guy.
Glass literally does everything on the hockey rink that you want to see from a center. The skill that jumped out most to me over the three games was his backchecking and breakouts. Every time his line turned it over in the offensive zone, he was flying back to negate any transition chance. His skating speed really showed in that sense, but also showed once the Wolves recovered the puck and began their transition back into the offensive zone. He’s terrific carrying the puck out of the D-zone, through the neutral zone, and into the O-zone. I’ve seen him do it with ease at the CHL level, but to see it look exactly the same at the AHL level gives me a strong belief that it’ll continue in the NHL.
I liked how he played along the walls, I loved his vision, his positioning, his movement in the offensive zone. Pretty much everything he did, I thought, yep, this guy is pretty darn good. But still, over the course of three games, there wasn’t enough shown in his ability to create offense. It’s the only thing I can knock him for, but at the same time, it’s the thing I value most in a high draft pick forward. Aside from the occasional chance created directly off an entry (which I do believe will continue in the NHL), there wasn’t a ton created beyond rebound chances. Again, I’m aware that my expectations are gigantic, and I’m asking a lot out of him having played a month in the AHL, but I still didn’t see enough of what I needed to in order to completely change my mind and say he’s going to be a superstar in the NHL.
Cody Glass is going to be an NHL player, and I’m probably going to be on the bandwagon calling for him to make the roster out of camp, but I’m still on the fence of whether I think he’s closer to a Cody Eakin or a William Karlsson. When all is said and done I’m confident he’ll fall somewhere in between these two, however, my opinion still shades more towards 21 than 71.
Nic Hauge(2nd Round, 34th overall in 2017, $791,667 AAV through 21-22)
I came into the weekend expecting to come out saying Hague is the surefire #1 defensive prospect in the Golden Knights system. That’s not what I ended up seeing. That’s not to say Hague was bad, because he certainly wasn’t, it’s just that the fears I had, which I’ve been told by multiple high-ranking people that I shouldn’t have, didn’t go away.
The biggest among those is whether or not his skating is good enough to keep up with the elite skaters at the NHL level. The place it showed up most was in gap control. When a player would enter the zone, sometimes not even moving that quickly, far too often Hague would be more than a stick length away from him (which is a long way with his long arms and stick). Then, once he did enter, it took too long to close down that space which often led to an easy pass or on multiple occasions a dangerous shot. It’s important to note that I watched him play against the same team, on the road, three times, so there could be a gameplan piece here that I’m missing (and when speaking to Rocky Thompson about Hague he didn’t seem to have any issues with the way he was defending). However, that style won’t work in the NHL and his recovery plan (reaching out with that long stick and poking pucks away) won’t work as often against Nathan MacKinnon as it did Corey Tropp or Sam Carrick.
I still love Hague in the offensive zone and on the power play though. His instincts at the blue line are tremendous and he’s going to be a threat to do some damage when he does eventually make it to the NHL. Really looking forward to watching him play in the preseason against NHL level forwards, but at this moment, he no longer ranks as the “most likely defenseman to make the NHL roster in the Golden Knight system” on my list.
Zack Whitecloud (Undrafted, Signed as free agent, $925,000 AAV through 2019-20)
Throughout the brief history, the Golden Knights have never shown a fear of mixing up the roster. Whether it’s shipping a guy back to Russia, the multiple trades involving Tobias Lindberg, utilizing waivers, dealing with contract situations, or something else, George McPhee’s roster always seems to have a storyline.
However, up until late January of the second season, there was a fairly hard and fast rule the GM liked to follow, and that was always rostering eight defensemen on the NHL squad. Since giving away trading Brad Hunt the Golden Knights have had just seven blueliners with all seven being in the rotation.
This is all fine and well if the team is healthy. Nick Holden, Jon Merrill, or Colin Miller are all terrific options and not many teams have a defenseman sitting in the press box on a nightly basis as good as any of those three. But, it’s the depth behind them that should be a bit of cause for concern.
As of right now, and this isn’t going to change, the Golden Knights eighth defenseman is either Zach Whitecloud, Jake Bischoff, or Nic Hague. Between the three of them, there’s a total of one game of NHL experience. That game belongs to Whitecloud, who played the most meaningless NHL game possible, the final game of the year when the Golden Knights literally had nothing to play for.
Last year, only two of the 16 playoff teams used more than seven defensemen during their postseason runs. Both of those two happened to be Golden Knights opponents though: the Kings and the Jets. Only the Lightning, Leafs, Blue Jackets, and Penguins used the same six throughout the whole postseason though.
It may be unlikely that the Golden Knights actually have to end up relying on an eighth guy, but with the situation Vegas is in now, they would be well served to prepare for this scenario.
By this I mean calling up one or two of these blueliners for the final five games of the season and giving them a little experience, even if it’s meaningless in the scope of the season.
The thought of Hague or Bischoff playing their very first NHL game in the Western Conference Final scares the bejeezus out of me, and it should McPhee too. Not many teams have five games to burn before the real games start. It would serve two makers to get at least one of the AHL guys in there.
First, it gets their feet wet in case DefCon Blueline does indeed pop up in the playoffs. A little experience goes a long way. Heck, even a bunch of practices with the NHL team wouldn’t hurt. Second, it would allow Gerard Gallant a chance to run through all seven NHL defensemen to give them a night or two off.
Rocky Thompson, McPhee, and Gallant know which one of the three they think they’d trust the most if the time does indeed come, but why not get a little more intel? Personally, it doesn’t matter which one it is to me, but let me be the first to raise the flag to say this should happen, like tomorrow.
We are now over a week into training camp and have seen a pair of preseason games in which 32 different skaters have taken the ice for the Golden Knights. The impending suspension of Nate Schmidt and the possibility of Shea Theodore missing games with the contract negotiations has the blue line wide open heading into October 4th.
I like carrying eight defensemen and we’ve done it because some of the young guys weren’t really ready to be called up, so we wanted to carry eight. We’re carrying eight again next year. The good news is, we’ve got guys that can be called up this year. -George McPhee
Of course, there are still nearly three weeks of practice and six preseason games to sort it all out, but let’s take a look at how we think it shakes out as we speak.
This is a ranking of each defenseman in the Golden Knights system by the current level of play. This does not take into account things like suspension, holdout, waiver exempt status, contract, or likelihood to make the roster. These are my rankings, not necessarily how I believe the team would rank the players. (Nonetheless, admittedly, a lot of my beliefs come from decisions made by the front office and coaching staff on players.)
1) Nate Schmidt
Nate is in a class of his own on the Golden Knights blue line. He’s the only player currently even close to being considered a 1A defenseman, and even that can be debated either way. However, with the suspension, he’s unavailable for 20 games, so he won’t be an option for the Golden Knights come October 4th.
2) Brayden McNabb
Looking back on the contract, McNabb was an absolute steal for George McPhee. With Schmidt’s absence, McNabb will step into the role as the Golden Knights top defenseman. He’ll be relied upon to stop the opposing teams’ best players night in and night out for the first month and a half and will be the key penalty-killing defenseman as well. McNabb is much maligned at times, but the guy is a legit high-end shutdown defenseman and when paired with the right player, he and his partner can shine.
3) Colin Miller
Yes, Miller is rated above Theodore, and not because Theodore is not in camp, but because Miller is the more complete player at this moment. Give it a few years and Theodore will probably soar past him, but right now Miller has become acceptable (and probably even more than that) in his own end and he’s an absolute weapon in the offensive zone. He boasts the hardest shot on the team and he’s bound to have a mega offensive season playing a much more prominent role than a year ago.
Yesterday it seemed nearly impossible for Brannstrom to make the roster. Today, it’s absolutely realistic. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)
In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity. -Albert Einstein
Yep, started an article with an Einstein quote, deal with it. But seriously, that quote could not be more perfect for Erik Brannstrom, Zach Whitecloud, and Nic Hague.
Prior to the suspension of Nate Schmidt, the Golden Knights appeared to have a bit of a logjam of defensemen which was going to make it nearly impossible for a waiver exempt player to win a job out of the training camp. However, with Schmidt out 20 games, and the potential of Shea Theodore missing games due to contract negotiations, all of a sudden at least one spot appears to be wide open for one of the Golden Knights young blueliners.
Whitecloud is the obvious leading candidate to claim that roster spot being the eldest of the trio and having spent over three months with the team during the playoff run a year ago. Whitecloud is also a physically mature 21-year-old who plays a fairly responsible defensive game suitable to fit into an NHL roster.
That being said, Brannstrom and Hague suddenly enter camp with a much more realistic shot of sticking in Vegas rather than heading to Chicago come October 4th. Brannstrom will have to prove he’s trustworthy and isn’t the insanely high risk-reward player we’ve come to know him as, and Hague will have to prove he can skate with NHL caliber wingers.
The question will come down to usage. In order to make it worthwhile for any of these three players to be on the NHL roster, they’ll have to prove they should be in the lineup, not just on the team. There’s no sense in putting a waiver-exempt player in the press box when he could be developing in the AHL.
Unlike the scenario Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore found themselves in last year, where despite clearly being among the top 23 players on the team they were not given spots on the NHL roster, Whitecloud, Brannstrom, and Hague (and you can throw in Coghlan, Bischoff, and Oligny if you please) simply have to prove they’re good enough to play in the NHL and they’ll be on the roster.
It’s a tall task, no doubt, but this year is a lot different than last year… at least for the defenseman. Sorry, Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Lucas Elvenes, and Tomas Hyka the forward spots are almost certainly not going to anyone with waiver-exempt status.