When the Golden Knights’ group of six defensemen were healthy and in the lineup together last season, the team was almost unbeatable. Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Zach Whitecloud, and Nic Hague are all set to return for 2023-24 and expectations remain incredibly high for what the group can do when they are all on the ice.
It seems unfathomable at the moment, and if there were a game tomorrow not a coach in the world would choose any other lineup, but, if the Golden Knights are going to repeat as champions, there’s a strong chance one of the six has been unseated by June 2024.
That’s because of the collection of younger blueliners just about ready to push through to the NHL level waiting in VGK’s system.
Former 2nd round pick Kaedan Korczak and 3rd round pick Lukas Cormier are the highest touted prospects, but Daniil Miromanov, Brayden Pachal, and Daniil Chayka all look like they have the skills to help an NHL team team.
Right now, none of these guys are ready to take a job away from one of the reigning champion incumbents. At some point though, the Golden Knights are going to have to make room for them, and that point could come much sooner than later.
The situation VGK currently find themselves in is actually quite similar to the one they experienced in 2019. At that time, Nic Hague and Zach Whitecloud were D partners in the AHL and both appeared on the brink of breaking through. On opening night though, neither was in the lineup and only one was even on the NHL roster. The Golden Knights went with a starting lineup including Theodore, McNabb, Nate Schmidt, Jon Merrill, Nick Holden, and Deryk Engelland.
It took just one game before one of the rookies was in demand. Schmidt suffered an injury and Hague slotted right in. Over the course of the next month, Hague showed himself valuable enough to replace Engelland. Then, when the coaching change from Gerard Gallant to Pete DeBoer was made, Whitecloud was favored over Hague. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Whitecloud was an every-game starter and Hague had nailed down the 7th defenseman role, the first to step in no matter which of the first six came out.
It wasn’t a clean transition and it’s unclear how much of it the Golden Knights planned for. Hague bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL the entire season while Whitecloud had to wait for a coaching change and then came in and out of the lineup multiple times.
The same progression is likely to start again soon. There may not be a clear candidate to come out of the lineup as there was that year with Engelland on the brink of retirement, but for the long-term (and possibly short-term) strength of the franchise, finding room for younger defensemen is crucial.
Luckily for the Golden Knights, the collection of defensemen waiting in the wings is fairly eclectic. Korczak and Chayka are big stay-at-home style players while Cormier and Miromanov are both offensive weapons that could help the power play. Pachal is in between but has NHL experience, leadership qualities, and familiarity with the team.
It may happen on its own, but heading into 2023-24, the Golden Knights must seriously consider finding roster space in the regular season to see what they have in their stable of young defensemen. Like the time came for Hague and Whitecloud to replace Engelland and Holden, there will come a time when at least one of these guys is a clear upgrade over a current starter. It certainly doesn’t look that way today, and maybe not at any point this year, but for the Golden Knights to have the best chance of repeating, they must consider all available options.