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Ben Hutton Has Played A Huge Role In VGK’s Defensive Turnaround

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Veteran defenseman Ben Hutton played 31 of the Golden Knights’ first 38 games this season. The game before the Winter Classic he went down with an injury that not only cost him a few months of game-action, but it also ended up costing him his spot in the lineup. Hutton returned to health about six weeks after his injury yet he was forced to watch from the press box for another month while Vegas’ “preferred six defensemen” played together.

Like every 7th defenseman in the NHL though, his time eventually came. After the Trade Deadline, the Golden Knights were experiencing a bit of a swoon and Bruce Cassidy decided it was time to shake things up. On an afternoon home game at T-Mobile Arena, Cassidy healthy scratched both Nic Hague and Zach Whitecloud which opened the door for Hutton to re-enter the line. Seven games, five of which were VGK wins, later, and Hutton has made it impossible for his coach to take him out.

In 104 minutes of action at 5-on-5, Hutton has racked up a +4 rating being on the ice for five VGK goals while conceding just one, he’s amassed a 67.4% expected goals share which is good for 6th on the team in that span, and has been on the ice for 18 high-danger chances with just four against.

Of course, it’s not a completely direct correlation as Hutton is just one of six defensemen. Still, the Golden Knights have put together one of their best defensive stretches starting with the game Hutton came back into the lineup. They’ve allowed two or fewer goals in five of the last seven games and have held the opposition under 25 shots four times.

Hutton’s partnership with Zach Whitecloud has worked great as both players’ metrics are up across the board playing with each other as opposed to without.

At the deadline, it became clear the Golden Knights needed help on the blue line. Alec Martinez, Nic Hague, and Zach Whitecloud were all struggling. The big change was bringing in Noah Hanifin and he’s been excellent since the first moment he donned a gold jersey. But the work of the other defenseman who came into the lineup at the same time cannot be ignored either.

Whenever Alex Pietrangelo gets over his illness and can rejoin the team, the decision on who he’ll replace is going to be a tough one. Hutton has already unseated Martinez, don’t be surprised if he stays ahead of Hague or Whitecloud next.

Sorting Out The Logjam On Defense When VGK Return To Health

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

On Monday we reviewed some of the decisions the Golden Knights will face at center with the eventual returns of William Karlsson and Jack Eichel. Today, we’re shifting our attention to the back-end, where things will get sticky if Vegas does indeed return to health.

Currently, the Golden Knights are missing four defensemen due to injury; Shea Theodore, Ben Hutton, Daniil Miromanov, and Tobias Bjornfot are all expected to be back at some point this season. If they are all available at the same time it would mean 11 defensemen on the NHL roster. Quite simply, that’s too many, even after the trade deadline when the roster is expanded beyond 23.

What makes this tricky for the Golden Knights is that all but one of the 11 will be required to pass through waivers to play in the AHL. So, what’s the pecking order? Here’s how I see it shaking out.

Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, Zach Whitecloud, Nic Hague

No matter what happens with everyone else, all of these five defensemen have priority on everyone else and will be in the lineup every single night they are available to play.

Alec Martinez

Martinez remains a workhorse on the VGK defense corps and has outpaced all but Pietrangelo in average time on ice this season. So, when if he’s healthy, he’s in the lineup without question. However, the 36-year-old is a pending free agent that carries a fairly sizeable cap hit of $5.25 million. If the team feels comfortable with one of the defensemen listed next on this list, it’s not out of the question that the Golden Knights make a salary-related trade to send Martinez elsewhere. It remains unlikely, but far from out of the realm of possibility.

Ben Hutton

Before the injury, there was never even a consideration of Hutton being taken off the roster. In fact, he signed a contract extension this season which has him locked into Vegas through 2026. He’s the perfect 7th defenseman on any roster and likely will remain that for the Golden Knights for the next few years. But, Kaedan Korczak has stepped up in his absence, Tobias Bjornfot was added via waivers, and Daniil Miromanov offers more offensively. Hutton could be a waiver candidate if push comes to shove, but it’s certainly not expected.

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Ben Hutton Signing Points To More Upcoming Movement On The Blue Line

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Christmas came early for Ben Hutton as the veteran defenseman signed a two-year contract extension to remain with the Golden Knights. The trusty 7th defenseman and locker room treasure signed for just over the league minimum and locked his place on what has become a bit of a crowded blue line in Vegas.

This season, the Golden Knights have used nine different defensemen and there’s a case for each of them to be a part of the plans for the future.

Alex Pietrangelo and Zach Whitecloud are locked into Vegas through the next three seasons. Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb are each under contract for this year and next, and Nic Hague, Brayden Pachal, and Kaedan Korczak as restricted free agents remain under VGK control for the foreseeable future.

With Hutton, that’s eight defensemen all expected to be in the NHL next season trying to help the Golden Knights win another Stanley Cup.

So, where does that leave three-time Cup winner Alec Martinez?

Martinez’s contract ends after this season and the 36-year-old is still playing on the top pair for one of the best teams in the league. He’s fought through multiple injuries this year but when he’s healthy and available, he’s seeing close to 19 minutes a night on the Vegas blue line. He’s one of the first guys over the boards on the penalty kill and if you ask any Golden Knight they’ll surely tell you life is more fun with Martinez around rather than without him.

The first question for Martinez is going to be whether or not he wants to continue his career. He’s achieved just about everything possible in the sport and the injuries have started to pile up a bit on him over the past few years. So, walking away at this point does make sense. But, if he wants to continue, there’s no doubt his services will continue to be in demand.

If he does want to soldier on, the Golden Knights are going to have to make a difficult decision, and probably sooner rather than later. Martinez’s $5.25 million contract is coming off the books next season one way or another. There’s certainly going to be space to re-sign him if the Golden Knights choose, but they also have to hand out new contracts to Jonathan Marchessault, Chandler Stephenson, and Michael Amadio which will likely eat up most, if not all, of the available cap space.

The challenge for Vegas is that they probably shouldn’t wait until the summer to fill in the final pieces on the blue line. If they simply wait it out, they will likely end up sacrificing at least one asset for nothing. Re-sign Martinez and it means either Korczak or Pachal (or both) will have to hit waivers. Or, stick with the younger guys, and a three-time Cup winner and locker room leader walks away.

Instead, the Golden Knights may look to make a move that helps both this season and next. If Martinez is not in the plans beyond this season, trading him at the upcoming deadline could make sense. His $5.25 million cap hit would create space to allow Vegas a chance to bring in a player who will be in the plans beyond this season.

The Golden Knights have never been afraid to make an unpopular cap-saving salary cap move. With Ben Hutton signed up for the next few years, that might be exactly what’s in store next.

Injuries Affecting Golden Knights Defensive Continuity

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Continuity is crucial when it comes to defending in the NHL. Playing with the same defensive partner for an extended period helps in every aspect. Last year, the Golden Knights had that luxury to start the season and in the playoffs. This year, they haven’t, and it’s starting to show.

Last year, Vegas used the same set of six defensemen for each of the first 20 of the first 21 games. Those six defensemen then went on to play 21 of the 22 playoff games with the exact partnerships from the beginning of the year. This season, Vegas has been forced to cobble together their lineup from Opening Night.

Before the season even began, both Zach Whitecloud and Alec Martinez were sidelined. By the time Martinez returned, Alex Pietrangelo had gone out. When Whitecloud returned, Hague was out. When Hague returned, Martinez went back out and then Theodore followed right behind him.

Vegas has used their preferred group of six defensemen just one time this season. This has led to a major shift in the minute load each player has had to take on.

(Thru 31 games)2023-24 Minutes2022-23 MinutesDifference

The minutes that were being eaten up by Theodore, Martinez, Whitecloud, and Hague last season have gone to Ben Hutton, Kaedan Korczak, and Brayden Pachal this year.

In addition, it has meant a ton of different pairings. Last year over the 82-game regular season and 22-game postseason run, the Golden Knights used 19 different defense pairings. This year, through just 31 games, they are already at 15.

The Golden Knights have remained a strong defensive team through all of it, but it’s clearly been slipping a bit in the last few weeks.

Golden Knights Will Be Without Shea Theodore For A Few Weeks At The Least

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Bad news struck on the off-day as the Golden Knights announced Shea Theodore is out week-to-week after undergoing a successful surgery on an upper-body injury.

It’s unclear exactly what happened to Theodore as the last game he played he did not miss and shift including a full 90 second shift in overtime.

The Golden Knights have really missed Theodore as they have gone winless since his injury. They’ve scored just five goals in the three games he’s been out and the power play has suffered mightily hitting on just one of the last 13 opportunities without him.

Losing Theo is a little bit different because he’s our most dynamic offensive (defenseman) and we can’t automatically replace a lot of what he does. He’s a game-changer with some of the plays he’s made this year and that will probably affect our transition offense game. -Cassidy

Struggling without Theodore is not a new phenomenon for the Golden Knights. Last year, Shea missed 27 games in the regular season. Vegas went 13-9-5 in those games for a .574 points percentage. With Theodore, the Golden Knights were 38-13-4, good for a points percentage of .727.

Theodore missed two stretches of games last season, the longer of which came at a similar time in the season. From December 11th to January 27th the Golden Knights went 9-9-2 with a goal differential of -4. Oddly, the slip came more on the defensive end where Vegas went from allowing 2.66 goals per game over the first 29 games to 3.25 over the next 19 without Theodore.

The situation was a bit more dire last year as on top of Theodore, Pietrangelo and Whitecloud were also out of the lineup at the same time. Vegas turned to Daniil Miromanov and Brayden Pachal to pick up the slack.

Right now, along with Theodore, Alec Martinez is also expected to be out of the lineup for at least a few more games. It appears Miromanov is getting closer to returning from his long-term injury, but that’s not expected to happen in the next few games either.

In Edmonton, Ben Hutton came through with a clutch goal late in the 3rd period to give Vegas life and eventually help them steal a point on the road. If the Golden Knights are going to survive this long stretch without Theodore, Hutton is going to need to be an offensive contributor but he has to be careful to not over extend himself.

Hutton will jump into the play every once in a while. He has good instincts that way. We just have to make sure he does it at the right times. He’s been known to be late sometimes. So we need him to make good decisions on when to try and grab a loose puck. When he does, he can do some good things. -Cassidy

The Golden Knights have learned how to overcome injuries and they’ll have to do it again. That being said…

There’s only one Theo on our team and when he’s out it’s not something you can just tap on the shoulder to do. -Cassidy

Hutton, Pachal, Or Korczak: A Look Into VGK’s Decision Making Process On Who To Choose Each Night

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Options are good and the Golden Knights have options.

When Zach Whitecloud went down with an injury in a preseason game on September 25th, the Golden Knights were in need of a replacement in the six-man defensive unit that led them to the Stanley Cup.

All of last season, the first man up was Ben Hutton. The loveable seventh defenseman stepped in time and time again when called upon including in the first round of the playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets.

This year though there are a few other younger options pushing for those minutes. Brayden Pachal, who also played in the same postseason game as Hutton, had a strong preseason and appears to have taken the step from AHL captain to NHL-ready defenseman. Also, Kaedan Korczak has shown plenty of glimpses of the skill that made him a 2nd round pick back in 2019.

We’re trying to find the right guy for the spot and we have three to choose from. The problem with Hutton in that spot is he’s a left-shot and now someone has to go to the right and we tried that as well. So we’re still kind of experimenting. -Bruce Cassidy

On Opening Night the Golden Knights were without both Whitecloud and Alec Martinez. Cassidy opted to go with Hutton and Pachal. By the third game of the year, Pietrangelo was out of the lineup as well which saw Korczak get his first opportunity. But, as Martinez and Pietrangelo worked their way back to full health the decision of which one of the three had to be made.

Against Chicago it was Korczak. One night later in LA it was Pachal. Tonight, it’ll be back to Korczak.

Hutton is better to go in for an injured guy on the left. Until someone grabs the spot we’ll keep looking at both (Korczak and Pachal). I wouldn’t say it’s matchup-based, it does factor into it, but not a lot. It’s more who is going the best, who do we see building their game every night, and then making a call. -Cassidy

Cassidy’s eyes are not just on each individual game though. If they were, it might be Hutton every night. Instead, the coach and the organization have the future in mind as well.

We have Korczak and Pachal who are good young players too and we’re trying to identify them as an organization. Are they ready to play every night? We’re trying to stay in the moment but look at the big picture as well. -Cassidy

Whitecloud is expected to be out for at least another week which means there are plenty of games on the schedule to experiment with. Korczak gets the next chance tonight, but don’t be surprised if Pachal is given another chance in the near future.

Clean Breakouts Key Vegas’ Comeback Win Over Panthers

(Photo Credit: Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When the Golden Knights are playing at their best it starts in the defensive zone, or more specifically, how quickly they are getting out of the defensive zone.

For Vegas to be consistently successful, they need the game to be under their control in all three zones. From generating large numbers of chances based on extended offensive zone time, to having the proper setup through the neutral zone, to breaking the puck out of the defensive zone, each piece relies upon the next.

Last night against the Florida Panthers, the Golden Knights saw both ends of what it looks like when the breakouts are going well and when they are not.

For almost a 20-minute stretch from the middle of the 2nd period to the 12-minute mark of the 3rd the Golden Knights could not consistently break the puck out of their defensive zone. It led to mountains of chances for the Panthers and one of the longest shot droughts Vegas has experienced all season.

It culminated in a 5-on-3 power play for the Panthers that could have buried the Golden Knights in what appeared to be a winnable game. VGK’s penalty kill stepped up and from that moment on, the breakouts improved which started the ball rolling towards a three-goal 3rd period and Vegas’ 8th comeback win of the season.

We got better when we played a little bit more north-south because they are a very aggressive team. We forced their D to pinch down on us to keep a puck alive because when they don’t, now you are in foot races for odd-man rushes. -Bruce Cassidy

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