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Kaedan Korczak Has VGK Staring At An Abundance Of Defensemen

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights defense corps is stacked. But is it too stacked?

Since the addition of Noah Hanifin, there’s a strong argument that Vegas boasts the strongest and deepest blue line in the NHL.

Hanifin and Alex Pietrangelo are the best top pair in team history. Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore have played together for more than 500 games with great success the entire way. And Zach Whitecloud and Nic Hague were lauded as the best third pair in the league during VGK’s run to the Cup less than a year ago.

Another guy is knocking at the door though.

(Kaedan) Korczak I thought did a really good job for us. He added some pace to our blue line in terms of his ability to move pucks and skating ability. He’ll push for a job next year. I fully anticipate that. -Bruce Cassidy

The 23-year-old former 2nd round pick got a taste of the NHL this season, playing 26 games and adding nine points. He proved he’s already an NHL-caliber defenseman and with more experience he’ll only get better.

Finding him a place to play is the tougher job at the moment though. It took an injury to Whitecloud to get him into the lineup the first time, then he needed injuries to Theodore, Ben Hutton, and Tobias Bjornfot to get his second chance, and once Hanifin came along he wasn’t even participating in practices with the team in the playoffs until Hague’s injury.

The Golden Knights know though, if he’s good enough to play, they’re best served getting him in the lineup night in and night out.

We want to infuse some youth into our lineup if they’re ready, but we’re not putting them in if they’re not ready. Every good organization that’s how it happens. The more you can push guys the stronger your organization is because now you have other assets that maybe you can improve other areas of your team. -Cassidy

As it stands, there’s a logjam that doesn’t benefit the team in the long term. Sure, it’s nice to have eight useable defensemen to deal with the inevitable injuries the team will face in the regular season, but that extra player could help the Golden Knights solve some of the depth issues at forward that will arise when the dust settles on free agency.

The team’s belief in Korczak has a chance to drive the biggest offseason move of the year.

Cassidy Weighs In On The State Of VGK’s Blue Line, Including The Zach Whitecloud Healthy Scratch

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Thursday in Arizona there was a bit of a shocker in the Golden Knights’ lineup. With Daniil Miromanov returning from injury, Bruce Cassidy opted to healthy scratch Zach Whitecloud while leaving the younger Kaedan Korczak in the lineup. It was made clear that this was a coach’s decision and today the coach backed up why he chose to make it.

First off, we’re trying to get a look at Miromanov. So that’s first and foremost. We just felt Korczak was playing really consistent hockey so we put him ahead of Zach (Whitecloud) for that game. It’s not a long-term thing but sometimes it’s good for a player to know that this young guy is pushing from underneath. -Bruce Cassidy

It was the first time Whitecloud had been left out of the lineup when healthy since February 13th, 2020, Pete DeBoer’s 10th game in charge of the Golden Knights and a game started by Malcolm Subban.

However, just a few days later, Korczak was sent to the AHL and Whitecloud appears set to jump right back into the VGK lineup tonight.

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Sorting Out The Logjam On Defense When VGK Return To Health

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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

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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: SinBin.vegas 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
Pietrangelo628540+88
McNabb622627-5
Theodore467633-166
Hague434505-71
Hutton40066+334
Whitecloud313500-187
Martinez270619-349
Korczak2470+247
Pachal22314+209
Miromanov0103-103

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.

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

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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.

Roster Down To 26, Who Will Survive The Last Round Of Cuts?

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With eyes set on 23, the Golden Knights training camp roster of 66 has been cut all the way down to 26. The VGK front office have just a few more decisions to make. But, these final ones are always the toughest.

The 26-man roster included 15 forwards, nine defensemen, and two goalies. Three more players will have to find their way off this group before Vegas can drop the banner celebrating the Stanley Cup and begin their quest to repeat.

Obviously, the two goalies, Adin Hill and Logan Thompson are expected to suit up on October 10th, with the playoff hero Hill expected to start between the pipes against the Kraken. Down to 24.

Forwards Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, Ivan Barbashev, Nic Roy, William Carrier, and Keegan Kolesar are all guaranteed, if healthy, to be on the roster as well. That puts us at 15.

On the back end, Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb, Alec Martinez, and Nic Hague are all locks. So, we’re down to ten.

Ten players. Seven will be on the roster, three will be not.

They are Michael Amadio, Brett Howden, Paul Cotter, Pavel Dorofeyev, Max Comtois, Brendan Brisson, Zach Whitecloud, Ben Hutton, Brayden Pachal, and Kaedan Korczak.

The first variable is always health. Right now, one of those ten players, Zach Whitecloud, is not healthy, and has already been ruled out for the rest of the preseason. If he’s not available to go to start the season, he’ll be placed on injured reserve (IR) and would represent one of the three that would not be on the official 23-man opening night roster. That being said, if Whitecloud can play, his name would have been up there next to Pietrangelo and Theodore as a lock.

Amadio, Howden, and Hutton are all as close to locks as you can be as well. The Golden Knights are not immune to throwing a surprise at us every once in a while, but in this case, it would be a bit of a stunner if the 23-man roster drops without all three of their names.

So, we’re down to six players for two or three spots (depending on Whitecloud). In order, here’s who is most likely to make the final 23.

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