The main storyline heading into Golden Knights training camp was the battle between the five rookie defensemen to see who would win the roster spot and ultimately find themselves in the NHL. Camp came and went, and when Gerard Gallant submitted his opening night lineup, it was six veterans on the blue line and a pair of rookies in the press box.
Then hockey intervened, and now it’s become unavoidable. Tonight, Tuesday, and likely for the next 10 games or so the Golden Knights will be forced into playing at least one rookie on defense.
But before we get into which one will get the call first (and second and third), it’s imperative to understand how the Golden Knights veteran defensemen stack up.
First, there are the two studs, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb. Historically, the Golden Knights prefer to have a “shut-down pair” which they rely upon to take the lion’s share of the minutes against the opposition’s best line. With the new preference of Theodore playing on the right, McNabb’s history on the left, and nearly 20 games of experience playing together, those two will likely be a pair for the foreseeable future. They’ll probably be pushing 22 minutes apiece per night, and they’ll be asked to stop the #1 line of the Sharks, Bruins, Coyotes, Flames, and whoever else the Golden Knights play until Nate Schmidt returns.
Next, there’s Deryk Engelland, the crafty defensive-minded veteran who has averaged 20 minutes a game each of the first two years of the Golden Knights existence. He’s right-handed, plays on the right side, and really needs a puck-mover as a partner to have the most success. His most likely partner is Jon Merrill, at least at first. Merrill has the ability to move the puck, he was listed in the Golden Knights top-four defensemen to start the year, and he exclusively plays the left side.
Which brings us to the fifth and final veteran blueliner, and the player who’s success or failures basically determines the arrangement of the Golden Knights defensive unit until the return of #88. His name is Nick Holden, and he’s the “ambidextrous” (not really, but he has a long history of playing both sides of the defense over the past three years) defenseman that has become the fulcrum of the Vegas blue line.
Holden played 36 games on the right side last year while playing 25 on the left. He started this year off on the left of Deryk Engelland. He’s played with Engelland (Holden on left), Theodore (Holden on left), Merrill (Holden on right), and McNabb (Holden on right) in just the last six meaningful games he’s been in the lineup. In the preseason this year, he played with Bischoff (Holden on right) and Schuldt (Holden on right). Thus, he’s played with skaters, puck-movers, plodders, big guys, little guys, offensive guys, stay-at-home guys, or however else you want to label a defenseman.
I think we all feel comfortable playing with each other and fortunately, I think every guy’s played with everybody. Out of necessity last year with Schmidty out and even this year in training camp we were kind of interchangeable. -Holden
That’s why he’s the key piece moving forward. If Holden is not at least serviceable, the entire d-corps will falter. The side, the partner, how far up the lineup, it all matters for Holden. So, for me, finding the right spot for Holden is even more important than selecting which of the four rookies is in the lineup.
No rookie left training camp with a clear edge on anyone else. Sure, we all ranked them the best we could, but we really were splitting hairs. So, whichever one is in the lineup, you’ll probably be getting somewhat of the same caliber of performance. The difference between them is where Holden will end up, and with him, we’ve seen good, we’ve seen bad, and we’ve seen somewhere in between, and the Golden Knights need more good than bad while their best d-man sits out.
Which leads us to the options. These are listed in no particular order, except for the fact that Hague is listed first because he’s the most likely player to get the first chance.
Hague is a big, strong, offensively gifted defenseman whose only real issue is his ability to keep up with elite skaters. He’s played with McNabb, Theodore, Schmidt, and Brett Lernout in the preseason, and was paired with Zach Whitecloud for a majority of his time in the AHL last year. He’s been used on the right and left but played the left for most of the year last season and three of the four preseason games this year.
There’s an argument to be made that he could play with Engelland, but the skating concerns with both could be a recipe for disaster. Plus, the Golden Knights have never deployed that pair together, which leads me to believe a pair with Merrill or Holden is more likely. With the preference seemingly to have him on the left, he’s most likely to find himself next to Holden.
Most likely lineup with Hague:
The biggest benefit to Schuldt is that he’s the closest mirror to Schmidt the Golden Knights have. He’s a terrific skater and has great offensive instincts in regards to joining the rush. However, he’s not Nate Schmidt, not even close. His decision making at the offensive blue line is overly aggressive and spotty, and his play in his own end still doesn’t seem to jive with the normal Golden Knights defenseman style.
His likely partner would be Engelland. The two played together in Schuldt’s only NHL appearance, they played together in two preseason games, and Deryk is the right style match for him.
The challenge here is less with Schuldt/Engelland, and more with the fact that Merrill/Holden becomes a top-four D-pair. Are they good enough to stand up to #2 and #3 lines? And, will Holden revert to some of his struggles playing on the right side of Merrill?
Most likely lineup with Schuldt:
Coghlan is the only right-handed option the Golden Knights have at this point with Whitecloud injured. He’s a skater, a puck-mover, and has a rocket of a shot. He’s played exclusively on the right side and seems to be best paired with a stay-at-home defenseman. The biggest downfall to Coghlan’s game is his physicality, or lack there of, so matching him with a bigger, stronger player would make the most sense.
Most likely lineup with Coghlan:
Bischoff is a responsible defenseman that plays primarily on the left side. He really could fit with either Holden or Engelland, but in the past, he’s played with Holden while he never has with Engelland. He would likely be the best defense-first option the Golden Knights have, but with Schmidt the one needing to be replaced, he’s probably last of the available options.
Most likely lineup with Bischoff:
To me, the best of the options laid out above is with Coghlan. It cements the top-four with the four best guys left, it keeps Holden on the left where he’s been at his best with the Golden Knights, and Coghlan should be able to chip in a bit of offense to help offset the loss of Schmidt.
That being said, it will probably be Hague tonight. But keep in mind, this whole situation is fluid and likely to change multiple times before Schmidt’s return. Luckily the Golden Knights have a huge group of options, and Nick Holden’s versatility to allow them to choose from all four of them.