Training camp hasn’t even begun yet, but the Golden Knights have already suffered a serious blow.
Defenseman Nate Schmidt was suspended for the first 20 games of the 2018-19 season Sunday morning for violating the NHL’s Performance Enhancing Substances Program, leaving Vegas in the midst of a major quandary on the back end. Schmidt is the team’s unquestioned No. 1 defenseman, and his absence will be extremely difficult to overcome as the Knights look to build off of their unprecedented inaugural season.
Further complicating matters is the status of 23-year-old blueliner Shea Theodore, who remains unsigned as a restricted free agent with less than two weeks remaining before Vegas begins training camp.
Theodore is coming off an impressive 29-point campaign in his first season as an NHL regular and seems poised to earn a significant pay raise. Thus far, George McPhee and company have failed to come to an agreement with Theodore’s camp, but Schmidt’s suspension may cause them to be a little more generous in negotiations. Especially considering the Knights’ current group of blueliners.
Not counting Schmidt, the Golden Knights have just six defensemen under contract to begin the season — Colin Miller, Brayden McNabb, Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt.
Though each of those defenders saw significant time with the Knights throughout last season, that group is far from an inspiring one. Miller and McNabb both figure to be key cogs for Vegas this season and beyond, but Engelland is an aging defender in the final stretch of his career, Holden is a low-impact free agent signing expected to compete for third-pairing minutes and neither Merrill or Hunt are much more than serviceable seventh defensemen.
Theodore, however, is a dynamic puck-mover with near elite play-driving upside and the demonstrated ability to quarterback a power play. Without the former first-round draft selection in the fold, Vegas’ defensive corps would be even more flawed than it already is.
If the pressure to sign Theodore wasn’t present before Schmidt’s suspension, it certainly is now. It’s unlikely that Vegas’ blueline won’t skip a beat in Schmidt’s absence, but Theodore would certainly help soften the blow, and the Knights simply cannot afford to let this contract dispute drag on for much longer without facing potentially serious repercussions.