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Trade of Colin Miller opens competition for Golden Knights rookie defensemen

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George McPhee is showing faith in his young blueliners, and training camp will be an interesting one.

Vegas Golden Knights v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

It was only a matter of time before it would be officially official, but it’s happening.

When the Vegas Golden Knights open training camp this fall, there will be blue-chippers fighting for a spot, or spots on the blue line.

That was president of hockey operations George McPhee’s determination when he traded Colin Miller to the Buffalo Sabres for a couple of draft picks (2021 second-round and 2022 fifth-round picks) and some much needed cap relief on Friday. By way of moving Miller and the remaining three years, $11.675 million on his contract he signed July 7, Vegas gets closer to the cap floor and opens a roster spot.

Come on down, Nic Hague, Jimmy Schuldt or Zach Whitecloud? Or someone else?

Nevertheless, McPhee made it clear that something will happen.

“While the trade was made to help with cap compliance, it was also made to provide some hope for the young defensemen we have in the organization,” McPhee said Saturday. “We really believe we have some terrific young defensemen. Different flavors that bring different things to our lineup. There’s going to be a lot of competition, but at least we’ll have one of them playing for us next season. It’s a healthy thing for an organization.”

McPhee said the decision to possibly play a rookie on the blue line can raise enthusiasm and excite a franchise. Playing rookies hasn’t been a common thread for the Golden Knights in the past two years. Alex Tuch is the only Vegas player to take the ice as a rookie for more than 10 games for the club to this point.

Miller’s move to Buffalo creates a hole of at least one, maybe two, defenseman spots opened. The top four Vegas defensemen under contract are Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and Jon Merrill. Nick Holden is also under contract, but it’s unclear what his role shapes to be in 2019-20. Miller and Holden were interchangeable on the third pairing for the second half of the season, and Miller was even a healthy scratch in Game 1 of the first round series against the Sharks.

McPhee said the decision to trade the defenseman with the big shot was not based on his performance this season, his first after signing that long-term contract. Miller played 17 fewer games and scored 12 fewer points (29 from 41 in 2017-18).

“Players’ careers don’t go in straight lines, they go up and down a little bit,” McPhee said. “We like him a lot. He did a really good job for us. He’s leaving here a far better player than he was when he arrived here. He earned a regular job in the NHL and he played well for us.”

Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland is close to signing a new deal with the Golden Knights, the team reported Friday and McPhee confirmed Saturday. The hold up between Vegas and the long-time Vegas resident is bonus based.

“You have to give the young players in the organization some hope that there’s something there for them. If they looked at our team without that move, they’re like, ‘Well, where am I going to play? It looks like I’m destined for the American League again,’” McPhee said. “And while that’s okay, in terms of playing in the American League, if you can play here, we want to provide that opportunity.

“This is going to be the year where we’ll have a rookie on the blue line. We have different flavors. We’re not sure which one at this point will do it, but it brings some enthusiasm and freshness to the lineup, and we believe that it’ll make us better because these kids are good.”

2019 Calder Cup Finals - Game Five
ROSEMONT, ILLINOIS - JUNE 08: Aleksi Saarela #7 of the Charlotte Checkers advances the puck under pressure from Nic Hague #2 of the Chicago Wolves during game Five of the Calder Cup Finals at Allstate Arena on June 08, 2019 in Rosemont, Illinois.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hague, the former No. 34 pick in the inaugural draft for Vegas, scored 32 points in his first pro season with AHL Chicago. The 6-foot-6 defenseman was the OHL Defenseman of the Year in 2017-18 with Mississauga, scoring 78 points in 62 games.

“To make the team. I think it’s pretty simple,” Hague said of his goal this season. “I feel ready to play. I know I’m going to have to mount for a spot, but I want to get out there, I want to prove coach I can prove myself as a defenseman, show up to camp and do whatever it takes to earn a spot. It’s been my dream for so long.”

Two other candidates are players the Golden Knights have signed as undrafted college free agents that have attended Vegas development camp at some point before. Schuldt, the Hobey Baker finalist this past season, played his first NHL game in Vegas’ season finale against the Los Angeles Kings. He is a restricted free agent but is expected to sign a new deal this summer with the Golden Knights.

Whitecloud was signed two seasons ago and also got his first taste of NHL action late in the year. The former Bemidji State product had 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in his first pro season with the Wolves.

Vegas Golden Knights v Edmonton Oilers Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Vegas normally goes with seven defensemen, so count six once Engelland’s deal becomes official. One of those aforementioned three — and even the likes of Dylan Coghlan — will be in the mix. It’s also likely one of those could beat out Engelland and/or Holden for a roster spot ... or both. There’s that possibility.

“Whether it’s one guy playing here all of next year or five guys getting 15 games each, we’ll see how it goes,” McPhee said. “But it’s kind of nice to know we’ve got a spot and people are going to audition for it and see who grabs the brass ring.”