It’s been a busy summer for the Vegas Golden Knights. With limited cap space to work with, general manager Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee were forced to make some tough decisions. Erik Haula? He’s a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. Nikita Gusev? He’s taken his talents to New Jersey to play for the Devils. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare? He’s now on the Avalanche.
Perhaps the most notable departure of the summer, though, is that of defenseman the Colin Miller. Now a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Miller, who collected 70 points in two years as a Golden Knight, leaves behind an obvious void on Vegas’ blue line. Who will replace him in the lineup?
In all likelihood, one of the kids.
Nicolas Hague, Jimmy Schuldt, Dylan Coghlan and Zach Whitecloud are all hungry for a full-time role in the NHL, and they’re now in the midst of possibly the most intriguing camp battle of the summer. Hague, 20, is a big defender (6-foot-6) with a deceptively good skating ability. In his first AHL season with the Chicago Wolves, he collected 13 goals and 32 points in 75 games. Schuldt, 24, is a two-time Hobey Baker nominee and three-year team captain at St. Cloud State University. Coghlan, 21, led all Chicago Wolves defensemen with 40 points in 66 games and is quickly becoming one of the more anticipated prospects in Vegas’ system.
Whitecloud, on the other hand, isn’t quite as talked about.
The 22-year-old is coming off an impressive 2018-19 season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, playing a key role in the team’s run to the Calder Cup Final, both offensively and defensively. Incredibly, Whitecloud led the entire AHL with a plus-39 rating as a first-year AHLer. He also led every defenseman (not just Chicago blueliners) with 15 points in the AHL playoffs. In spite of his encouraging play with the Wolves, though, many consider Whitecloud a “dark horse” to make the Golden Knights out of camp.
Still, he’s just as hungry to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL as Hague, Schuldt and Coghlan. And he’s ready to compete for it.
“It’s always business,” Whitecloud said after practice on Saturday. “We’re born to compete. That’s what we’ve been doing since age 5 — trying to make the double A team, trying to make the travel team, trying to make the USA team. Whatever it is, your playing time is on the line. It’s never gonna change.”
Competition isn’t unfamiliar to Whitecloud. After an impressive 2015-16 campaign with the MJHL’s Virden Oil Capitals, Whitecloud still needed to earn a spot on the Bemidji State Beavers hockey team. Once he did, he made an immediate impact, helping the team win the regular-season WCHA title with a 20-6-2 record as a freshman.
Bemidji State finished with a 11-12-5 record the year before Whitecloud arrived.
Through two seasons, Whitecloud picked up a total of 36 points in 77 games with the Beavers. Clearly, the Brandon, Manitoba native was no offensive dynamo in college, and that didn’t exactly change in his first season with the Wolves (six goals and 28 points in 74 games). But he’s also not a traditional “stay-at-home” defender — a common term many use to describe his game. Though it doesn’t always show on the stat sheet, Whitecloud does take pride in his ability to move the puck into enemy territory.
“It’s no more holding onto the puck and waiting for someone to be open. You get the puck, you get your feet moving and you transition,” said Whitecloud. “It’s a simple equation. The less time you spend in your own zone, the less chance you have of getting scored on. It’s not rocket science, right?”
Whitecloud impressed in Saturday’s scrimmage. One moment that stood out was a solid defensive play on forward Patrick Brown. With defenseman Jaycob Megna out of position, forward Paul Cotter fired a pass toward Brown that could have led to a dangerous rush. Instead, Brown was unable to corral the pass, which led to a race with Whitecloud for the loose puck. Whitecloud showed off his plus skating ability, darting from his right side of the ice to knock the puck out of Brown’s reach along the far half boards, allowing his team to regain possession. Not a highlight-reel play by any means, but certainly the type of play that catches a coach’s eye.
Of course, Hague, Schuldt and Coghland have all had shining moments of their own. Coghlan has looked particularly good this summer. In three games during the Anaheim Rookie Faceoff, he collected three goals and two assists, giving him an early lead in the battle for the open spot on the blue line. Hague has had his fair share of eyebrow-raising moments as well.
Still, Whitecloud is very much in the race.
“We all know what the task is at hand. We’re all competitors,” said Whitecloud. “We’re all a tight group of guys and we know what’s on the line. Each of us are just bringing our game and trying to put our best effort forward and earn that spot.”