ROSEMONT, Ill. — Halfway through the season, it may be fair to say that the offseason cast-off the Vegas Golden Knights miss most is Colin Miller. That’s why the fact that the apt pro comparison for Dylan Coghlan is Miller may be the best thing for Vegas.
Coghlan has the same booming-yet-accurate shot as Miller, one he’s not afraid to use. He has the same ability to transition the puck quickly up ice and the same capability to be an all-around defenseman, a capability that continues to improve for Coghlan daily.
“[Coghlan can be] a power-play defenseman, and that’s why he’s getting the opportunity on our top unit right now, to run it, and to generate offense that way,” Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said. “I think he transitions the game very well. His play without the puck is evolving in a positive direction; gap control is so important at the next level, and those are things we’ve been working with him on: coverage in our own end, playing 1-on-1 and being strong 1-on-1 and winning those battles. The more he has the puck, it feeds to the strength of his game.”
Coghlan has started out this season with 16 points in his first 39 games after recording 40 points in 66 games last season. That drop in production is as much about outside factors — a less talented Wolves roster, a different defensive partner in Jaycob Megna, and a different, more defensively-oriented role to start the season — as it is about Coghlan himself.
Coghlan started the season as an all-around defenseman, taking him out of his element, as the Golden Knights held Jimmy Schuldt and Nicolas Hague in the NHL to start the season and had Zach Whitecloud on IR. Jake Bischoff also got a look at the NHL level to start the year, meaning the team was pretty much Coghlan’s to run. That led to challenges for the young defenseman.
“Getting offense going for him,” Thompson said, “he fought the puck early and he has such a good shot that he has to make the opposition respect his shot. But you have to position yourself to be able to shoot the puck too, and I don’t know that he was positioning himself properly to get shots off or create lanes to get shots through. But once you start to do that it opens up other areas of the game as well.”
Coghlan has averaged more than two shots per game over those 39 games, but he scored just three points in his first 10 games. He really got going in November and December when he scored three goals in 13 games in November and six points in 11 games in December. He’s got two points in five games thus far in January, including a goal. That lack of steady production has taught Coghlan some lessons.
One such lesson is the importance of “staying with it and not getting frustrated,” Coghlan said. “There’s a few times I’ve gotten frustrated, stuff’s not going the right way; stay with it and just know it’s going to come sooner or later. Just be patient.”
For his part, Megna mentioned that Coghlan’s abilities with the puck and ability to transition with the puck help make the partnership a good one.
“His aggressiveness, he’s always making sure he’s making a good jump in the rush,” Megna said. “I think a partner like that, where I can take care of our own end and he can look to be more aggressive and skate with the puck, we just kind of roll.”
However, that’s not to say Coghlan is ready for the NHL quite yet, as he still has room to grow. He needs to continue to improve in his own end, although he’s gotten better in his time in the AHL.
“Huge steps in his play without the puck, his gap [control] is night and day,” Thompson said. “I think he does a way better job closing out 1-on-1’s in the corner, which was a big weakness of his before. But when he commits to it and does it the right way he has success with it, and it’s becoming more and more of a habit with him.”
Coghlan himself recognizes that he needs to improve in his own end, especially if he’s going to be the long-term Miller-esque rearguard he’s capable of becoming.
“I feel like the offense is there, and I’m ready to play at that level, but you can’t just be a one-dimensional player,” Coghlan said. “You have to play in all areas of the ice. That was one thing [Vegas] wanted me to come down here and work on and improve on was my [defensive zone play]. Just been really focusing on that and working with the coaches here.”
Megna also discussed the importance of fine-tuning the details in Coghlan’s game.
“The little things for him, tricks, being physical when he can, bump a guy and get in better position, and it just makes his game way easier,” Megna said. “The less time he spends in his own zone, the [more] time he’s going to get to to use his offensive skills.”
Even so, Coghlan has played better defensively this season, although he still needs to work on maintaining strong play in his own end while also driving offense on a similar level as he did last year.
The potential for him to be an addition to Vegas’ blue line in future years is there, and he should be Vegas’ second-unit power-play quarterback down the line.
The rest of the 76-game season will likely be spent learning how to play well at both ends without sacrificing one or the other, as well as getting his production back up. But if he has another impressive preseason, that could get Coghlan a look in the NHL next year.