More times than not, third-pairing defensemen are fighting to keep their jobs. There’s the threat of a young player climbing the chart, or the preconceived combo isn’t a right fit.
Or in the case of the Golden Knights, have two young guys in that role with room to grow.
While the dream for Zach Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague is to be top-pair guys playing 25 minutes a night, the chemistry they’ve built since their days with the Chicago Wolves has paid dividends into the NHL level.
Entering their second full NHL seasons now with established roles, Hague and Whitecloud continue to take the steps to eventually be the likes of Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore. Good thing is, they don’t have to be right now.
“Even in our first year in the minors together, we really got to learn what each other’s tendencies were and I think that’s huge for a D pair,” Whitecloud said. “Obviously if you can translate that to the NHL game, it helps a lot.”
There are two different paths of development between the two.
Whitecloud, 24, proved last season he could be ready for a top-4 role today. His ability to play a sound defensive game with a slight uptick in offensive potential makes him valuable to play with the likes of Pietrangelo, Theodore, or even Alec Martinez.
Hague, on the other hand, still has some growth ahead of him at 22 years old. He’s not Bambi on ice anymore. He’s an improved skater that still possesses a hard shot, as evidence by his power-play goal Tuesday in the Golden Knights’ 4-3 preseason win over the Colorado Avalanche. The next step for the 6-foot-6 Hague is to find the conditioning that will keep him a mainstay.
But if you look at the areas that needed improvement over the offseason for the Golden Knights, the defense wasn’t one of them. Once you move beyond Norris Trophy candidates Pietrangelo and Theodore, it’s four guys who know their role and do it well.
The roles for Whitecloud and Hague are simple: Keep things simple and don’t overdo them. To this point, they have.
“What’s great about playing with him is we’re pretty good buddies,” Hague said. “We give it to each other sometimes, but I think we’re really good at holding each other accountable, making sure we’re both stepping up, doing the right things.”
Last season was the first time the duo played together in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Whitecloud got his first taste of playoff action in the Edmonton bubble playing with Nick Holden, ultimately proving to be a vote of confidence from coach Pete DeBoer.
Hague appeared in 10 playoff games last season but was in and out of the lineup due to the nature of matchups. He played five games against the Minnesota Wild and four against the Colorado Avalanche. The only game he saw in the semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens was Game 6 and he was a minus-1 in 10:31.
“I played deep in the playoffs at every other level except in the NHL. It is a different beast,” Hague said. “We definitely have a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouths from just how it kind of ended last year. I know we’re all hungry and we don’t want it to slip away.”
Now that the veteran Holden is in Ottawa, there’s no steady presence coming for that final spot.
“I think we’ve got seven NHL defensemen here with Whitecloud, Hague and [Dylan] Coghlan,” DeBoer said. “And then I think when we traded Nick Holden, I think the conversations we had in the summer were, ‘you know, there’s another wave of guys coming up here.’ I’m more comfortable in the depth of our defensemen than maybe some other people, just looking at the list.”
One new component to the 14-2 pairing is playing an 82-game season together. With things going back to somewhat normal, their progression and evaluation will be on a more wide-range level than before.
They’ll more than likely be the third pair come Oct. 12 against the Seattle Kraken. After that is up to them.
“For him and I, I think understanding one another’s personality and what the other is thinking,” Whitecloud said. “Us being in our third season, I can basically tell what Haguer is going to do in any situation on the ice. It all makes it easier to read off him.”