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Golden Knights Top 25 Under 25: Zach Whitecloud continues to improve as all-around defenseman

Knights On Ice’s 2020-21 preseason Golden Knights Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the top 25 players under the age of 25 currently in Vegas’ system. The KOI staff created their own Top 25 Under 25 ballots. Each individual writer’s ballot was then used to generate a composite score that forms the final rankings.

Zach Whitecloud is an undrafted product of Bemidji State University, the alma matter of several fellow NHL players, including former Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Brad Hunt. Whitecloud, the first NHL player from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, signed an entry-level deal with the Knights in March, 2018.

No. 3: Zach Whitecloud

  • Age: 24
  • Position: Defense
  • Currently playing: Vegas Golden Knights
  • Nationality: Canadian/

The fact that Whitecloud went undrafted and is now a core piece of a Cup-contending blue line says a lot about not only his talent but also his drive.

His trajectory, particularly over the last 17 months, has been rather unusual.

After playing 109 AHL games with the Chicago Wolves, Whitecloud got his first extended taste of NHL action late in the 2019-20 regular season (after having played just one game with Vegas back in Year 1).

Ironically, he played more postseason games (20) than regular-season games (16) that year, but he took the opportunity and ran with it. He skated on the third pairing primarily with Nick Holden, who has been a significant mentor for the native of Brandon, Manitoba.

Whitecloud recorded one assist in 16 games prior to the 2020 COVID-19 stoppage. In the bubble, the right-shot defenseman scored his first career goal and finished the postseason with two goals and three points in 20 games. He did so while averaging 16:58 of ice time per game (up from 14:19 in the regular season). He led all Vegas defensemen in shorthanded ice time per game (3:20), yet another sign that he had fully established himself as a mainstay in the lineup.

This past season, Whitecloud was the anchor of the Golden Knights’ third pairing, playing the majority of the season with Nicolas Hague, his former partner with the Wolves.

Whitecloud set career highs with two goals and 12 points, adding one goal and four points in 19 games during Vegas’ most recent playoff push.

He went through quite a cold streak but scored a critical insurance goal in Game 7 against Minnesota.

Even with the likes of Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo in the mix, Whitecloud was noticeably effective all season. He played with more and more confidence and was more aggressive.

He looked comfortable, and his steady two-way game allowed the more offensively-inclined Hague to focus on driving play, helping the two form a very sturdy third pairing for Pete DeBoer and the Golden Knights.

Whitecloud is a consistent and dependable rearguard who has incredible poise with the puck. He’s solid in his own end but has shown more offensive upside than originally expected. Even so, there’s plenty of untapped potential in his game.

He’s capable of playing top-four minutes but doesn’t need to rush into a more prominent role. Instead, he can take the time to develop and nurture his game. But there’s no reason to believe he won’t take on a more substantial role in the seasons to come.

The 6-foot-2, 211-pound defenseman is in the final year of a two-year contract with an AAV of just $725,000; he will be a restricted free agent at the end of next season.

The fact that Vegas has the luxury of playing such a reliable defenseman at that cap hit will be of enormous help to the cap-strapped club.

Whitecloud will turn 25 in late November in what will be his first full NHL campaign. He has a lot more to offer, and he’ll finally have a real chance to show it.

No. 2: Cody Glass

  • Age: 22
  • Position: Center
  • Currently playing: Nashville Predators
  • Nationality: Canadian/

Cody Glass is no longer part of the Vegas organization after being shipped to Nashville in a three-team trade.

Glass was the very first player drafted by the Golden Knights in franchise history, taken in the first round (No. 6 overall) of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

He was one of three first-round players selected by Vegas that year. With his recent departure, the Knights have now said goodbye to all three; Nick Suzuki is excelling in Montreal, and Erik Brannstrom is rising up the ranks in Ottawa.

Glass never got a fair shake in Vegas. He leaves the organization with nine goals and 22 points in 66 career NHL games.

He was particularly effective on the power play, which was an issue for the Knights for the entire 2020-21 season. All four of Glass’ goals came on the man advantage, but he wasn’t used effectively or frequently, often getting healthy scratched or even sent down to the AHL instead of getting a true chance.

He recorded four goals and 10 points in 14 games with the Henderson Silver Knights this past season while Vegas continued to blunder through every power play.

After putting all their chips on Glass, the Knights finally elected to move on.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon landed former Brandon Wheat Kings center Nolan Patrick, who was taken four picks earlier (No. 2) than Glass in that same 2017 draft. He, too, has not lived up to expectations.

The hope is that both will benefit from the change of scenery and fresh start; Glass deserves an opportunity, and he has the talent and ability to thrive in Smashville.

Previously in the Golden Knights Top 25 Under 25 2020-21 Series:

Honorable mention: Layton Ahac
No. 25: Jonas Rondbjerg
No. 24: Jake Leschyshyn
No. 23: Paul Cotter
No. 22: Keegan Kolesar
No. 21: Ben Jones
No. 20: Marcus Kallionkieli
No. 19: Lukas Cormier
No. 18: Pavel Dorofeyev
No. 17: Brandon Kruse
No. 16: Peter DeLiberatore
No. 15: Connor Corcoran
No. 14: Ivan Morozov
No. 13: Isaiah Saville
No. 12: Jiri Patera
No. 11: Brendan Brisson
No. 10: Dylan Coghlan
No. 9: Kaedan Korczak
No. 8: Jack Dugan
No. 7: Lucas Elvenes
No. 6: Nicolas Roy
No. 5: Nicolas Hague
No. 4: Peyton Krebs