The Vegas Golden Knights have a strong pool of young defensemen within the organization, of which three players stand out; Zach Whitecloud, Nic Hague and Dylan Coghlan.
The top four defensemen for Vegas, as expected, will be Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb. Golden Knights management has yet to decide who will comprise the third defensive pairing. It is likely the final pairing will be some sort of combination of the three aforementioned young defensemen.
Though there are several defensemen currently in Vegas’ training camp, many will be sent to the minors when the camp concludes. Those left are likely to see game time this season at the NHL level. Management will likely give Whitecloud, Hague, and Coghlan the most consideration for next season’s roster due to the number of games they played last season.
It is somewhat cheating to put Zach Whitecloud in the category of potential Vegas defensemen versus guaranteed Vegas defensemen. He has basically earned himself a spot in the lineup for this year, just based on his performance last season alone. Unless he suffers an dramatic fall in quality during training camp, he is likely to take a spot on the third D pairing come opening night.
Last season Whitecloud distinguished himself with his strong defensive play for the Golden Knights. The 24-year-old saw himself implemented in more situations as his reliability became increasingly apparent. Whitecloud is a strong and smart player who thrives in the defensive aspects of the game. He stands out amongst others vying for a spot in the lineup with his hard-nosed play and willingness to sacrifice the body. He helped contribute to Vegas being the top shot-blocking team in the league for the 2020-2021 regular season with 75 blocks.
While his offensive game may not be as developed as his teammates, he is able to chip in occasionally. He has shown good instincts in the offensive zone and knows when to jump in and when to stay back. Not often is he caught out of position, and in the few times he has been, he has not had an overly difficult time recovering.
He has proven himself both in the regular season and postseason, playing a mature game that complements whomever management plays with him. Since Vegas lost the ever-reliable Nick Holden this past offseason, Whitecloud started to be seen as a quality replacement for the veteran. With abilities on par with that of Holden, Whitecloud is a superior skater with much more potential. The Vegas Golden Knights are a better team defensively, when he is in the lineup.
Standing at 6’6, Nic Hague carries a distinct advantage over many of his peers. His long reach and strides allow him to play a quality defensive game and even better offensive one. He put up 17 points in 52 games during the 2020-2021 NHL season. Which is a decent tally for a young defensemen’s sophomore campaign.
Though scout labeled Hague as being a two-way defensemen in the past, he has shown himself to have a stronger affinity for the game in the offensive zone. He possesses a wicked slapshot that teammates and fans alike have dubbed the “Haguer bomb”. He is also an adept passer who is more than capable of quarterbacking a power play or sending breakout passes from the defensive zone.
A problem Hague faces with his play is his skating. If opposing players catch him out of position or flatfooted, it is unlikely he’d recover in time to catch them. This is definitely an aspect of his game that could still use some work. He is by no means a poor skater, but with his size, he runs the risk of being burned by faster opposing forwards. That’s why management needs to partner Hague with somebody who facilitates his style of play.
Hague plays at his best when partnered with somebody who’s more defensively minded and has strong skating abilities. This in turn allows Hague to put in work inside the offensive zone, knowing there is somebody anchoring the blue line behind. This grants Hague the freedom to play his game without fear of being the last line of defense. His partnership with the aforementioned Zach Whitecloud is indicative of this notion. He saw significant improvement from the 2019-2020 season to the 2020-2021 which often saw him playing with Whitecloud. Not only by increasing his point total, but defensive statistics as well. Shown by his plus/minus rating going from 0 to 14 and his shot-blocking total going from 26 to 65.
The darkhorse in the conversation for potential defensemen for the 2021-2022 season is Dylan Coghlan. Seeing considerable game time last season as result of injuries and cap struggles alike, he was able to show glimpses of his potential.
In his first NHL season, Coghlan played 29 games, scoring six points and having a -3 rating. Vegas management appears to have faith in his development despite his noticeable growing pains last season. With him having just signed a two-year renewal it appears management expects him to improve further. They are likely going to give him a significant number of games next season because of this.
Coghlan is a player similar to Hague in that he thrives in the offensive aspects of the game. Despite going undrafted in the 2017, Vegas signed him after he performed well at their Invitational tryout that same year. He had good stats in the WHL, and continued to perform in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. During his time in Chicago, he played with both Whitecloud and Hague, and has likely developed chemistry with both of them.
The future for Vegas’ defense is bright with Whitecloud, Hague and Coghlan breaking into the team’s roster. Not to mention the other players within the organization who still need another year or two to develop and mature.
It is unlikely management is going to break up the strong partnership between Whitecloud and Hague this season. Their effectiveness together is an asset for the Golden Knights and splitting them up would ultimately make the team better. Coghlan is a quality player and has loads of potential. But does not appear to be ready to take that next step, according to management. For now, Vegas is likely going to grant him the chance to prove himself with limited game time going forward.
Whitecloud, Hague and Coghlan and all quality Golden Knights defensemen. Any combination of the three players would bring their own positives to the table. VGK is lucky to have such quality young depth in their organization.
Featured image courtesy of Ellen Schmidt and the Las Vegas Review-Journal
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