Throughout the 2022-23 preseason, no player was more impressive than Paul Cotter on the Vegas Golden Knights. After a short stint with the team near the end of last season, the rookie winger played six of seven exhibition games and finished with two goals and five points, including a beautiful between-the-legs fake in their shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings.
That performance earned Cotter a spot on the opening-night roster, and he has remained in the lineup through the first four games of the regular season and scored the game-winning goal against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 13.
Paul Cotter with his first of the year!! 🚨— AT&T SportsNet™ | RM West (@ATTSportsNetRMW) October 14, 2022
CHI 0 | VGK 1, 2nd pd pic.twitter.com/39GM0aq5Xz
As Cotter moves quickly up the depth chart, a lot of questions need to be asked about the future of some of the Golden Knights’ bottom-six players. Here’s a look at how Cotter got here and why he’s been so effective.
Cotter: By the Numbers
The 22-year-old had a smooth development within the Golden Knights organization since he was selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NHL Draft. After the draft, Cotter immediately became a regular in the American Hockey League (AHL), playing with the Chicago Wolves and Henderson Silver Knights, leading to a breakout 2021-22 season when he finished fourth on the Silver Knights in scoring with 19 goals and 34 points in 54 games.
While Cotter’s stats are not as eye-popping as other prospects his age, he has made the most of every opportunity he’s been given. He has averaged over a point per game just once in his career since he was 14 years old, which is unheard of by today’s scoring standards for prospects. In the 2016-17 season with the Brookings Blizzard of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), he scored 28 goals and 60 points through 59 games and was named the NAHL’s Rookie of the Year as well as the NAHL Central’s Most Valuable Player. If he can come anywhere close to that level of offensive production with the Golden Knights over the next few seasons, he could become one of the best draft selections in franchise history.
Cotter’s ability to generate offense in a variety of different ways makes him capable of slotting in anywhere in the lineup, which is why he has become a favorite among fans and also for head coach Bruce Cassidy. After Vegas’ first three regular-season games, Cotter ranks fourth in even-strength ice time among forwards and ninth on the team. He hasn’t seen any power play opportunities yet, but expect him to get a shot on the second unit at some point this season.
Cotter is also tied for second on the team in individual high-danger chances for (iHDCF) at even strength – on zero rush attempts. These numbers confirm the eye test that almost all of his offense comes from good forechecking. He works the opposition behind the net extremely well and is strong with defenders on his back. His habits without the puck and his offensive awareness make him a threat in front of the net or as a shooter from a distance.
Throughout the preseason and in the last three games, Cotter seems to be the type of player who will thrive under Cassidy’s system; he never takes a shift off and constantly looks to engage in contact, ranked second in hits and first in hits taken on the Golden Knights. That is sure to earn him more opportunities from a former Boston Bruins coach whose teams were defined by their grit and physical play. Yes, it is a very small sample size, but there is clearly a lot to like about how well Cotter’s game has translated to the NHL so far, and this could be the perfect scenario for him to succeed.
Golden Knights’ Depth Dilemma
After William Carrier returned from an upper-body injury that forced him to miss the opening two games of the regular season, Jake Leschyshyn and Michael Amadio have both been healthy scratches in two of the three games since their 1-0 win against the Blackhawks. With too many forwards on the roster, there’s a good chance that someone will be on their way to the AHL in the coming weeks, and it won’t be Cotter.
Similar to goaltender Logan Thompson, Cotter offers some necessary cap relief as he’s still on his entry-level contract, which puts him a step above other candidates who are trying to secure a regular position in the lineup. The Golden Knights signed him to a three-year extension in August with an average annual salary of $775,000, and if he continues to play at the level he’s shown, he could become one of the team’s most valuable players relative to his cap hit.
There’s a good chance that he’ll stay with the organization longer than a player like Michael Amadio, who put up 11 goals for the Golden Knights after being claimed off waivers last season, or even Keegan Kolesar, whose value is in question with the emergence of Cotter, who provides the same physical edge with a much higher offensive upside.
On top of having healthy internal competition that will drive each player to be better, the organization also has reliable options who are comfortable with the systems. That has to be a great feeling for the coaching staff, especially considering the many injuries that have impacted the team in the past.
Cotter has earned the right to be playing on this team. His work ethic and attention to detail are things that set him apart from a lot of players at his age, and that could make him an NHL player for a long time. As it currently stands, he is playing alongside William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault on the third line and they seem to be gaining some chemistry together at both ends of the ice. For now, the Golden Knights will continue to ride the momentum with the group they have, but the competition within the bottom six will be worth watching moving forward, even if Cotter has earned his spot in the lineup.
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Eric is a recent graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Sport Media Program and is covering the Vegas Golden Knights with the Hockey Writers