3 Golden Knights Who Must Step Up in Pietrangelo’s Absence

Wednesday marked a tough day for the Vegas Golden Knights with the announcement of Alex Pietrangelo’s indefinite absence from the club preceding a dispirited 5-1 loss to the New York Rangers that saw the team surrender four third-period goals. The two events probably weren’t entirely unrelated.

Pietrangelo has been invaluable while having his best season as a Golden Knight, recording 21 points in 23 games and logging 23:29 per game, two minutes more than any of his teammates. We aren’t here to speculate on the nature of the family illness keeping the 32-year-old away or how long he’ll be out, but any stretch without their No. 1 blueliner could prove challenging for Vegas.

After all, the Golden Knights’ defensive corps hasn’t been without flaws. They have allowed eight third-period goals over their last five games, undergoing lapses that are undoubtedly frustrating for defensive-minded head coach Bruce Cassidy. This troubling trend was noticed well before Pietrangelo had to step away (from ‘Golden Knights’ once-strong defense has hit a skid, so can they fix it?,’ The Athletic, 12/03/22). Now, however, the questions center more around who can step up in place of Pietrangelo.

Here are some prime candidates:

Zach Whitecloud

In recent years, Zach Whitecloud has been the logical choice to jump up into a top-four defensive role when needed, and that appears to be the case once again. No one has seen a bigger adjustment in the five games already missed by Pietrangelo. The recently turned 26-year-old averaged 16:12 of ice time in November but has spent more than four additional minutes on the ice so far in December, averaging 20:23 per game.

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The transition predictably hasn’t been completely smooth. Whitecloud is a minus-three in those games and continues to seek his first point of the month. He’s not Pietrangelo, and no one expects him to be. Still, it’s a nice organizational perk to know that you can call on a steady defensive reserve with some top-four experience when needed. Given that both men play the right side, Whitecloud’s promotion was a no-brainer.

Nicolas Hague

Nicolas Hague is off to somewhat of a slow start thus far, which can partially be blamed on a contract holdout that cost him all of training camp but also on a decreased role as a third-pair defenseman. With the return of a healthy blue line corps, Hague was never poised to return to first-pair duty alongside Pietrangelo. Now, an opportunity may present itself.

Nicolas Hague Vegas Golden Knights
Nicolas Hague, Vegas Golden Knights (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

No, Hague doesn’t play Pietrangelo’s right side. However, his familiarity with playing alongside Whitecloud could work to his advantage. If Whitecloud is unable to develop chemistry with Alec Martinez behind Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb, Cassidy may be tempted to switch things up and put the young blueliners together again, this time as the second pair. And if that puts the steady veteran Martinez with an inexperienced young blueliner (more on that below), then all the better.

Daniil Miromanov

Going further down the depth chart, Pietrangelo’s absence does open up a vacancy on the back end. With six goals and 13 points in 17 games as a member of the Henderson Silver Knights, undrafted free agent Daniil Miromanov earned the first shot at proving himself. While three scoreless games and a minus-one plus/minus isn’t going to spark any Calder talk, the 25-year-old Russian is at least holding his own in roughly 16 minutes per night, a vast improvement on the 9:47 per game he received in 11 games last year.

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In sharp contrast to predecessor Pete DeBoer, Cassidy has already shown a willingness to trust his depth options on the blue line, opting to give Hague and Miromanov significant ice time rather than shielding them. This approach serves dual purposes – to facilitate a meaningful developmental opportunity at the NHL level and also to ease the potential burden on the top two defensive pairings. If Miromanov stumbles and Pietrangelo’s absence continues, Kaedan Korczak could get a shot on the right side.

After last season, the “next man up” ethos and finding ways to replace unavailable players is just par for the course for the Golden Knights. The club’s depth will be tested at a time when we’ve already seen a bit of a slide, particularly on the defensive end. Still, this season was never going to be without obstacles, and so this upcoming stretch will teach us more about this Vegas team. In the meantime, all the best to the Pietrangelo family.

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