Last season was dismal for the Vegas Golden Knights, as the franchise missed the playoffs for the first time in its young history. The hits kept coming after the season. Cap issues forced the team to trade Max Pacioretty to the Carolina Hurricanes, and goaltender Robin Lehner will miss the entire 2022-23 campaign following hip surgery.
But there is a silver lining to that dark cloud for the Golden Knights. The corps of defensemen looks solid from top to bottom, and a big reason for that bolstered depth is the continued development of Zach Whitecloud. The 25-year-old has had a solid preseason and is emerging as one of Vegas’ most reliable players under new head coach Bruce Cassidy.
Patience Pays Off for Whitecloud
Whitecloud went undrafted but was signed by the Golden Knights following two standout seasons at Bemidji State University. He played just 17 regular-season NHL games in his first three NHL seasons – but 16 of those came at the end of the 2019-20 campaign. He emerged for the Golden Knights during that 2020 Postseason, where he played 20 games and scored a pair of goals.
That strong finish continued into 2020-21, where Whitecloud played in 51 of the team’s 56 games, scoring 12 points. He was sharp again in the playoffs, and it turned into a six-year contract extension in the early part of last season. His ice time steadily increased in 2021-22, culminating in nearly 19 minutes per game while leading the team in plus/minus at plus-21.
Golden Knights Are Deep on Defense
Vegas has a glut of quality defensemen, which has allowed Whitecloud to develop without being thrown into the fire too often. He’s played predominantly on the third pairing, and the team’s depth might keep him there again this season – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The top two pairings will be comprised of Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo as the top duo, followed by Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore on the second pairing.
Whitecloud played alongside Nick Holden on the third pairing for the early part of his career, before Holden was traded to the Ottawa Senators in 2021. Entering the 2022-23 season, the third pairing will likely be comprised of Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague – giving the Golden Knights one of the deepest sets of blueliners in the NHL. Despite that, Whitecloud’s two-way play has led to him getting more minutes both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. Combine his steady development with new coach Cassidy’s coaching style, and even more responsibility should come the defenseman’s way.
Cassidy’s Impact Should Benefit Whitecloud
Entering the team’s first season with Cassidy calling the shots, things could look a little different in Vegas. In the press conference introducing him to the team, he labeled his style of coaching as “goaltender friendly.” When he coached the Boston Bruins, his teams were known for attacking and keeping the puck out of their own end. He relies on his defensemen to attack and expects his forwards to maintain some defensive responsibilities, which plays directly into Whitecloud’s two-way style.
Whitecloud might not post the enormous offensive numbers of some other NHL defensemen, but the opposition doesn’t light the lamp very often when he’s on the ice. He’s defensively responsible and is a threat to start breakouts, which played a huge part in Cassidy’s success in Boston. Teams under him take care of defense first and then attack with all five skaters. Vegas has the defensemen to pull that off, and guys like Jack Eichel, Mark Stone and Jonathan Marchessault should bring some offensive firepower in front of them.
The Golden Knights will have questions in net, but there are plenty of other quality pieces here. This team missed the playoffs last season, but made it to the Western Conference Final the season before. Cassidy has always relied on his defensemen to get things rolling, and Whitecloud is a guy that will certainly benefit from his coaching style. It will be difficult for him to crack those top two pairings, but even on that third pairing, he gives the Golden Knights a luxury that most teams don’t have. That depth is a pretty good starting point for a team looking to get back to the postseason in 2023.
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Lifelong storyteller and experienced hockey reporter that has covered everything from major juniors to the NHL. Worked for various newspapers across Minnesota and North Dakota, and now covering the Colorado Avalanche for THW.