Golden Knights: Unpacking the Zykov Suspension

The NHL dropped the hammer on the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, suspending forward Valentin Zykov for 20 games for violating the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substance Program. 

For the Golden Knights, the news was incredibly disheartening, as this marks the second time in two seasons that a member of their squad has been handed a suspension for this very infraction. Last season, Nate Schmidt was slapped with a 20-game ban after he tested positive for a banned substance believed to be the result of a contaminated supplement.

While Schmidt’s offence appears to have been accidental in nature, it doesn’t appear the same can be said for Zykov. In fact, the details of the situation really put Zykov in a precarious position.

Following the news of the suspension on Thursday, Zykov’s camp released a statement stating that he was unaware of how the banned substance entered his body.

However, Golden Knights president of hockey operations George McPhee told The Athletic’s Jesse Granger that Zykov informed him that he had been knowingly taking the banned substance for the last four years.

It is likely due to this conversation that the Golden Knights released their statement following the news stating:

“We monitor the nutrition, supplement intake, and overall diet of our athletes on a continual basis throughout our entire season. Valentin knowingly used a banned substance without the consent, recommendation or knowledge of our team. We support the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program and respect the decision here.”

– George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights president of hockey operations

It was a statement that many felt was a case of the team throwing their player under the bus, for lack of a better term. So where do we go from here?

Impacts on Golden Knights, Zykov Relationship

The biggest question surrounding the news of Zykov’s suspension now appears to be how both the team and the player will be able to co-exist moving forward. Following the Golden Knights’ release, Zykov’s agent Rolland Hedges refuted the fact that his client had “knowingly” taken a banned substance, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger.

Of course, this contradicts the fact that Zykov and Hedges met with McPhee on Wednesday to inform him of the likely pending suspension. So it appears this could be a case of Zykov’s agent just trying to save face in the public space. 

On Thursday’s “Insider Trading” segment, Dreger reported that the NHLPA could file a grievance with the Golden Knights with how they worded their release and their handling of the situation.

Further, if Hedges and Zykov are indeed upset with how the Golden Knights handled the situation, regardless of whether or not the NHLPA takes action, it will be interesting to see how both sides are able to get back on good terms. Early on, it looked as though Vegas was giving him one of his first real chances to stick with a team in his young career. Prior to being claimed off waivers by the Golden Knights last December, Zykov had played in just 30 games during stints with the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers dating back to the 2016-17 season.

In his first seven games this season, Zykov had put up two assists while playing on the team’s third line alongside Cody Glass and Cody Eakin. So Vegas had given him the chance to succeed in a top-nine role. Zykov’s talent is evident and he has the potential to be a great player, but it will take a team, whether that be the Golden Knights or not, to give him the chance to play regular and meaningful minutes.

Could Pirri Steal Zykov’s Spot?

With Zykov now out for the next 19 games, following Thursday’s shootout win over the Ottawa Senators, the door is now open for Brandon Pirri. He slotted onto the third line on Thursday and even saw some time on special teams, playing 2:44 on the power play while registering three shots.

Vegas Golden Knights Brandon Pirri
Vegas Golden Knights center Brandon Pirri (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

For the Golden Knights, it’s hard to look at this trade-off as a downgrade. Last season, while playing just 31 games with Vegas, Pirri scored 12 goals and added six assists. He also tore it up with the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League, posting 42 points in 29 games.

It’s quite clear, Pirri is a goal scorer. And playing with Cody Glass, a rookie sure, but one with great vision and getting the opportunity to play on the power play, will give Pirri the opportunity to produce. If he does and the team remains successful, it could be hard to take him out of the lineup once Zykov serves his suspension.

How Many More Chances Does Zykov Have?

As was mentioned above, Zykov has been given several chances by the Hurricanes, Oilers, and now the Golden Knights. They have certainly been short stints, and it can be hard for a young player to get a grasp of things without being given a real chance to stick, but the question remains: how long can teams wait on him to take the next step? Especially a team like the Golden Knights who are in a win-now window. 

The Golden Knights are expected to challenge for top spot in the Western Conference and if Zykov can’t produce like the team expects he can, how long of a leash will he be given, especially with someone such as Pirri waiting on deck?

Arizona Coyotes Jakob Chychrun
Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun clears Vegas Golden Knights left wing Valentin Zykov from the crease as Arizona Coyotes goaltender Aldin Hill is defending his net (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

As for Zykov, he maintained in his press release that he plans to use this time off to remain in game-shape and make a meaningful return at the conclusion of his suspension. 

“I will work hard during my suspension to ensure that I put myself in the best possible position to contribute to my team when my suspension is over,” said Zykov.

It certainly sounds good, but only time will tell. Zykov has yet to make his mark in the NHL and with so much riding on this season for the Golden Knights, Zykov may now be on the clock following this latest transgression.