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Ranking the Defensemen Battling for an NHL Spot

September 16, 2019, 1:52 PM ET [3 Comments]
Jeff Paul
Vegas Golden Knights Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

Heading into Year Three, Golden Knights President of Hockey Operations George McPhee made it clear, there will be a rookie playing on the Vegas blue line this season. By trading Colin Miller to create cap space, McPhee opened that very competition. The Miller deal was made largely due to the cap situation, but it was much easier for the team to pull the trigger due to the deep pool of defensemen they have the luxury of picking from.

That pool of defensemen has a clear-cut top-five in this battle. Those five men are Nicolas Hague, Jimmy Schuldt, Zach Whitecloud, Dylan Coghlan, and Jake Bischoff. All five players possess unique skill sets, most of which would translate very well to the NHL in a full-time capacity. Before taking the rookies into account, the Golden Knights have five defensemen that are locks for an NHL spot and Nick Holden, who could remain the seventh defenseman or get buried in the minors.

Depth Chart:
D1: Brayden McNabb-Shea Theodore
D2: Jon Merrill-Nate Schmidt
D3: VACANT-Deryk Engelland

Engelland may end up as Schmidt’s partner again, but that pair did not look good to finish the 2018-19 season and Jon Merrill deserves more playing time. He was legitimately good last season, playing alongside Miller and Holden. Whichever defenseman gets the first shot at the NHL gig will almost certainly be paired with one of Merrill or Engelland. Simply finding a good fit, might end up outweighing flat-out skill in this competition.

Defense Pairs From the First Preseason Game:

Over the past few weeks I have developed a pretty good idea of the pecking order, following the Golden Knights’ 6-2 preseason-opening win over the Coyotes Sunday. The team likes to carry eight defensemen, so there is a good chance two of the kids will make the team out of camp. Below you’ll find what I believe is the team’s ranking of the prospects, along with my own personal thoughts.

The Contenders

Jimmy Schuldt
Team Rank: #1
JP's Rank: #2

Schuldt should have the best shot at making the team(USA Today Sports)

While there is a slight chance Schuldt doesn’t make the club out of camp, it is a long shot. Schuldt signed a new one-year, 850k deal the morning Rookie Camp began. His deal is not a traditional two-way deal for guys who may spend a lot of time in the minors. Schuldt’s deal is a one-way deal, but he is waivers exempt until he plays 60 NHL games. This means the team can send him down without the threat of losing him, if they see fit.

Schuldt came to the Golden Knights at the tail end of last season, as a Hobey Baker Award finalist. He was the captain of the St. Cloud State hockey team and finished with 10 goals in three of his four college seasons. He is a very smooth-skating two-way defenseman who can activate in the offensive zone. Don’t let his offensive prowess fool you, Schuldt is no slouch in his own end and by his own account, the NCAA game will help him transition smoothly to the NHL.

Thus far in camp, he has been as advertised and more. His skating keeps him in the play including the few times he has been beat to the edge. He had the biggest “wow” moment in camp, when he walked in from the blue line and lasered a wrist shot off the post/crossbar connection and in past newcomer Garret Sparks. Out of the five men who can conceivably make the team out of camp, Schuldt has the best chance and it would be to play, not sit in the press box, as a healthy scratch.

Schuldt has yet to look out of place, playing against NHL caliber players. In the preseason opener, he played very well at both ends of the ice and was paired with Whitecloud, another NHL hopeful. Although the Minnesota native is a bit on the small side – 6-foot-0, 203 lbs. – he doesn’t shy away from the corners and holds his own in puck battles. His skill alone is enough to get him to the NHL and the more he plays against high-level competition, the more his game will round out and grow. Expect to see a lot of Schuldt this season.

Nic Hague
Team: #2
JP: #3

Big Nic Hague can be a force in his own end (USA Today Sports)

Coming into camp, I believed Hague had the best chance of making this team. His performance at the AHL level was great and he can play at both ends of the ice. Add in his size – 6-foot-6, 221lbs – and you get a unique defenseman that most teams would love to have on their roster. He cleverly uses his long reach to break up the opposition’s rushes and seems NHL ready.

“I want to be a part of this team and that
is my mindset.”
-Nic Hague

To this point in camp, he hasn’t necessarily stood out, which in one right is good as a defenseman. Unfortunately for Hague, two of his closest competitors - Zach Whitecloud and Schuldt - have stood out and for good reason. Both have been more dynamic and have had bigger moments against the NHL players. Hague will need to make more of an impression during camp and throughout the preseason, to prove he is the man for the job. He’s done an adequate job so far, but that might not be enough to secure his spot.

Hague possesses solid offensive talent, despite being more of a defense-first defenseman. His slapshot is nothing to scoff at and he has shown some upside on the power play throughout his career. Much like Schuldt, Hague is a good two-way defenseman, who could really assert himself with more seasoning and confidence. He is a big, imposing guy and should use that frame more often, to make more of an impact. While his talent should still transcend any short-term results, Hague might need to step it up down the stretch.

Hague was held out of the first preseason game, but Nate Schmidt, who has been his defense partner through three days of training camp, was also held out. Hague’s play in the preseason will end up being the main component of his evaluation. If he has good showings at an NHL pace, he will make the team, alongside Schuldt. If he falters, the following player’s strong camp could end up being Hague’s undoing.

Zach Whitecloud
Team: #3
JP: #1

Zach Whitecloud has been a stud in camp (USA Today Sports)

Whitecloud at number one? That must be crazy! What are you thinking?! How is this possible?

Early on in camp, Whitecloud has been the best of the five defense prospects vying for the Golden Knights’ job opening(s). Whitecloud has been very adamant that he has been working on his two-way game and adding more offense over the offseason and it really shows on the ice. He has been very good at the opposing blue line. Whitecloud has done a great job keeping pucks in the offensive zone, getting low shots through to the net, and being decisive on when and how often to pinch or pursue the puck carrier.

Simply put, Whitecloud has been downright impressive thus far. Whitecloud was destined for the AHL in my eyes heading into camp, but with every shift he takes, he looks better and better. It is getting extremely hard to deny the possibility of the 6-foot-2 defenseman making the team. On top of his improving transition game, Whitecloud has a maturity and calming demeanor that transcends typical expectations of a 22-year-old.

”Going into these exhibition games, you don’t try to do too much and get out of who you are as a person or a player. You just do the things that make you a hockey player and a good person and if you can do those things and contribute to the team having success then you’re making a step in the right direction.”
-Zach Whitecloud

What kind of 22-year-old hockey player, heading into their first preseason game in the biggest camp of their life, talks about wanting to be a better person? That quote alone shows the make-up and the upbringing of Whitecloud. He is always quick to compliment his fellow defensemen and reminds the media how they are all competitors, but also great friends who care for one another. Whichever team he starts the season on, the Chicago Wolves of the AHL or the Golden Knights, will greatly benefit from having a man of Whitecloud’s character on the team.

”My two-way game has come a long way since the start of last year and I believe in that.”
-Zach Whitecloud

Dylan Coghlan
Team: #5
JP: #4

Affectionately known as Cogs amongst his teammates, the 21-year-old out of Duncan, British Columbia is the most dynamic option for the Golden Knights in this roster battle. During the Rookie Faceoff in Irvine, Coghlan asserted himself with a two-goal game against the Colorado Avalanche in the tournament opener. He would go on to add another goal before the tournament ended. Three goals in three games, against some solid, young, up-and-coming Pacific Division talents. Coghlan is the closest to filling the skillset void left by Miller. His dynamic offensive play is making him a dark horse in the battle for the open spots on the Golden Knights’ blue line.

Coghlan went pro last season and his game effectively translated. Despite the learning curve, Coghlan was able to lead all Wolves defensemen with 15 goals. He added 25 assists, finishing with a strong 40-point rookie campaign. What makes Coghlan’s numbers impressive is that he did it in his first season in the AHL. While the league serves as a launch pad for young players looking to make the NHL, it also is the home to many savvy veterans who know how to play the game and play tough. A young defenseman’s first season in the AHL is no cake walk and Coghlan was able to succeed while learning and growing as a player. He looks to be a legitimate power play weapon and could even be used as a specialist in that regard, if the Vegas power play sputters once again.

He remains a long shot to make the Golden Knights out of camp, but he has done a good job of putting his name in the discussion. He will almost definitely be back with the Wolves as a leader on the defense corps, but he has been noticeably impressive. In the preseason game against the Coyotes, he was paired with the defensive-minded McNabb and they formed quite the duo. His game is very similar to Theodore’s and it’s no surprise he fit in perfectly alongside McNabb. Instead of second-guessing himself on pinches at the blue line, Coghlan was decisive and quick in his decision-making. He even showed maturity and good hockey IQ on multiple plays, pushing the puck to the low boards when there was no flashier play to make. He also picked up an assist on a nice shot for rebound, banged home by Max Pacioretty to finish off his hat trick.

If he ends up back in Chicago, I will be watching my fair share of Wolves games. Coghlan is fun to watch and with more experience, will be a fixture on the Golden Knights roster.

Jake Bischoff
Team: #4
JP: #5

Jake Bischoff provides the Golden Knights a safe option (USA Today Sports)

Some of you may remember Jake Bischoff’s name because he spent a good part of last season on the Golden Knights’ roster. Although he never cracked the lineup, Bischoff presented a stable option, who could play just fine if needed. He and Nick Holden served as two healthy scratches, as the Golden Knights elected to go with a roster holding eight defensemen last season. Bischoff won’t do anything exceptionally flashy, but he is a solid defensive-minded player who could fill PK minutes better than some guys currently doing it at the NHL level.

If this decision came down to playing ability and upside, Bischoff would be more of a longshot in my eyes. Instead, he is one of my likeliest players to make the squad because of the team’s previous philosophy and the current personnel. Holden is still on the roster and a move to the AHL would be a dead million dollars in salary cap. Deryk Engelland is expected to be in the lineup most nights, but he isn’t getting any younger. Bischoff could be viewed as the guy that could most closely fill in for Engelland, should he miss any time.

Although he is not an exciting option, he is still in the mix and a strong camp could lead to the same personnel strategy employed last season.

Final Thoughts

Although my personal ranks suggest otherwise, I see both Jimmy Schuldt and Nic Hague making the Golden Knights out of camp. Whitecloud has looked extremely good and the work he has put in this summer is paying off, but the Golden Knights will want to see some return on their draft pick in Hague. Schuldt’s pedigree, maturity, and smooth skating will be his meal ticket in this competition. If either man falters or even if curiosity strikes, one or more of Whitecloud, Coghlan, and Bischoff could get a call up.

Hague being paired with Schmidt says to me that they are testing out a potential opening day pairing. If the pair works, Hague may be in the lineup right out of the gate, if not, they’ll find something that does work. Head Coach Gerard Gallant said that he expects to need all seven games to evaluate the defensemen and decide which players make the cut. Preseason is make-or-break time for these men, but don’t be surprised to see all five get action with the team at some point this season. With Engelland and Merrill’s deals expiring at the end of the year, the kids will be leaned on and now is the time to set the table for the future.

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