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October 22, 2018

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Looking ahead: Golden Knights’ prospects paint bright future

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Jesse Granger

The Vegas Golden Knights picked three players — Cody Glass, from left, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft on June 23, 2017, at the United Center, in Chicago.

Hours before the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 26, a proposed deal between the Golden Knights and Ottawa Senators fell through.

The trade would have brought all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson to the Golden Knights in exchange for a handful of draft picks, prospects, and possibly a current player. General manager George McPhee pulled out of the trade talks in the final hours, and there has been much speculation about what prevented it from going through.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wrote Monday, “Word is one of the biggest hang-ups at the end was Cody Glass, drafted sixth overall last June. Vegas didn’t want to include him.”

If that’s true, it speaks volumes about the player McPhee believes Glass will eventually become.

The Golden Knights drafted three players in the first round (Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom) and two in the second round (Nic Hague and Jake Leschyshyn) last year, and all five have given reason for extreme optimism for the future.

“We did a real good job of drafting them,” McPhee said. “That’s the first thing you have to do, and then the second thing you have to do is develop them properly.”

Glass impressed during last summer’s developmental camp, and played well in his limited opportunities during the preseason. Since he departed Las Vegas to return to his junior hockey team the Portland Winterhawks, he has continued to develop.

“His game keeps progressing,” said Mike Johnston, coach and general manager of the Winterhawks. “He was definitely our key guy this year. He took on more of a leadership role with our group on and off the ice.”

Glass, 19, led Portland with 102 points this season and was one of the best distributors of the puck in the entire Western Hockey League with 65 assists. In only 64 games, that’s 1.59 points per outing.

His ability to protect the puck with his body allows him to possess the puck as long as necessary, and his vision on the ice allows him to find the right pass.

“I really think his puck protection game has improved with his strength,” Johnston said. “He put some weight on and his lower body strength has really improved. He used to get knocked down in battles when he was younger but now he is able to make plays while he’s protecting the puck.”

At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds Glass still has room to grow, and that will be a major key to transitioning to the NHL game.

“What does he have to do to be an NHL player? Probably strength,” Johnston said. “He should also probably should shoot a little bit more. He has a great shot and he doesn’t look for it enough because he’s such a good distributor.”

Glass also made major strides on the defensive end this season, becoming one of the Winterhawks key penalty killers, and finishing the season a sky-high plus-42 while on the ice.

Fellow first-round center selection Suzuki had an equally-impressive season in juniors, also reaching the century mark for points with 42 goals and 58 assists in 64 games for the Owen Sound Attack. Like Glass, Suzuki’s vision is elite for an 18-year-old.

“In his mind the game is in slow motion,” Owen Sound Attack general manager Dale DeGray told the London Free Press. “They see it, they compute it, and they react… Nick Suzuki has an uncanny ability to slow the game down.”

Brannstrom, the third first-round selection by McPhee, doesn’t have the gaudy numbers like Glass and Suzuki, but has held his own as an 18-year-old playing in the top professional league in Sweden.

“Erik is an unbelievable player,” TSN’s draft expert Craig Botton said of Brannstrom on the Golden Knights’ official podcast. “When you watch the game, he’s impossible to forecheck because he’s so quick with his mind and his feet that you can’t get in on him. So what does that do, that backs everybody off. Then you get him in transition, he’s quick, he’s fast, he can make plays on the move.”

Brannstrom nearly made the cut for Sweden’s World Championship roster, which is stacked with most of the best players the country has to offer.

And while the first-round selections have all impressed, second-round choice Hague may have outplayed them all this season. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound defenseman won the Canadian Hockey League’s defenseman of the year award, setting a team record with 78 points, including a league-leading 35 goals by a defenseman. He was the first Ontario Hockey League defenseman to score that many goals since 1998.

“Hague was one of the best defensemen in Canada,” McPhee said. “He had a remarkable season and to get that kind of player in the second round (is great).”

The entire group will be back in Las Vegas this summer for development camp, followed by training camp, but McPhee says their chances of making the final roster still aren’t great.

“Those are probably long shots,” he said. “They’re going to have to be really, really good to make this club. I’ve never wanted teenagers in the NHL. I don’t think they make you a whole lot better. We have to develop them properly, and we will take our time to do that.”

Vegas’ immediate success in its inaugural season has bought the prospects some unexpected time to develop. The Golden Knights were constantly sitting healthy players out this season because their depth was so strong.

“We have the luxury of taking our time with young guys, and the smartest thing you can do is that,” McPhee said. “You are better off over-cooking them sometimes at the junior level or the American level rather than put them here.”

The on-ice play isn’t even the toughest thing for most junior hockey players to adapt to in the NHL.

“There’s the play on the ice, but also the social part of it,” McPhee said. “They are young guys and you’re stepping into the league with guys with families and everything else. Sometimes it’s like trying to take a kid from eighth grade and put them in 12th grade, it doesn’t work.”

Millionaire teenagers that would become instant celebrities, living in Las Vegas might not be the ideal scenario to develop their skills, so for now the prospects will likely remain just prospects.

But there’s no denying the future for the Golden Knights is bright. Vegas has only one selection in the first three rounds in the upcoming draft after trading first, second and third-round picks for Tomas Tatar, but the stockpile of young players McPhee has built is sufficient that it shouldn’t matter too much.

“We’re delighted with them,” McPhee said. “It’s a start, and we have to keep doing it. The team that just won the Cup drafted really well for a number of years, and that has to be done here too.”

Jesse Granger can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Jesse on Twitter at twitter.com/JesseGranger_.

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