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November 15, 2018

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Zach Whitecloud is player to watch at Golden Knights development camp

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L.E. Baskow

Players cruise about the ice during a drill as the Golden Knights hold their first on ice practice during their inaugural Development Camp at the Las Vegas Ice Center on Tuesday, June 27, 2017.

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley only has one worry about Zach Whitecloud — he’s concerned no one else will be able to eat at the buffet inside the team facility after the rookie defenseman is done.

Whitecloud said he recently ran into Foley a few times during breakfast, and the owner complimented his recently improved physique while jokingly fretting about the lack of food left at the counter.

The 21-year-old rookie has put on more than 15 pounds of muscle since signing in March, and is prepared to show off his improved game at the Golden Knights’ development camp over the next five days.

“It’s all about putting on healthy weight while being able to move it as well,” Whitecloud said. “Being here for four months was huge to work with (strength and conditioning coach) Doug Davidson in the gym and have that nutrition aspect to put on the right body weight and be able to move it at the same time. I am bigger but I am still comfortable on the ice and still have the speed.”

Development camp runs through Sunday, with multiple days of on-ice drills followed by an inter-squad scrimmage this weekend. It’s a chance for young players to show the coaches they deserve to be on the final 23-man roster this fall.

During last year’s camp one player stood out above the rest. Alex Tuch was bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled than everyone on the ice. That translated to a full-time NHL job and he ran with it, emerging as a key piece to Vegas’ deep playoff run.

Whitecloud, who’s the same age as Tuch was last year, could be this year’s version.

“You’re here to leave an impression, and first of all get better at what you do as a hockey player,” Whitecloud said. “It’s also nice to get to know some of the guys that are new to the hockey team and some of the guys that have been here before.”

Whitecloud signed to the Golden Knights as a college free agent on March 8 out of Bemidji State University in Minnesota. Vegas scouts and executives were extremely interested in him, building a relationship to recruit him since his freshman year at Bemidji State.

“What drew us to him was his ability to skate, his mobility, his presence, his athleticism and his ability to move pucks hard and quick,” said Mike Levine, who works in scouting and player development for the Golden Knights. “He covers a lot of ice, he’s extremely mobile and I think he’s just scratching the surface.”

Whitecloud fits the mold of what Vegas looks for in a defenseman. Whether it’s Nate Schmidt, Collin Miller or Shea Theodore, the Golden Knights like their defemsemen mobile.

He registered four goals and 14 assists in 36 games as a sophomore at Bemidji State. As a freshman, he finished second on the team with 14 assists and 59 blocked shots.

“He has a lot of talent, which is great for a starting point,” said Wil Nichol, the Golden Knights’ director of player development. “He can do things with the puck, jump up offensively, and does a lot of things that you can’t teach.

“Then we felt that the things that he needed to improve on would come with hard work. If you spend any time with Zach, you’ll find out he’s as high-character of a kid as they come and he’ll put the work in.”

Whitecloud tagged along for the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, soaking in all the learning experiences he could.

“Being able to experience that Stanley Cup Final playoff run is something that I’ll cherish forever,” he said. “I’ve had some time to think about it, and definitely took some things away from it to help my development as a person and a player.”

Whitecloud was an AHCA Honors First "All American Scholars" recipient this season for his dedication in the classroom.

“He had the character that we want in a Golden Knight and the talent to be a good player,” Nichol said.

Whitecloud is strongest where he needs to be — in the defensive zone. He needs work on his offensive game, but coaches would much prefer that to be the case than the opposite.

“I want to be a two-way defensive player and obviously you worry about your own end first and the offense will come,” Whitecloud said. “In college I was strong defensively and that’s what I pride myself on, but now I’m getting a little more in-touch with my offensive side.”

The returning top picks from last year’s draft — Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — will receive most of the attention from fans over the next week, and deservedly so. But if you want to watch a player who could make a difference for the Golden Knights as soon as this winter, keep an eye on No. 2.

“His ability as a hockey player is only surpassed by how good of a person he is,” Levine said. “I do think if he stays the course and continues to put in time, his future is bright.”

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

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