Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights' 19-year-old defenseman Erik Brannstrom wound up for big slap shot, but pulled up and faked the shot at the last moment.
The defender, already flat on his stomach to block the shot, slid helplessly by as Brannstrom deked to his left and wired a wicked wrist shot past the goalie’s glove, off the crossbar and into the goal.
“It’s pretty amazing to watch,” Golden Knights teammate Reid Duke said of the Swedish defensive phenom, who dominated on the ice this weekend at the Vegas Rookie Faceoff.
Brannstrom was selected by the the Golden Knights 15th overall in the 2017 draft and has spent the last two seasons in the highest professional league in Sweden. He showed off his offensive prowess this week and appears to be ready to make the jump to the NHL.
His skating and puck-handling are only matched by his creativity on the ice, as he’s always looking for the dangerous pass to set up a goal.
“You know that if you just get a step on a guy, you don’t even really need to be looking at him, but the puck is going to end up on your stick,” Duke said. “He’s a very special player to play with. I’m happy that he’s not on the other team.”
His dazzling skills in the offensive zone undoubtedly left Golden Knights fans salivating for more, but in order to take the next step, Brannstrom still has to improve defensively.
“He’s learning every day,” said Chicago Wolves coach Rocky Thompson, who coached the Golden Knights’ prospects in last weekend’s scrimmages. “Playing without the puck I’ve noticed a difference in him from our first game to tonight’s game. He’s not giving up as many opportunities without the puck, and this is only in a short period of about 72 hours.”
Full training camp starts Thursday for the Golden Knights, and Brannstrom will get a chance to prove himself on the ice with NHL players.
“He’s a player, to me, that is going to keep getting better and better. I’m really excited about main camp and NHL exhibitions,” Thompson said. “He’s passionate and fiery. I love it. On the bench he gets fired up and competitive. When someone wrongs him he’s upset about it, but it’s like an inner fire that he channels, so that’s good.”
Brannstrom isn’t the only player that stood out for the Golden Knights in their three scrimmages against the Avalanche, Sharks and Kings. Here are the biggest takeaways from rookie camp:
1. The future is bright on the blue line
Aside from Brannstrom, both defensemen Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud proved to be a step above the competition this week.
Hague showed why he was named the most outstanding defenseman of the year in the Ontario Hockey League with his howitzer-like shot from the point. He blasted in goal after goal on the power play this week.
Hague still needs work defensively — particularly with skating and positioning to keep forwards from skating around him — but his powerful slap shot is already a unique weapon in the offensive zone. He took a leadership role in camp, wearing the alternate captain’s “A” on his chest during the scrimmages.
“Sometimes the guys that come up clutch at the end are the guys you follow,” Vegas forward Keegan Kolesar said. “Everyone leads in different ways. Sometimes it can be a big goal, a big hit, or a fight.”
Unlike Hague and Brannstrom, Whitecloud is at his best in the defensive zone. The 21-year-old defenseman was a calming presence for the entire team this week, consistently making good decisions with the puck and holding the back end of the defense together.
“He played really well,” Thompson said. “Kept things simple and frustrated the other team when he was defending. He was able to break up the cycle a lot.”
With Nate Schmidt suspended for the first 20 games and Shea Theodore still unsigned, Whitecloud has a great chance to make Vegas’ opening-night roster.
2. Dylan Ferguson has separated himself from the rest of the goalie prospects.
The Golden Knights have four goaltending prospects under 20 years old: Ferguson, Jordan Kooy, Jiri Patera and Maksim Zhukov.
Kooy, Patera and Zhukov all had ups and downs during their play in the Rookie Faceoff scrimmages, but the biggest message sent by Golden Knights staff was the player who didn’t touch the ice. Ferguson was held out of the rookie scrimmages and will likely see action in the preseason, which screams that he’s separated himself from the other goaltending prospects.
“(Golden Knights goalie coach) David Prior said he wanted to have a look at the other three goalies, and he’s had extensive time with Dylan and knows what he’s all about,” Thompson said.
Ferguson spent a large stretch of last season with the team in an emergency role after multiple goaltenders went down with injuries. He used that time practicing with the NHL club to his advantage and has made major strides. Ferguson had a 2.95 goals against average and .907 save percentage with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League last season, and will look to continue his development this year.
3. Cody Glass improved as the camp went on
Expectations are high for the Golden Knights’ first-ever draft pick, and Glass rose to the occasion in the final scrimmage of the week Tuesday afternoon.
The 6-foot-2 center controlled the game with puck possession, set his teammates up for scoring chances, and scored two goals of his own in Vegas’ 7-2 beatdown of the Kings.
“I really felt he separated himself and looked outstanding,” Thompson said. “He gets open because he’s smart and knows where to go. He carries the puck well and knows where to distribute it. I thought he looked fast.”
Glass dominated the Western Hockey League last season with 37 goals and 65 assists for 102 points. This week he showed flashes for the Golden Knights, and will have the chance to show them against NHLers when the preseason begins Sunday at T-Mobile Arena.
“I think that he finds his open areas pretty well,” Duke said. “He’s pretty sneaky the way he finds himself in good areas with the puck, and that’s no coincidence. He’s a threat all over the ice.”