Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018 | 2 a.m.
With three preseason games remaining for the Golden Knights, it’s clear there will be a new face on the blueline this season, at least for the first 20 games.
Exactly who it will be isn’t quite as clear, but each day we inch closer to an answer.
General manager George McPhee has stated multiple times this offseason that he would like to keep eight defenders on the roster — like the team did last season. With top defenseman Nate Schmidt suspended for the first 20 games and Shea Theodore still not signed to a contract, it opens new opportunities for younger players to crack the lineup.
Friday night the Golden Knights released ten more players from their training camp, sending them to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. Four of those players were defensemen Dylan Coghlan, Kevin Lough, Jimmy Oligny and Zach Whitecloud.
It leaves only 10 defenders in training camp. Six of them — Brayden McNabb, Colin Miller, Deryk Engelland, Nick Holden, Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt — are returning players from last year (with the exception of Holden) and are all but locks to be on the opening-day roster.
That leaves two open spots for the last four — Erik Brannstrom, Nick Hague, Jake Bischoff and Griffin Reinhart — to fight over.
“It’s exciting,” Hague said. “I’m happy to be here and making the team would obviously be a dream come true, but I’m here trying to learn, get better and take it all in. I’m really enjoying my time here.”
Brannstrom and Hague — both only 19 years old — have impressed offensively in their preseason appearances.
Saturday night in San Jose Brannstrom nearly deked Sharks' goalie Martin Jones out of his own equipment on a game-winning goal in the shootout.
“He’s a really, really skilled,” veteran winger Max Pacioretty said of Brannstrom. “He’s a smooth skater with really smooth puck skills.”
Coach Gerard Gallant has been complimentary of Brannstrom’s skating ability, but also mentioned that sometimes he skates so well that he skates himself into trouble.
“Maybe sometimes I try to do too much with the puck,” Brannstrom said. “I’m trying to hold the puck, make good plays and make things more simple sometimes.”
Hague has showcased offensive ability as well, sniping a wrist shot past Coyotes’ goalie Darcy Kuemper on Sept. 16.
“Obviously there have been some pretty good players that I’ve played against and I think to this point I’ve handled it pretty well,” Hague said. “Obviously it can be better. There’s always room for improvement but I’ve done pretty well.”
Bischoff, 24, is a more seasoned professional player. He had seven goals and 16 assists in 69 games last season for the Chicago Wolves. Reinhart, 24, also played in 60 games in the AHL. The two may be safer choices than Brannstrom or Hague but don't have the same upside.
It’s up to Gallant, McPhee, and the rest of the staff to decide if the rookies are ready to make the leap to real NHL games. One issue is making the top-eight might not be good enough for Brannstrom or Hague to crack the roster. They’ll need to be top-six.
That's because the bottom-two defensemen for the Golden Knights will spend most time as a healthy scratch, watching the games from the press box. Playing games in the AHL is much more valuable for young players.
“That’s for management to decide,” Gallant said. “I’m going to coach whoever I got, but you want the best players for sure.”
Gallant does admit the process is slightly different from this time last season. After a trip to the Stanley Cup Final the Golden Knights are ready to win now, and if the rookies are good enough to help them do that, they’ll play.