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September 22, 2019

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Which rookie(s) will make the team and other key VGK questions

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Steve Marcus

Golden Knights right wing Reilly Smith, second left, celebrates with teammates after scoring against Winnipeg, Thursday, March 21, 2019.

Hockey season is here, and the Vegas Golden Knights are currently in the midst of training camp. Though their roster is mostly set after two seasons that saw them make the playoffs, the Knights do have a few questions that need answering, including …

Will the top six stay intact?

Vegas’ top two lines are among the best in the league. William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have spent two years together and produced at a high clip. And when Mark Stone arrived at the trade deadline, he teamed with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to form an even more potent trio in relatively limited action.

But there’s a fair argument to be made that the team would be best-off distributing those top six offensemen throughout the lineup. The third line currently projects as Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch alongside a left winger who will earn the job in camp (likely Brandon Pirri). Bumping Tuch up alongside Karlsson and Marchessault, for instance, could boost Tuch’s scoring output, and Smith’s defensive could help stabilize another line.

Stone and Marchessault, meanwhile, showed strong chemistry playing together with Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships, which might intrigue Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. How about a super-defensive line with Karlsson and Stone together? Or putting Pirri with an elite passer like Stastny? One thing is clear: Vegas has plenty of options.

Will Cody Glass make the team?

The first draft pick in Golden Knights history will enter his third training camp, this time with a real shot at playing his way into the lineup.

The 20-year-old is not only Vegas’ top prospect but one of the best in the league. He blew through juniors with Portland of the Western Hockey League last year, then signaled the pro game might be no sweat, racking up 15 points in 22 playoff games with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves.

Vegas’ depth at center appears to be the only hurdle in front of Glass. He’s clearly behind Karlsson, Stastny and Eakin at center, and Glass is a playmaker—a style that seemingly wouldn’t translate well to fourth-line minutes. Vegas would prefer to keep Glass in the middle, but a strong preseason could force the team to make room by playing him on the wing.

The Knights have a history of letting prospects marinate in the minors. Tuch and Shea Theodore started in Chicago in 2017 before they got called up and developed into key VGK cogs. Rest assured that Glass will skate at T-Mobile Arena sometime this season. The real question is whether it will be on October 2 against San Jose or later in the year.

Who’ll center the fourth line?

The departure of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who signed with Colorado in the offseason, opens the spot he had occupied the past two years centering the fourth line. Bellemare was a solid defensive presence and a terrific penalty killer.

Tomas Nosek makes sense in that role, playing between Ryan Reaves and William Carrier. He has spent his time with the Golden Knights primarily as a winger but played Game 7 against San Jose at center when Bellemare was unable to play. Nicolas Roy, acquired from Carolina in the Erik Haula deal, could also be an option. The 6-foot-4, 22-year-old Roy helped Charlotte knock off Chicago, Vegas’ affiliate, in the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals.

It might seem like a less-pressing issue than others, but if Vegas doesn’t find someone who can fill that role, Bellemare’s absence could be felt early in the year.

Who backs up Marc-Andre Fleury?

It’s almost certainly going to be Malcolm Subban for a third-straight season. He has two years of experience in the Vegas system with goalie coach Dave Prior and was mostly solid when a Fleury injury thrust him into full-time duty last year. Still, Vegas went out and acquired Garret Sparks from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Sparks was Toronto’s primary backup last year, and his numbers weren’t far behind Subban’s. Sparks could create competition for the backup spot, but the smart money remains on Subban winning the job, with Sparks taking the reins in Chicago. An injury to either Fleury or Subban at any point in the season would likely put Sparks in a Golden Knights’ jersey, however.

Who’ll win the final spot on defense?

The Golden Knights brass have said they want a rookie to join their six veteran defensemen under contract (Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Nick Holden, Jon Merrill, Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt). That would make it the first time the team has relied on a rookie. The question is, which rookie?

Nicolas Hague, a former second-round pick from the inaugural 2017 draft class, offers the most upside. He spent all of last year with AHL Chicago, and at 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, he already looks like an NHL defenseman. But Vegas could decide further AHL seasoning could help Hague, particularly if the team doesn’t intend for its rookie defenseman to play every day.

Jimmy Schuldt and Zach Whitecloud both have NHL experience, albeit just one game apiece. Both were college free agents who signed with Vegas and got onto the ice at the end of their respective seasons. Schuldt, 24, is older and had a better college track record, while Whitecloud, 22, spent all of last year in the AHL gaining professional experience.

Jake Bischoff broke camp with the team last year, though he has yet to play in an NHL game. Dylan Coghlan has shown upside while in the Vegas system. And Jaycob Megna and Brett Lernout both signed as free agents over the summer.

Having too many defensemen for too few spots is a good problem to have, but it will be the talk of training camp until the positional battle gets decided.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.

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