The left-shot one-timer from Denis Gurianov beats Robin Lehner through his pads. The Dallas Stars mobbed each other in celebration. Just as they reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, the NBC camera panned to Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud.
Seconds after Gurianov’s goal ended the Golden Knights’ season in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, there was Whitecloud sitting in the penalty box, right glove pressed against his helmet, mind-scrambling after a fluky delay of game call put the Golden Knights shorthanded.
It was a crushing end to a successful NHL inauguration for Whitecloud, who signed a two-year extension 10 days into the league’s pause due to COVID-19. It proved to be a wise business decision for general manager Kelly McCrimmon, as he found out in the Edmonton bubble.
Normally, what happened that night at Rogers Arena on Sept. 14 would affect many a young player.
Enter Whitecloud, 24, wise beyond his years the moment he signed with Vegas as a college free agent from Bemidji State in 2018.
“You let that kind of sit in your mind for a week or two at the end of the season, but the one thing that I learned from that situation is that one situation doesn’t define who you are as a person, doesn’t define who I am as a player,” Whitecloud said. “It’s a mistake. Mistakes happen in every single game, and furthermore in everyday life. Those things are going to happen.”
Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer called the penalty “a shitty situation” and Whitecloud had no reason to hang his head.
“I think the way he took (the season-ending) was part of the growth,” DeBoer said on Friday. “He became a real important part of our team last year in the bubble and felt a lot of responsibility for helping us win.”
One would think something like that would motivate a player, especially in Whitecloud’s situation, because the penalty kill became his calling in the bubble.
Whitecloud led the Golden Knights in shorthanded time on ice during the round-robin with 11 minutes, 8 seconds; no other Vegas player reached 10 minutes. During Game 7 of the second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, Whitecloud had a team-high 7 minutes, 25 seconds of PK time and was on the ice for nearly four minutes of the five-minute major called on Ryan Reaves at 16:30 of the second period.
One of DeBoer’s tasks he took upon himself when he replaced Gerard Gallant in mid-January was evaluating the prospects in AHL Chicago.
Two names continuously came up: Whitecloud, and fellow defenseman Nicolas Hague. By Feb. 1, Whitecloud surpassed veterans Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill on the depth chart.
With the door open, Zach Whitecloud kicked it down.
Whitecloud has already seen a near-six-minute increase in ice time (from the 14 minutes, 19 seconds in 16 games last season). Part of that has to do with the Golden Knights going with a 13-forward, 5-defenseman rotation for three of six games, but even with rotating partners, Whitecloud has arguably been Vegas’ most consistent player.
“When I first came up, you go through those plays that you don’t want to, per se, mess up. Now I play to make those plays and if I mess up, it happens,” he said. “If I can counter those mistakes I can, not necessarily make up for them but just defend right away and keep moving forward on the next shift.”
Zach Whitecloud Progression
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights have outshot opponents 96-83 at 5-on-5 with Whitecloud on the ice. In all but one game (Friday’s 5-2 loss to Arizona), Vegas has generated more with No. 2 on the ice.
When Vegas has gone the traditional 12-6, Whitecloud has been paired with Hague. Sunday against the Coyotes, Whitecloud and Hague were on the ice for 16 shot attempts while allowing six.
But where Zach Whitecloud has improved vastly is his confidence with the puck. He’s not going to garner Norris-like attention like teammates Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, but DeBoer’s trust in his young defenseman has allowed him to jump in the rush and make plays like this.
“Playing with confidence is key to making good smart plays and quick plays,” Whitecloud said. “That experience coming down the stretch at the end of last year helped me build that coming into the summer. I think that comes with being around the guys a little more, too, being more comfortable. The more responsibility you get as a player within a system and a team, you get to start making more plays.”
Added DeBoer: “I think he’s picked up on the confidence of knowing now that you can play at this level and not just play but play well. That’s what you’re seeing.”
Even if Whitecloud doesn’t turn into a 30-point defenseman any time soon, his development has given the Golden Knights plenty to think about with the future of the defense core. There’s no question Whitecloud would be a top-4 option right now, but that $725,000 cap hit allows Vegas such flexibility.
He’s going to get plenty of opportunities to make up for not being on the ice in an elimination situation. So far, through six games, he’s making up for it in a big way.
“I was torn to not be able to do the job for my teammates and put them on the kill like that, but at the end of the day, those things happen and you move forward in life,” Whitecloud said. “You live with it, and you learn from it, and then you come into this season and you just keep trucking forward and take it day-by-day.”
Danny Webster is the newest columnist and reporter for Vegas Hockey Now. He is the Golden Knights beat writer for NHL dot com. Catch him on Twitter @DannyWebster21