Thursday night against the Flordia Panthers, Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud tied his career-high in points with twelve. Twelve points may not be an earth-shattering point total for many, but for the 25-year old Whitecloud, it is the next step in his development as he nears his 100th career NHL game.
In what can be considered his sophomore season, Whitecloud has emerged as one of the more reliable options for the Vegas Golden Knights on defense. He has six goals and six assists in 30 games played, a plus-minus rating of +14, and averages 19 minutes and 14 seconds of ice time.
But what makes Whitecloud so good, and what does his development mean for the Golden Knights heading forward?
Zach Whitecloud’s Story
The story of Zach Whitecloud is a simple one, and one we have all heard before. But it doesn’t discredit it as a good story by any means. An undrafted college free agent, Whitecloud was signed by the Golden Knights out of Bemidji State University, an NCAA program that had most recently produced Matt Read as an NHL graduate.
From 2017 to 2019 Whitecloud paid his dues finishing up his second season at Bemidji State and playing in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. He split the 2019-20 season between the AHL and NHL before finally becoming a regular last season with the Golden Knights. Whitecloud only missed five games all of last season.
This season, Whitecloud missed early portions of the 2021-22 season a wrist injury, but he came back and scored two goals against the Detroit Red Wings in his return game. He has two multi-goal games on the season as a defenseman. Most recently he missed a few games with back spasms but is now back in the Golden Knights lineup as a regular.
love this for Zach Whitecloud 😍 pic.twitter.com/jJHsETvPIN
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) November 19, 2021
Offensive Instincts and Solid Play
The Golden Knights have no shortage of injuries this season on the defensive side of the puck. Nicolas Hague, Alec Martinez, and Shea Theodore have all gone down. We all know how important the play of Alex Pietrangelo has been keeping the D-core together, but Whitecloud has been there almost all season as well and deserves some credit too.
“Yeah, he has been great this year. He has really picked his spots and a lot of times when he has had that shot from the weak side he has made it count. It has been a nice thing to have this year on the back end,” said Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore.
Whitecloud has been consistent in his offense all season. He has seen time on the Golden Knight’s second powerplay unit and in overtime as well. His skating and veteran-level hockey IQ give him the tools necessary as a top-four defenseman on a good hockey team like the Golden Knights. On top of this, he has a stellar shot which tends to beat goaltenders from the top of the right faceoff circle. Whitecloud’s sweet spot if you will.
Boy, did Zach Whitecloud ever pick that corner. 😨 pic.twitter.com/0S3s95oCkv
— NHL (@NHL) December 13, 2021
For Whitecloud, this is less an attribute of his game and rather just his assignment from head coach Peter DeBoer.
“I think our job as a D-core is to help contribute on the offensive side of the puck and make good decisions and be outlets for our forwards,” said Whitecloud.
Vegas Golden Knights Defensive Line Combinations
Right now Whitecloud is paired up with Shea Theodore on the Golden Knight’s second defensive pairing. Pietrangelo and Hague occupy the top pairing and Brayden McNabb and Dylan Coghlan are currently on the third. With Martinez set to return soon, Coghlan will likely be the odd-man out as the Golden Knights roll with a fully-heathy defensive core for the first time all season. But the return of Martinez could also change things for Whitecloud’s role.
Martinez and Theodore have been frequent defensive partners in the past. But with Whitecloud’s emergence, DeBoer could opt to stay with the current top-four defensive rotation. Overall the Golden Knights have so many options on defense even when not fully healthy that it is ridiculous and a good problem to have.
There is Whitecloud, other young defensemen such as Hague, Coghlan, and even Daniil Miromanov. Veterans such as McNabb and Martinez. Ben Hutton has been a reliable option since being signed as a UFA. And of course, Theodore and Pietrangelo lead the charge as the two stalwarts on the back end.
The Future for Whitecloud
In late October, Whitecloud signed a six-year extension which will kick in next season and have an AAV of $2.75 million. Six years is a lot for a defenseman who has only played in the NHL for about one and a half seasons. But this extension proves that Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon as well as the team as a whole, have put their faith in Whitecloud to be at least a top-six defenseman for them from now until 2028.
Without getting too into detail on what the framework of the Golden Knights defense could look like next season, Brayden McNabb is a pending UFA. The emergence of not only Whitecloud, but Hague, Coghlan, and potentially Miromanov next season could force McNabb, an original Golden Knight, out of a job.
— Owen Krepps (@OKrepps85) January 28, 2022
Whitecloud and the Vegas Golden Knights will be back in action Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning at 4:00 pm.