While the 2019-20 NHL regular season is currently on hold, that didn’t stop the Vegas Golden Knights locking up a key piece of their future today.
It has been two weeks since the collective sports world was brought to a shuddering halt by the coronavirus pandemic, with the Vegas Golden Knights and the rest of the NHL currently on hiatus.
However, the Vegas front office has still been hard at work and some of the fruits of their labor were revealed earlier when General Manager Kelly McCrimmon announced a new extension for defenseman Zach Whitecloud.
Whitecloud signed a new two-year deal which will carry an average annual cap hit of $725,000, committing him to the Golden Knights through 2021-22.
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The 23-year-old was set to become a restricted free agent in the off-season, so the Knights have moved swiftly to secure what they consider to be a key part of their blueline.
Beginning the regular season as one of five rookie defensemen hoping to win a roster spot out of Training Camp, Whitecloud picked up an injury in preseason and was forced to begin the year in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves.
Through 35 games with the Wolves this year, Whitecloud posted seven points (two goals, five assists) with a -9 rating.
The rookie then earned a call-up to the NHL and proceeded to make his season debut on Feb. 2, in a shutout win over the Nashville Predators.
Whitecloud quickly established himself as a reliable presence on the third defensive pairing alongside mostly Nick Holden, giving the Golden Knights some real depth on the blueline.
Although he only recorded one point (one assist) in 16 games prior to the NHL going on hiatus, Whitecloud impressed with his mature approach to the game coupled with his wise head on young shoulders.
And some of the underlying stats really tell you all you need to know about how impressive Whitecloud’s body of work in the NHL this year has been.
For instance, the blueliner ranks in the top 20 of defensemen in the NHL when it comes to takeaways per 60 since his call-up to the NHL on Feb. 1, according to Evolving Hockey.
Furthermore, Whitecloud also leads all Golden Knights blueliners in goals against per 60 minutes at even-strength (1.43), while he has also allowed the fewest shots against (20.58), the fewest scoring chances against (16.01) and the fewest high-danger chances against (5.14) of any player on the Golden Knights roster, per Jesse Granger of The Athletic.
Impressive stuff indeed.
And the most exciting aspect of this deal is the fact that Whitecloud is only just starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
Signed by the Golden Knights as an undrafted free agent in 2018 after finishing his collegiate career with Bemidji State, Whitecloud was a mainstay of the Wolves team that reached the Calder Cup Finals in 2018-19, putting up 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 74 games in addition to three goals and 12 assists for 15 points in the postseason.
Despite suffering the setback of an injury out of Training Camp, Whitecloud has really elevated his game this year and his main strength, his impressive hockey IQ, has really come to the forefront.
Clearly well-suited to DeBoer’s system, Whitecloud still has plenty of time to develop and further hone his skills and learn his craft, with the off-season going to play a critical role in the defenseman’s continued development.
This is also a huge win for the Golden Knights when you consider the business side of things.
For starters, Vegas will now get a promising young blueliner under control for two more years with a more than manageable cap hit, keeping the majority of the defense intact for next year and beyond.
Veteran defenseman Nick Holden signed a team-friendly deal at the Trade Deadline with an average annual value of $1.7 million, and Holden and Whitecloud could make a real solid pairing for next season.
With Alec Martinez also under contract next year, not to mention the likes of Nic Hague and Dylan Coghlan both waiting in the wings for their opportunity, the Golden Knights have their blueline carefully constructed for the next few years.
Whitecloud’s new deal will allow them to likely let Jon Merrill walk in free agency, while it wouldn’t be surprising if Deryk Engelland retires in the summer.
Plus, depending on what the salary cap for 2020-21 will be once we have emerged from this current period of uncertainty, the Golden Knights could still go out and pursue a big hitter in free agency in Alex Pietrangelo should they so wish.
But, in Zach Whitecloud, the Vegas Golden Knights have locked down one of their most promising young defensemen which will help them on the ice and off it when it comes to cap flexibility.