Ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2022-23 season opener on Oct. 11, The Hockey Writers will break down this year’s roster by position group. Today, we get things started with the club’s defensive corps.
It was a tumultuous off-season for the Golden Knights, save (mostly) for their blue line. Forwards were lost to trades, and goalies were lost via hip surgery. But the defense will be the same once Nicolas Hague ends his contract holdout and agrees to terms with the club.
That’s great news for Vegas’ stability and depth, but is their back end really all it’s cracked up to be? Given the star-laden and costly nature of the unit (there are six defensemen on the books for $25.7 million), they ranked 15th in the NHL in goals allowed per game (2.98), which is underwhelming. Injuries are the go-to excuse, but blueline pillars Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore played 80 and 78 games last season, respectively.
Here’s a look at each member of the Golden Knights’ back end and how they stack up heading into the 2022-23 season:
We are two years into the Pietrangelo deal, and the 32-year-old has come as advertised; he’s a dependable defender and power-play quarterback who can log big minutes while remaining relatively healthy. Still, we’d be forgiven if the Stanley Cup winner’s two seasons in Vegas have left us wanting more, particularly given his $8.8 million salary in what should be the prime of his long-term contract.
Pietrangelo’s final season in St. Louis produced 16 goals and 52 points in 70 games, leading to his third career top-five finish in the Norris Trophy race. In the two years since then, the former Blues captain netted no votes in 2020-21 and finished 15th in voting last season. While there’s nothing wrong with the 13 goals and 44 points he posted a season ago, he still managed eight more points in 10 fewer games just two years before. A dominant season from the former No. 4 overall pick would be a great way to elevate the defensive corps.
At age 26, Theodore’s season checked all boxes for a young defenseman forging a path towards his prime years. He set a new career-high in goals (14) and points (52) thanks, in part, to a bump in ice time (23:08 per game). But he was perhaps dragged down by his team’s overall performance; he did not merit any Norris votes after finishing sixth in voting in each of the past two seasons.
While notable, the lack of Norris votes last season shouldn’t change Theodore’s trajectory. The 27-year-old will likely be paired alongside Brayden McNabb, possibly seeing some more power-play time along with increased ice time. As such, another modest scoring bump – along with a possible jump into the top-10 in scoring among NHL defenseman (he was 14th last year) – could be in the cards.
No one is more excited for this season than Alec Martinez. Last season, his first after signing a three-year, $15.75 million contract to remain in Vegas, was disastrous. The 35-year-old seemed to be working through a nagging lower-body injury when, just 11 games into the season, he suffered a freak injury – his face was accidentally slashed by Minnesota Wild Brandon Duhaime’s skate blade.
Following his recovery – the blade narrowly missed his eye – Martinez was back in the lineup by the end of March but still only managed 26 games. It remains to be seen whether the two-time Cup winner, now in his mid-30s without playing more than 53 games since 2018-19, can stay healthy and effective for a full season. If he can, he will be a huge boost to the team.
As is the case with just about everything he does, McNabb’s contract talks with the Golden Knights were handled quietly and under the radar. McNabb could have waited to hit the open market but instead agreed to a three-year, $8.55 million extension that was announced alongside those for Logan Thompson and Michael Amadio in late January.
In that sense, McNabb has been the ideal stay-at-home defenseman, serving as a back-end stabilizer while his more celebrated partners join the rush and contribute offensively. Quietly, the 31-year-old now sits fourth in games played in franchise history and first in penalty minutes. The four full seasons he’s spent as a Golden Knight (not counting the shortened 2020-21 campaign) all produced between nine to 18 points in 69 to 81 games. We can expect another steady season somewhere in that range.
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In training camp, Zach Whitecloud had complimentary words for new head coach Bruce Cassidy’s defensive schemes, highlighting the “simplicity of the defensive zone” as a big change under the former Boston Bruins bench boss. Whether this is genuine praise or currying favor, it highlights how the 25-year-old could benefit from playing under Cassidy.
Whitecloud held a clear, consistent third-pair role under Pete DeBoer, and that likely won’t change given who’s ahead of him on the depth chart. What could change, however, is the balance of minutes as well as power-play opportunities. Pietrangelo and Martinez are getting older, so it only makes sense to offer more opportunities to younger blueliners, particularly with Hague still unsigned.
The two-year, $1.7 million extension for Ben Hutton last March came as a surprise. It’s not that the well-traveled 29-year-old didn’t deserve to be rewarded amidst a 58-game season in which he filled several key roles on the blue line, but committing multiple years to a depth defenseman left little room for young prospects on the rise to crack a lineup that was already jammed.
Essentially, the Golden Knights are paying $850,000 in each of the next two seasons for an insurance policy they probably hope they don’t have to use much. In a perfect world, Hague will join the team and solidify their defensive depth. But even beyond the restricted free agent holdout, Kaedan Korczak, Jake Bischoff, and the injured Daniil Miromanov could all be in line for opportunities at some point this season. Things would be even more chaotic if Dylan Coghlan, traded in the Max Pacioretty deal, was still around.
There are only three unsigned restricted free agents remaining in the league, and one happens to be in Vegas. There’s the sense that the club will work out a contract with the 23-year-old once the season gets underway, but it’s hardly ideal that Hague will have missed a full training camp under a new head coach by that point. Last season, he averaged nearly the same ice time as Whitecloud, so his value to the organization is considerable – even on a deep blue line.
Assuming Hague does sign sometime after the real games get underway, missing training camp will have to be considered in determining his role. After Theodore finally ended his holdout late in training camp ahead of the 2018-19 season, he struggled with one assist and a minus-7 rating over his first nine games. Hague might have to work his way back into a top-six slot alongside Pietrangelo.
All told, age will likely become a factor among a group that relies on the contributions of Pietrangelo and Martinez but should be offset somewhat by Theodore, Whitecloud, and, once he’s on board, Hague. Provided the blue line stays healthy, this should be a strong, deep unit that could be buoyed by Cassidy’s new system and should be a major asset to whoever wins the battle in net.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.