A different energy, an aura of expectation, permeated the Vegas Golden Knights’ rookie camp as it officially opened the preseason.
There were the usual groups of players on the ice at City National Arena—non-roster invitees trying to earn a contract, recent draft picks knowing they’ll return to junior leagues and players on the brink of making the team—but a couple of skaters stood out.
Cameras followed every move made by Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, the highest-rated prospects in the organization. Fans also fixated on the pair, knowing that an investment that started before the Golden Knights had played a single NHL game could soon pay off.
“This is the first year where you really feel there’s a handful of guys that might be on our team this year,” VGK General Manager Kelly McCrimmon says of the rookies.
Glass and Hague were drafted in June 2017, two of the first four picks by a franchise whose age was still measured in months. Glass was the team’s first pick, sixth overall, on the first night of the draft, while Hague had to wait an extra day before going third in the second round.
Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom, both selected between Glass and Hague, have since been traded in deals for Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, respectively. That leaves Glass and Hague as the unquestioned top NHL-ready prospects in the organization.
“Being that high of a pick, they picked you for a reason, so you want to prove them right,” Glass says.
The Golden Knights’ immediate success allowed them to put rookie-reliance on hold for a while. Glass returned to his junior team after both of the past two training camps, while Hague spent last season with the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League after a year in juniors.
Now, as the Golden Knights find themselves in a salary-cap crunch, it’s time to let the kids play. “If you can develop your own players and they grow up in your organizations, it gives you something extra,” McCrimmon says. “That’s where you always want the core of your team to come from, if possible.”
Once the veterans arrived in camp, Glass and Hague continued to command as much attention as anyone on the team, but they’re hardly locks to make the NHL roster. Both already profile as above-average regulars, but breaking into the league at 20 years old is never easy, regardless of minor-league pedigree.
In Glass’ case, there might not even be an available spot on the roster. Vegas has a deadly top six that’s unlikely to change, leaving Glass to fight for one of the bottom-six forward positions.
All indications are that the team would rather keep him at center—his natural position—than shift him to the wing. That would mean he’d either need to beat out Cody Eakin or secure a spot on the fourth line. Eakin is a cornerstone of the team coming off of a career year, and the physical, hitting-focused fourth line could be an odd fit for a developing playmaker.
So Glass is likely to start the year in the AHL again after lighting the league up at the end of last season. “My goal is to be in the NHL,” Glass says. “The past two years obviously being sent down to juniors kind of sucked.”
For Hague, it’s less a space issue than a full-on roster battle. The Golden Knights have stated their intention to have a rookie on the blue line, but Hague faces serious competition. Jimmy Schuldt and Zach Whitecloud are pounding at the door after getting a brief peek inside the past two years, and Dylan Coghlan and Jake Bischoff are also in contention for an opportunity. Any of the five youngsters could win the spot out of training camp, and it might come down to who performs best this preseason.
“It’s there; everyone knows there’s an opportunity for someone to make it, and it’s exciting,” Hague says. “We all want to play, and up until this summer it’s been a full blue line back there. It’s motivating to know that there’s going to be a younger guy back there this year.”
No conclusions should be made if Glass and/or Hague miss the cut. Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore were sent to the AHL to start the 2017-2018 season. Tuch played three games and Theodore eight before both were recalled to the NHL—permanently.
No matter how exciting the young prospects might look in camp, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Marc-André Fleury and Nate Schmidt will surely lead the 2019-2020 Golden Knights. That means Glass and Hague won’t need to be stars when they arrive in the NHL. The structure of this team allows them to ease into the NHL without unfair expectations.
They’ll both get their chance, even if it’s not on October 2 when the Golden Knights begin the season at T-Mobile Arena against the San Jose Sharks. The future is closer than it’s ever been for the Golden Knights.
Three veterans poised to break out
Perhaps no player improved from the beginning of last season to the end more than Merrill. Struggling at the outset when paired on defense with Nick Holden, he turned into a possession monster with Colin Miller by the end.
It's still up in the air where the 27-year-old Merrill plays this year. He could play on the left side with Deryk Engelland, with a rookie defenseman or back with Holden. But he could also earn top-four minutes alongside either Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt or Brayden McNabb, and that could put him in position to have a career year ahead of unrestricted free agency this summer.
Hopes were high for Nosek after the 2018 playoffs and preseason, but he started slow, and his entire third line struggled. He rebounded by the end of the year to post career highs in goals (eight), assists (nine) and points (17) with an elite 62.12 faceoff percentage.
Nosek could center the fourth line this season between William Carrier and Ryan Reaves, giving him ample time to show his mettle in a contract year before he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Pirri finished last season with 12 goals and 18 points in 31 games—a 32-goal, 48-point pace over a full season. It’s not the first time in his career he has shown a scoring touch—he had 22 goals over 49 games with Florida during the 2014-2015 season.
Still, he has only 47 assists in 259 career games and doesn’t provide much defensive value. He signed a two-year contract with Vegas in the offseason and looks like he has the inside track on the third-line left wing job.
Steadier playing time could help bring out consistency in the 28 year old, especially if he works his way onto the power-play unit.