The excitement for the arrival of hockey in Vegas this fall is real. Not only can the Golden Knights help grow the game in a new market, they get the city to themselves for a while before the Oakland Raiders and the NFL arrive. As the first major league professional team in town, they have a golden opportunity to capture the imagination of the sports fans in the region.
Many of the early inroads the organization makes in the community will come from marketing and general enthusiasm over the expansion club. But the product on the ice also has to deliver at some point. And that will be a challenge in the first couple of years.
At the moment, Vegas has 12 defensemen under contract. To put that in perspective, NHL teams tend to roster seven. And the Golden Knights’ most prolific offensive weapon up front — James Neal — most likely will get moved by the trade deadline this season.
As a soon-to-be 30-year-old who averages 26.4 goals per season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Neal likely won’t be in Vegas when the team starts making playoff runs anyway. But he carries a lot of value to clubs that are currently contending. So it makes sense for general manager George McPhee to swing a deal for more prospects at some point.
In fact, prospects are what the franchise is all about right now. And while their talent pool of unproven players with upside is smaller than every other team in the NHL at the moment, the Knights managed to stockpile a few picks this summer — many of which they turned into assets along the blue line or weapons at the coveted center position. So here’s a look at the top five youngsters in the system as the organization heads into its inaugural season …
Cody Glass, center, Portland (WHL)
(selected No. 6 overall in the 2017 draft)
It’s no surprise that McPhee used the first draft pick in team history on a pivot. Like the majority of clubs in the NHL, Vegas is in the market for a true No. 1 center. Glass may very well be that guy, but that won’t be known for a while. What is known is that he’s a gifted, two-way player who just erupted for 32 goals and 94 points during his second full season in the WHL.
Glass is a smart skater who scouts feel is skilled at driving possession and making the guys around him better. And, while he still needs time to develop before reaching the NHL, the fact that he’s already drawing comparisons to Mark Scheifele can only be a good thing.
Alex Tuch, right wing, Boston College
(No. 18 overall in 2014, by the Minnesota Wild)
The Wild didn’t want to part ways with Tuch, but that was the price to pay if they wanted to keep Vegas from taking a player like Matt Dumba in the expansion draft.
The 21-year-old out of Syracuse is the only player on this list with any NHL experience — albeit just six games with Minnesota last season. And he’s also the only guy who doesn’t play center or defense. But his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame and willingness to set up shop around the net make him extremely valuable as the Knights power winger of the future.
Nick Suzuki, center, Owen Sound (OHL)
(No. 13 overall in 2017)
With the second selection in franchise history, Vegas took … another center. Given the demand for impact players at that position, though, it makes sense.
Like Glass, Suzuki brings a solid two-way game to the middle of the ice. And he can also put the puck in the net. His 45 goals ranked fourth in the entire OHL — ahead of bigger names like Owen Tippett and Taylor Raddysh — and his 96 total points ranked fifth. That production highlights his on-ice creativity and impressive work ethic, making him a key piece to the puzzle for the Golden Knights.
Erik Brannstrom, defense, HV71 (Sweden)
(No. 15 overall in 2017)
Through a series of expansion draft deals, Vegas added the 13th and 15th picks in this summer’s entry draft. And that allowed them to scoop up Brannstrom with what ended up being their third selection of the first round.
Similar to how the Knights’ propensity for gathering centers is indicative of the way teams like to construct their rosters in today’s NHL, the selection of Brannstrom is a reminder of the premium placed on puck-moving defenders around the league. There’s very little he doesn’t do well, and his game has drawn comparisons to Kimmo Timonen and Torey Krug. The only real knock on him is that he’s slightly undersized at 5-foot-10, but that will be quickly overlooked if he can translate his skill set to the NHL level.
Nicolas Hague, defense, Mississauga (OHL)
(No. 34 overall in 2017)
If there’s any lingering concern that Vegas gave up too much size along the back end in Brannstrom, the selection of Hague should more than make up for it. At 6-5 and 216 pounds, he brings an imposing frame and more of an old-school, physical approach to the blue line.
There are some scouts who have concerns about Hague’s skating, but others note that he still has time to improve that area of his game. And his hockey sense and long reach may be able to help make up for any perceived lack of speed.