BUFFALO, N.Y. — Zach Whitecloud was doing fine in college. But he was looking to broaden his hockey horizons.
The NHL is a tough graduate school to get into, and Whitecloud will continue his education with the Golden Knights, who signed the 21-year-old defenseman from Bemidji State University to a three-year entry level contract Thursday. He is the first college free agent signed by the franchise.
“I just want to learn as much as I can and fit in with these guys,” Whitecloud said Saturday before the Knights defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in a shootout at KeyBank Center. “I’m not worried about how much I play.”
Whitecloud was not in the lineup against the Sabres. He will practice for the first time with the team Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where the Knights play Monday.
Knights defenseman Brad Hunt also played at Bemidji State.
“Beavers got to stick together,” said Hunt, referring to the school’s nickname. “I’ve talked to him on the phone, and we just want him to get comfortable and help the team however he can.”
The Knights were competing with a number of teams for Whitecloud. He said he chose the Knights because they already have established a culture of success and because of his relationship with assistant general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who has known Whitecloud since his childhood in Brandon, Manitoba.
“It was definitely a factor when you’re comfortable with the people in the organization,” he said. “But when you see what they’ve done this season and the success they’ve had, as a player, you want to be part of that.”
Smith sent home
The Knights sent forward Reilly Smith back to Las Vegas on Saturday to continue his treatment for the upper-body injury he suffered Tuesday in Columbus.
“If he’s not going to play, it’s better for him to be back in Vegas, where the doctors can monitor him,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
Forward James Neal missed his sixth straight game with a hand injury.
“He’s back in Vegas skating on his own, and he’s still day to day,” Gallant said.
Schmidt plays, Merrill sits
With Nate Schmidt back in the lineup and the Knights with seven defensemen, Jon Merrill was a healthy scratch.
Schmidt was paired with Brayden McNabb. Hunt, who was skating with Merrill the past four games, was with Colin Miller. The paring of Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore remained unchanged.
McNabb, Theodore milestones
McNabb played in his 300th career NHL game, and Theodore appeared in his 100th.
The Whitecloud file
Who: Zach Whitecloud, Golden Knights rookie defenseman
Height/Weight: 6 feet 1 inch, 196 pounds
Hometown: Brandon, Manitoba
College: Bemidji State
2017-18 stats: 36 games, four goals, 14 assists
Did you know: Whitecloud has worked during the offseason in ranching and farming in his native Manitoba.