Golden Knights thin on defense with training camp looming

Updated September 4, 2018 - 5:20 pm

Defense was projected to be a position of strength for the Golden Knights entering their second season.

General manager George McPhee used words like “deep” and “very sound” this summer in describing the unit.

“We like our defense,” he said July 1.

But with Nate Schmidt suspended by the NHL for the first 20 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance and Shea Theodore on the verge of a contract holdout, the Knights face a dilemma on defense with training camp opening Sept. 13.

“The coaching staff will address that,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said Tuesday after an informal practice at City National Arena. “Our job as players is to go out and make sure we’re ready for Game 1. That’s our mentality, and we’ll let the coaches handle that.”

Schmidt partnered with McNabb for much of last season, and they were utilized by coach Gerard Gallant in a shutdown role against the opposing team’s top forward line.

Schmidt led the Knights in average ice time (22:14) and had five goals and 31 assists in 76 games. He chipped in three goals and four assists and logged an average of 24:25 in ice time during the postseason.

Short of trading for another defenseman — fire up another round of rumors about Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson — the Knights don’t have many options to fill Schmidt’s spot.

Theodore appears to be a natural replacement, and he took on an increased role last season.

But the 23-year-old restricted free agent remains unsigned, and it’s not clear whether the news of the suspension could help move along negotiations.

Colin Miller is another option and plays the same side of the ice (right) as Schmidt.

Miller led the team’s defensemen with 10 goals and 41 points and was rewarded with a four-year contract this summer that made him the Knights’ highest-paid defenseman ($3.875 million annual average salary).

With Schmidt and Theodore out of the mix, the Knights are set to enter training camp with six defensemen on NHL contracts: McNabb, Miller, Deryk Engelland, free-agent signing Nick Holden, Brad Hunt and Jon Merrill.

McPhee previously stated the Knights expect to carry eight defensemen, which opens the door for a rookie to make the team out of training camp.

Zach Whitecloud, who played one NHL game after signing as a free agent out of Bemidji State, and Erik Brannstrom, the No. 15 overall pick in the 2017 draft, skated at Tuesday’s practice.

Both are scheduled to participate in the team’s rookie camp starting Thursday and could get a long look from the coaching staff along with 19-year-old Nicolas Hague, who was named the top defenseman in Canadian major-juniors last season.

Jake Bischoff and Griffin Reinhart, who played in the American Hockey League last season, also could be in the mix.

A less likely option at this stage would be to bring back unrestricted free agent Luca Sbisa on a professional tryout contract.

“As a player, you’ve still got a job to do and you have to execute and perform, so that’s kind of my mentality,” McNabb said. “But it definitely is nice kind of knowing what’s expected of you.”

More Golden Knights: Follow all of our Golden Knights coverage online at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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