Coach Gerard Gallant had the same reaction many Golden Knights fans did upon learning popular defenseman Nate Schmidt would serve a 20-game suspension to open the season.
“Surprise like anybody else,” Gallant said.
Gallant said he was out of the loop as Schmidt took his violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy to an arbitrator before ultimately losing the case.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Gallant said. “I read Nate’s comments. I read the team’s comments about it and I’m supporting Nate Schmidt 100 percent and we’re moving on.”
Players were unavailable Thursday as they went through off-ice testing.
Schmidt will be allowed to practice until the regular season begins. For now, the team is also down another defenseman as restricted free agent Shea Theodore remains unsigned.
Gallant isn’t sweating his lineup just yet.
“Do I wish I had Nate Schmidt?” he asked. “Of course I do. But somebody else gets an opportunity.”
That could actually include one of the prospects that shined at rookie camp last week.
Gallant was particularly high on 19-year-old Nicolas Hague.
“I think he had three or four goals in the three games,” Gallant said of the 6-foot-6-inch, 19-year-old. “He looked really good and comfortable and he came such a long way from last year. He looks like a comfortable guy out there on the ice. His skating is 100 percent better, so he’s developed a lot in the last season. He’s a big strong kid so he might have a chance to play some games this year, you never know.”
Gallant was also complimentary of smooth-skating 19-year-old Erik Brannstrom.
“Brannstrom skates as well as anyone in the rookie tournament,” Gallant said. “He’s fast, he’s quick, he scored a beautiful goal. We like what they’re bringing and they’re getting better every year. They’re going to push guys and challenge guys for jobs and that’s what it’s all about when young prospects develop and push the other guys to be better players. That’s what makes good organizations. I was real happy with those guys.”
Not so fast
New acquisitions Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty appear destined to play together on the second line, though Gallant said it’s not a certainty.
If they do, it creates a major question about what happens with Erik Haula after he scored 29 goals as the center of that unit last season.
Haula said this week he believes he is a top-six forward, but also insists he’s a center.
Gallant said it’s far too early to worry about who fits where in the lineup, indicating every spot is open after the returning top forward line.
“Haula can play both wing and center so I don’t see any issue with that,” Gallant said. “I’m reading a little bit about Haula being pushed to the third line and that’s not fair. … Guys are going to come to camp and you look at the makeup of our team. Erik Haula is a hell of player who had a hell of a year for us last year. We’ll see where he’s going to fit, but I’m not worried about it one bit. If he’s playing second line center or second line wing or third line, it’s not an issue to me right now. Guys are going to go out there and earn their spots.”
Gallant doesn’t always tune in when his players have news conferences, but he did make an exception for Pacioretty on Wednesday.
He wanted to hear what Pacioretty, whom Gallant worked with as an assistant for the Canadiens from 2012 to 2014, had to say about coming to Las Vegas.
“You could see the relief in him,” Gallant said. “Montreal’s a real tough place to play. When you’re playing well and the team’s winning, it’s the best place in the world to play. But when you’re having a tough time like they did last year and you’re the captain of that hockey team, (it’s tough). I think (Pacioretty) is going to be so relieved to come in here and not have to be the big guy on the team, just go out and be a good hockey player for our team. I think you’ll see a big difference with him this year. I think he’ll enjoy himself and have a lot of fun with our group.”