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Golden Knights sign Zach Whitecloud to 2-year extension

Updated March 22, 2020 - 5:26 pm

The NHL season has been suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Golden Knights rookie Zach Whitecloud still received some job security Sunday during his self-quarantine.

The defenseman signed a two-year extension with the Knights, the team he selected as a college free agent in 2018. The 23-year-old’s new deal carries an annual average value of $725,000.

“It’s very humbling to be able to sign an extension with them and keep working toward that ultimate goal (of winning a Stanley Cup),” Whitecloud said.

The contract prevents Whitecloud from reaching restricted free agency this offseason, where he would have been without arbitration rights and ineligible for an offer sheet. It also locks down a promising young player for the Knights.

Whitecloud made his season debut Feb. 1 against the Nashville Predators — 667 days after his NHL debut — and quickly became a Knights regular on the third pair. He appeared in 16 of the team’s last 18 games before the coronavirus outbreak halted the NHL season.

His poise and maturity impressed coach Pete DeBoer and his teammates.

“Coming in, he’s done a great job,” defense partner Nick Holden said. “(He’s) poised with the puck. Going back on pucks, he makes great plays. He’s vocal for a young guy.”

Whitecloud developed those skills on a slow climb up the hockey ladder. By his own admission, he “sucked” until he was 18. He didn’t play in a prestigious junior league and went to Bemidji State University in 2016 expecting to stay for the entirety of his four-year degree.

Instead, he improved rapidly enough to leave after his sophomore season as a promising NHL prospect.

“Zach’s a late bloomer,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “But what Zach has done is soak up every experience that’s been put in front of him.”

Those experiences include his NHL debut in 2018, his run to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Final with the Chicago Wolves in 2019 and his first extended opportunity with the Knights in 2020.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement. Whitecloud always will be more steady than flashy, but his offense — one point in 16 games — has yet to develop at the NHL level.

“Zach has shown the ability to settle in, adjust to his surroundings and play a very efficient, quiet game,” McCrimmon said. “That’s really what the makeup of Zach’s game looks like, and that’s what he’s continued to work on and continued to perfect and now is doing at a level that has made himself an NHL player.”

The extension gives the Knights a projected salary cap hit of $72,625,000 for the 2020-21 season. The team’s remaining restricted free agents are forwards Chandler Stephenson, Nick Cousins and Nicolas Roy, and its remaining unrestricted free agents are forwards Ryan Reaves and Tomas Nosek, defensemen Jon Merrill and Deryk Engelland and goaltender Robin Lehner.

It’s unknown how much next season’s salary cap limit will be affected by the NHL’s stoppage. This year’s limit was $81.5 million.

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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