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Knights’ crowded blue line in need of clarity during offseason

There’s suddenly growing intrigue with how the Golden Knights’ blue line will shape up next season.

The Knights have their top seven blue liners under contract, and that includes the expected departure of 36-year-old Alec Martinez as an unrestricted free agent.

Acquiring defenseman Noah Hanifin before the NHL trade deadline set the table for the likely exit of Martinez. It also provided clarity to what the Knights’ defense could look like next season.

Or did it?

Seven players with NHL experience are signed for next season. Eight if you include Kaedan Korczak, who appeared in 26 games this season. The 23-year-old is a restricted free agent this summer.

The room is already crowded, and Korczak needs to be paid.

The Knights need to see what they have in the organization at some point, and that time might be approaching sooner rather than later.

Korczak is one of those players who will get an extended look during training camp to compete for a roster spot. The other is 22-year-old Lukas Cormier, the Knights’ third-round pick from 2020 who impressed in a two-game stint this season.

“I thought (Korczak) did a really good job for us. Added some pace to our blue line in terms of moving pucks,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He’ll push for a job next year.”

Those two pushing for playing time will open the door for competition and could make a veteran defenseman available in the market.

It also would be an avenue for the Knights to explore if they’re looking for more salary cap space to re-sign right wing Jonathan Marchessault and maybe another unrestricted free agent set to hit the open market July 1.

The Knights will have three defensemen entering the final year of their contracts. A quick look at each of them:

Nic Hague

The 25-year-old, carrying a cap hit of $2.294 million, is set to be a restricted free agent in 2025.

Hague is one of three remaining players still with the organization from the Knights’ inaugural entry draft in 2017. He had just 12 points in 73 games this season and will hit 300 NHL games next season.

The Knights have benefited from having the so-called best third pairing in the league with Hague and Zach Whitecloud. Injuries to both hampered them this season, and both were healthy scratches in March.

Alex Pietrangelo’s illness and appendectomy opened the door for Hague to return to the lineup after a one-game hiatus and be paired with Hanifin.

The Knights outshot opponents 10-8 when the two were together in the regular season.

Early indications point to Hague returning with Whitecloud next season with a healthy Pietrangelo, but there’s intrigue with how Hague and Hanifin played together to create different combinations.

Brayden McNabb

He might be the most underrated player on the roster, and he proved it in the playoffs with five points in the seven-game series against Dallas.

The 33-year-old McNabb, one of the five remaining Original Misfits, carries a cap hit of $2.85 million next season.

McNabb is coming off a career-high 26 points and played all 82 games, but he isn’t going to be judged on his offensive prowess.

His defensive game is still strong, shown by the team-best plus-18 at five-on-five, and it showed no matter who he was paired with.

“For me, I can’t try to do too much,” McNabb said. “I just have to stick to my game and hopefully help out with whoever I’m playing with, whether it’s communicating on the ice or keep the pulse on whoever’s out there.”

There’s still value for a player like McNabb to bring physicality and shut-down defense, especially when he seems to have gotten better with age.

Shea Theodore

This is the wild card.

The Knights were more than fortunate to get Theodore on a seven-year deal with a $5.2 million cap hit for seven years.

Theodore has taken strides to becoming a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman and looked like one early this season before an upper-body injury that required surgery sidelined him for three months. He still finished with 42 points in 47 regular-season games.

The postseason was a different story, as Theodore was held without a point and struggled at both ends of the ice.

The Knights will be in position to offer Theodore an eight-year contract. They are also in position to see if another team will want to make an eight-year offer.

Korczak will not be waivers exempt next season, meaning if the Knights send him back to Henderson at any point, he could be claimed by another team.

If the Knights make another move this offseason, don’t be surprised if Theodore is the target.

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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