The smile beamed across Zach Whitecloud’s face as teammate Alec Martinez kept trying to flip pucks over his stick Thursday at City National Arena.
The Golden Knights defenseman missed those moments. Not just the end-of-practice drills the blue line does together, but the camaraderie it brings. The jokes in the locker room it leads to. Whitecloud wasn’t part of that for pretty much the entire first month of the season.
He is now.
Following surgery to fix an upper-body injury he suffered in the preseason, Whitecloud skated with the Knights in a normal jersey for the second straight day Thursday after being cleared to take contact again. Coach Bruce Cassidy said he isn’t sure if Whitecloud will make his return Friday against the San Jose Sharks, but his time appears close after a long wait.
“It’s just good to get back in a normal routine and be back on the same schedule as these guys,” Whitecloud said. “Just getting back to having some fun.”
This isn’t the first long rehab Whitecloud has done with the Knights. He’s missed 23 games each of the past two years.
He missed close to a month in the beginning of the 2021-22 season after blocking a shot with his hand, then sat out almost all of February with a broken bone in his foot. He was out nearly two months last season after Boston Bruins left wing Taylor fell into his right leg.
That experience helped him a little this time, when he needed to recover from a hit by Colorado left wing Kurtis MacDermid during his fourth shift of the preseason Sept. 25. But only somewhat.
“The process never seems to get easier,” Whitecloud said. “It never seems like time’s going quicker.”
It took awhile, but Whitecloud started skating with the Knights again Saturday.
He spent that morning skate and Tuesday’s practice in a red no-contact jersey to ease his transition back into the full group. He graduated to a normal sweater for Wednesday’s morning skate and kept the same look Thursday.
Cassidy said Whitecloud has been cleared to travel on the Knights’ five-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Washington, D.C. And he hasn’t been ruled out for the Sharks game at T-Mobile Arena, depending on how he feels Friday morning.
“He’s a lot closer,” Cassidy said.
Getting Whitecloud back would be a huge boost to a Knights blue line that’s fought through injuries all season.
Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore are the only two defensemen who have played in every game. The Knights’ ninth player on the depth chart, 22-year-old Kaedan Korczak, already has seven appearances.
The team entered Thursday with the most points in the NHL (23) despite that. But Whitecloud would get the Knights one step closer to reuniting the defense corps that was the envy of the league last season.
He’s a smooth operator who helps the team break out of its own zone with ease. He makes smart plays in the offensive zone when given space. He’s tough and physical in front of his net, something that makes life easier on the Knights’ goaltenders at five-on-five and on the penalty kill.
It’s unclear whether he will get to make his season debut Friday or later. Either way, he’s happy to be around again. The Knights are glad to have him at the rink again, too.
“It’s definitely not easy being out of the lineup,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “We know the work he’s put in. It’s good to see him getting rewarded a little bit.”
Who: Sharks at Golden Knights
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: KMCC-34, KnightTime+
Radio: KKGK (1340 AM, 98.9 FM)
Line: Knights -550; total 6½