How Zach Whitecloud became a NHL mainstay

Story courtesy of Las Vegas Sun

The extent to which Zach Whitecloud’s game has evolved was never more evident than on Jan. 18, the third game of this season. The Golden Knights led by a goal late against the Arizona Coyotes. They had just taken a penalty, setting up a 6-on-4 with the game on line.

And there was Whitecloud, the 24-year-old Vegas defenseman, one of the four players asked to defend the lead. He did, helping the Golden Knights keep the puck out of the net until they could score an empty-netter. Vegas won 4-2.

“He deserved to be out there,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said after the game. “He’s a guy we’re not afraid to put out in situations like that late in a game.”

This is a player who went to college with the intent of getting a degree instead of turning pro, and who went almost two years between NHL call-ups. And he was never regarded as one of the Golden Knights’ top prospects.

He made his league debut a few months shy of three years ago, a month out of college and not knowing what was coming next. Now, Whitecloud has a key role on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, playing more than he ever has, and better than he ever has.

But he wants to make one thing clear.

“The person hasn’t changed,” Whitecloud said. “The person hasn’t changed at all. I’m still that small-town kid from Manitoba who just always stays humble and hard-working, and making sure I’m a good teammate first.”

Whitecloud is humble, deferential, confident and eager all at the same time. That helps explain his journey to the NHL.

Leaving Canada

Whitecloud was an alternate captain in 2015 with the Virden Oil Capitals of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. He had a strong season but was running out of junior eligibility and didn’t know what was next.

The logical step for a future NHL player in Canada is to play major-junior, which in Whitecloud’s case would have been the Western Hockey League. Whitecloud admits major-junior wasn’t right for him, as he would take more time to develop than would be possible in a league with an age cap of 20.

He said he didn’t start turning into a potential future pro until he was about 19 or 20. For players like that, NCAA hockey starts looking attractive.

“For me and where I was at in my development, going to school and getting four years of that done was the ideal situation,” Whitecloud said. “If hockey didn’t work out then I was able to get a degree in the meantime and go on with my life from there.”

Of course, hockey did work out.

But he didn’t know that when he sent a highlight tape to colleges in the U.S., and didn’t know it would catch the eye of a coach in a small college town in Minnesota.

Tom Serratore for 19 years has run a successful if not blue-blood program at Bemidji State University. The list of the Beavers’ NHL alumni is not long, but does include former Golden Knight Brad Hunt. Serratore saw Whitecloud’s tape and knew he was onto something.

“I vividly remember,” Serratore said. “We didn’t overthink it.”

Serratore and assistant coach Ted Belisle, now a scout with the Los Angeles Kings, went to Manitoba to see Whitecloud, and left him with a scholarship offer. Serratore and his staff were surprised to find that it was the only scholarship offer Whitecloud had received, and they got him on campus that summer.

Whitecloud arrived in Bemidji in 2016, and neither he nor the coaching staff knew what to expect. He didn’t think he’d play much that first year, but almost immediately became a mainstay in the Beavers’ lineup.

“It didn’t take us more than a practice or two to realize this kid’s a heck of a hockey player,” Serratore said. “Right there you could see he was a pro prospect.”

He ended the year on the WCHA’s All-Rookie Team and suddenly everyone knew who he was. He attended the Kings’ development camp that summer and by the time his sophomore year arrived, he was running out the clock on turning pro.

“It exceeded my expectations, and I think the coaching staff’s as well,” Whitecloud said. “They didn’t expect me to leave after two years and nor did I. Some things aren’t set in stone ever.”

Life as a professional

After that sophomore season, Whitecloud and his agent, Dean Grill,o met in Minnesota to figure out the next move.

He had no shortage of options, including an old family acquaintance from back home. When Whitecloud was growing up in Brandon, Manitoba, the biggest team in town was the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, who were owned and coached by a name familiar to Golden Knights fans.

Kelly McCrimmon, then the Golden Knights’ assistant general manager and now general manager, kept close tabs on Whitecloud even before his college career began: the Wheat Kings and the Whitecloud family partnered to billet players in the organization.

Once Whitecloud left for college, McCrimmon made sure to scout him in person.

“We’re not a team that targets a large number of college free agents — we keep our range of players pretty small,” McCrimmon said. “And that year Zach was the guy that we really wanted to sign.”

When Whitecloud did turn pro, McCrimmon and the Knights were one of several teams to offer him a contract. Whitecloud admits it wasn’t an easy decision, having never been to Las Vegas. But the pitch was enough, and Whitecloud signed an entry-level deal five days after the Bemidji State season ended in 2018.

“They created a culture in the first year that really embodied the things that I like to pride myself on,” Whitecloud said. “There were a lot of different things that attracted me to Vegas.”

Some players come right out of college ready for the NHL. Whitecloud wasn’t that, though with a caveat. He did play an NHL game the same year he left college, but it was near the end of the season after Vegas’ postseason fate was already locked up. He did not appear in the playoffs.

He also didn’t appear back with Vegas the next season. He spent the entirety of 2018-19 in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves, helping them reach the Calder Cup Finals. He spent most of the next year in Chicago, too.

“He was a pro early on, in that he really wanted to absorb as much information as he could and at times we had to kind of pump the brakes,” former Wolves coach Rocky Thompson said. “Guys like him who I’ve had the experience of working with, they find a way to get to that next level, and he did.”

Thompson, now an assistant with the division rival Sharks, liked how Whitecloud played with the puck, particularly the way he broke out of the defensive zone and set up plays on the other end. He called his defensive game “a big-time work in progress,” pointing to playing hard in front of the net and without the puck on his stick.

Once that game started to develop, Whitecloud got dangerous. He had six goals in 22 assists in the 2018-19 regular season, fourth on the team with 28 points. His plus-39 rating led the AHL this season, as did his 12 assists and 15 points in the postseason.

His primary partner that season with the Wolves was Nicolas Hague. And when Hague made his season debut with Vegas on Jan. 18, he was paired once again with Whitecloud.

“We’ve had chemistry in the past, so just trying to pick up where we left off,” Hague said.

Becoming an NHL mainstay

Feb. 1, 2020, was a big day for Whitecloud, playing 13 minutes, 34 seconds of ice time for Vegas in a win against the Nashville Predators. It was an otherwise ordinary game, but it was when Whitecloud became a full-time NHL player. He stuck with the Golden Knights the rest of the year, appearing in 16 games, and hasn’t been back to the AHL since.

He not only went to the postseason bubble with the Golden Knights, but was an integral part of the lineup — Vegas more or less chose Whitecloud over veteran Deryk Engelland, and he didn’t disappoint. He played in all 20 games, averaging a shot on goal per game and scoring two goals to help Vegas reach the Western Conference Final.

“I thought he was awesome for us in the playoffs and (it was good) seeing a young guy coming into his own,” said Vegas defenseman Alec Martinez, who was traded to the Golden Knights a few weeks after Whitecloud’s call-up. “I’ve been impressed with him since the moment I got here. He just keeps on getting better.”

Whitecloud spent most of his time last season paired with Nick Holden, whom he called “the biggest influence in my pro career so far.” Holden, who at 33 is nine years Whitecloud’s senior, took on the role of veteran mentor from the moment Whitecloud arrived.

They played together in the playoffs, where their one rule was to always make a positive impact on the game. They’re not always going to score or break up an odd-man rush coming at their net. But if they can do the little things right every time out, that adds up to big things.

“That’s something that I’m going to carry throughout my whole career,” Whitecloud said. “The way he treats his teammates and how he treated me as a younger guy, kind of how he looked after me and helped me learn how to be a really good pro, and how to treat younger guys when I get to be one of the older guys on the team. That’s a big life lesson for me.”

Holden isn’t playing much right now, a victim of Vegas’ salary cap crunch and the continued development of younger defensemen like Whitecloud and Hague. He’s on the Vegas taxi squad this season, so he’s still around for practices and road trips.

And he’s still mentoring Whitecloud. The pride in his voice is evident as he speaks about his protégé.

“It’s awesome to see his development, and I think so far this year he’s probably been our best defenseman,” Holden said. “I couldn’t be happier for him.”

2021 and beyond

Whitecloud is squarely fixed into the Golden Knights’ future plans. He signed a two-year extension before the playoffs last year, and will become a restricted free agent after the 2021-22 season. There’s little doubt Vegas will look to keep him around, especially if he continues the growth he’s shown in the early part of this season.

It’s clear watching him that he’s a different player than he was last year. He’s more confident, more aggressive, and shooting at a rate he hadn’t yet previously in his young career. He’s generating scoring chances and becoming more of a two-way threat than he was even in the postseason.

“I think the biggest thing in my game is one, the aggressiveness, but not being afraid to make mistakes out there,” Whitecloud said. “When I first came up, you kind of go through those plays and you don’t want to, per se, mess up. But now I play to make those plays and if I mess up, it happens.”

The points haven’t come yet. Through seven games he has just one assist and no goals, but no one seems to be too worried about that. All of his coaches — college, minor and current — think the offense will come as he continues to grow. It seems like he’s been around forever, but if including the playoffs, Whitecloud has only skated 44 times in a Golden Knights uniform.

Whitecloud isn’t the same player he was in junior hockey in Manitoba. He’s not the same player he was in college in Bemidji, in Chicago, or even last season in Vegas.

But as he said, he’s still the same person. He’s polite in interviews, he shows off a genuine exuberance to be playing hockey, looking simultaneously that he’s awed to be in the NHL but also that he belongs.

That was evident during a stretch to close the game against Arizona in the first of what could be other notable moments for Whitecloud as a fixture with the Golden Knights.