CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Vegas Golden Knights organization is making playing hockey in June a habit.
The Golden Knights reached the 2018 Stanley Cup Final against the Washington Capitals in their first NHL season. A year later, the Golden Knights’ American Hockey League affiliate, Chicago, is three wins away from a Calder Cup championship.
Chicago is tied 1-1 with Charlotte (Carolina Hurricanes) in the best-of-7 Calder Cup Finals and will host Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN).
Developing young talent to make them NHL ready in Vegas is paramount for Chicago, but winning games — and possibly the Calder Cup — is important, too.
“[Vegas] has the same philosophy as us,” Chicago general manager Wendell Young said. “We want to win, but we also want to develop. I think winning is a part of development. The fact that we’re going so far into the [postseason], the players are getting acclimated to go and play a rigorous NHL schedule and to go further in the playoffs.”
Chicago has led the Western Conference in points both seasons since teaming up with the Golden Knights starting in 2017-18. This season, Chicago (44-22-6-4) had 98 points before knocking off Grand Rapids, Iowa and San Diego in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Last season, they had 95 points and lost in the first round to Rockford.
Two members of Vegas’ first draft class in 2017 are playing key roles for Chicago. Defenseman Nic Hague, a second-round pick (No. 34), adjusted quickly to the pro game as an AHL rookie this season. He’s played significant minutes and had 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 75 regular-season games. He has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 19 playoff games.
Forward Cody Glass, a first-round pick (No. 6) in the 2017 NHL Draft, joined Chicago after completing his season with Portland of the Western Hockey League. The 20-year-old had five points (three goals, two assists) in six regular season games with Chicago and has 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 19 playoff games, including two assists in Game 2 against Charlotte.
To provide organizational depth and help foster a winning culture in Chicago, the Golden Knights signed AHL veteran forwards Daniel Carr, Curtis McKenzie and Brandon Pirri during the offseason. Carr, who had 71 points (30 goals, 41 assists) in 52 regular-season games, won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player; McKenzie, who captained Texas (Dallas Stars) to Game 7 of the Calder Cup Finals last season and had a league-leading 11 playoff goals, had a 20-goal season and has eight more goals in the Calder Cup Playoffs; Pirri had 18 goals in 29 regular-season AHL games before earning a full-time job with the Golden Knights.
Vegas also added additional depth by targeting undrafted free agents. The Golden Knights signed defenseman Zach Whitecloud, 22, as a free agent March 8, 2018. As an AHL rookie, he had 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) in 74 regular-season games. His 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 19 playoff games lead AHL defensemen. Dylan Coghlan, a 21-year-old rookie, led AHL defensemen with 15 goals in 66 regular-season games. His 40 points ranked third among AHL defensemen.
The staffs in Vegas and Chicago work very closely with one another and there is excellent communication between the parent team and its AHL affiliate.
“We have a great relationship with Vegas,” Chicago coach Rocky Thompson said. “[Me] and [Vegas coach] Gerard Gallant are very close. There are great lines of communication, and they have a great culture up there.”
Golden Knights president of hockey operations and general manager George McPhee spent 17 seasons with the Washington Capitals as general manager, and a staple of the organization was having a successful AHL team in Hershey. During his tenure with the Capitals, Hershey won the Calder Cup three times (2006, 2009, 2010) and a parade of NHL-ready prospects, including goalie Braden Holtby, defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov and forward Tom Wilson. The Capitals had 14 Hershey alumni on their 2018 Stanley Cup championship team.
McPhee brought that model with him to Vegas, looking to make Chicago a solid developmental team.
And it’s notable that when Vegas and Chicago announced their agreement on May 16, 2017 it was termed a “partnership.” Young explained that choice of wording instead the standard “affiliation” phrasing.
“From up top, they can’t preach, and we can’t preach the other way,” Young said. “We’re in it together.”
Photo courtesy Jacob Kupferman