When thinking of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL, a certain list of names comes to mind. In recent years, players like peak Marc-Edouard Vlasic or Niklas Hjalmarsson, or players like Brett Pesce, Jonas Brodin, T.J. Brodie or Adam Larsson. There is a new name emerging as an elite shutdown defender. Zach Whitecloud has quickly established himself as one of the best defenders at even strength.
Zach Whitecloud Has Emerged as Elite Shutdown Defenceman
Whitecloud joined the Vegas Golden Knights for 16 games in the 2019-20 season and made an immediate impact. He looked fantastic immediately in his own zone. In his small sample that year he had the best xGA in the NHL (minimum time on ice of 200). His career trajectory has continued in the same direction since then. Whitecloud has been one of the best defensive players in the NHL this season. He constantly improves the Vegas Golden Knights defensively every single time he steps on the ice.
Data and visuals from HockeyViz
According to Micah Blake McCurdy’s heat maps, Whitecloud has provided a 28% swing in defensive impact when he’s on the ice vs when he’s not. This is all with very heavy defensive zone usage.
He’s even improved offensively this season. While the degree to which he’s improved may not be incredibly sustainable due to his on-ice shooting percentage being nearly double what it was last year (%7.7 to %14.0), he still has improved the way he plays. No longer is he an offensive black hole. Now he is able to provide some value to the roster in more than one scenario.
Whitecloud’s Fantastic NHL Contract
The thing that makes Whitecloud such a valuable player is the combination of his stellar on-ice play with his bargain of a deal. This past off-season he was extended for six years at $2.75 million per season. This steal of a contract provides approximately $4,550,000 surplus value for the Golden Knights, according to Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic. Getting an incredibly good top four right-hand defenceman for such a low dollar amount for such long term is so beneficial for the Golden Knights’ future. The fact that Vegas is cap-strapped and was able to get Whitecloud cost-controlled just adds to how valuable of a player he is to the team.
At just 25, Whitecloud can still age into the contract nicely. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the longer-term contracts for an older defenceman who were at their peak at the time of signing. And even if Whitecloud does decline in the final two or so years of the deal, it’s at such a reasonable cap hit that it wouldn’t be difficult to move.
What’s Next For Whitecloud
While Zach Whitecloud is an incredible player at 5v5 defensively and quickly improving offensively, he still struggles on special teams. While Vegas doesn’t need him to be good on the power play due to having Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, he hasn’t been great on the penalty kill.
Data and visuals from HockeyViz
He allows a lot of chances directly in front of the net on the penalty kill. While Vegas has the worst penalty kill in the league (allowing the highest xGA/60 when on the PK at 8.98 according to Evolving Hockey), Whitecloud certainly doesn’t help their efforts.
Whitecloud has quickly established himself as one of the best defensive players in the league. The Vegas Golden Knights were able to capitalize on this by locking him up long-term before this became more well-known. He is an excellent player at 5v5 that any team would be lucky to have. He still has work to do on his penalty-killing game, but he has quickly emerged as one of the league’s premier shut-down defencemen.
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