Zach Whitecloud designated Wednesday and Sunday as his cheat days each week while he was in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.
But when the Golden Knights defenseman wasn’t rewarding himself with a scoop of cookie dough ice cream, Whitecloud continued to develop as a full-time NHL player.
The 23-year-old was singled out for praise by coach Pete DeBoer in training camp this week and appears to have secured his spot in the lineup when the Knights begin the 24-team NHL postseason in Edmonton.
“He looks like a different player than even before the pause,” DeBoer said. “He looks stronger, more confident. Making more plays with the puck. I’m sure the experience he had before the pause being in the lineup every night helped. He’s a guy that I think has really stood out in camp so far.”
Whitecloud’s emergence was one of the most significant developments from early in DeBoer’s tenure.
After being injured at the end of training camp in September, Whitecloud played 35 games in the American Hockey League and was recalled Jan. 31. He appeared in seven of the next nine games and briefly returned to the minors before he established himself in the NHL.
Whitecloud played the final nine games and supplanted veteran Deryk Engelland from the lineup before the season was paused March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Knights shielded Whitecloud from danger as much as possible, with 69.1 percent of his faceoffs starting in the offensive zone.
But Whitecloud’s shot attempts share of 59.9 percent during five-on-five play was tops among the team’s defensemen, and his on-ice goals-for percentage (61.5 percent) trailed only Alec Martinez.
In 16 games, Whitecloud registered one assist and a plus-3 rating.
He was rewarded with a two-year, $1.45 million contract extension March 22 that took on even more value for the Knights since the salary cap is frozen at $81.5 million for the foreseeable future.
“Whitey came up prior to the pause, and I thought did a really good job,” DeBoer said. “Him being a right shot really gives him an advantage off the bat because we’ve got so many lefties. But I thought he got better and better prior to the pause, and I think he’s a guy who used the pause well, worked out hard.”
Whitecloud may owe some of his success to Cold Stone Creamery. He was outed as a fan of the ice cream on a recent video call with media and, as many can relate to, admitted that was how he stuck to his diet during the past few months.
“Obviously, throughout quarantine it’s easy to sit on the couch when you’re at home 24/7 and snack on things and get carried away,” Whitecloud said. “I’m a big fan of the ‘Cookie Doughn’t You Want Some.’ Extra cookie dough, obviously. I’m a big cookie dough guy.
“That’s something I used throughout quarantine to keep my diet in check a little bit and work towards something every week.”
Whitecloud skated with Nick Holden as the third defense pair in training camp.
He’s also seen time on the top penalty-killing unit alongside defenseman Brayden McNabb, another sign of the trust he’s earned from DeBoer and the coaching staff.
“That’s something that I know I do well,” Whitecloud said. “I pride myself on defending, first of all. Getting the responsibility on the PK is a huge honor, too. I love going out and doing that job with pride. Just executing for my teammates and coming out with a huge kill.”
Zach Whitecloud file
Birthplace: Brandon, Manitoba
2019-20 stats: One assist in 16 games
Games in Edmonton, Alberta
July 30: Knights vs. Arizona, 7 p.m.
Aug. 3: Knights vs. Dallas, 3:30 p.m.
Aug. 6: Knights vs. St. Louis, TBA
Aug. 8: Knights vs. Colorado, TBA