Cotter breaking through in third season

Photo: Zak Krill

📝 by Patrick Williams

Scoring is a thrill for any American Hockey League prospect.

But consistent and strong two-way play across all three zones is by far the most direct path to the National Hockey League, and Henderson Silver Knights forward Paul Cotter grasps that lesson.

Thirty-four games into Cotter’s third AHL season, he is making his move. Career highs in goals (12) and points (19) at the AHL level. His first NHL six games with the Vegas Golden Knights, including a goal in his debut. And a real path to more NHL work.

“Paul’s in his third year of pro hockey,” Silver Knights head coach Manny Viveiros said, “and that’s where you want to see these kids really make that jump. He certainly has made strides from last year also, and that’s something that we want to see in his game.”

Cotter credits Viveiros and assistant coaches Joel Ward and Jamie Heward with teaching the importance of playing both ways.

“They’ve done a great job showing us how defensive play leads to offense,” Cotter said. “They emphasize the defensive stuff a lot, and I think that’s ultimately helped me be a better player, honestly, and everybody else.

“The less time you spend in your ‘D’ zone, the more chances you’re going to get to score.”

Seemingly that is an obvious lesson, but it is one that is much more difficult for young players to apply against pro competition. Sticking with that approach has carried Cotter through his career, however.

After spending 2017-18 with Lincoln of the United States Hockey League and being named to the All-Rookie Team, Cotter went to the Golden Knights in the fourth round of the 2018 NHL Draft. What followed was a year that turned out to be quite eventful for someone who had barely turned 19: He began 2018-19 in the college game with Western Michigan, switched to London of the Ontario Hockey League, and signed his NHL entry-level contract. His season concluded with seven-game second-round loss to Guelph.

After only the one season of NCAA and OHL experience, Cotter reached the AHL with the Chicago Wolves, then the Golden Knights’ top affiliate, and finished with nine points (four goals, five assists) in 56 games in 2019-20. Then 2020-21 brought a move into the Las Vegas market with Henderson’s entry into the AHL. Cotter improved to 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 38 games during the truncated season.

This season, Cotter made his NHL debut Nov. 11 at T-Mobile Arena, scoring against the Minnesota Wild in a 3-2 Vegas victory. A night later, he was back with the Silver Knights and tallied in back-to-back road games against the Stockton Heat. Then it was back to the NHL for four more games, including another goal in his third NHL game.

“That was the coolest in the world,” Cotter said of his NHL time. “So, that’s a good starting point for me. I really want to stay up there. [Henderson] is a great stepping stone.”

Photo: Zak Krill

Cotter spent this past weekend in Tucson skating the left side of a line with center Ben Jones and a variety of right wings. His second-period goal started a Silver Knights rally that led to a 4-1 victory against the Roadrunners on Sunday. Armed with an excellent wrist shot, Cotter now has seven goals in his past eight games in the first extended offensive run of his pro career.

Along with off-puck play, Viveiros and his staff have stressed to Cotter the need to use that strong shot more often.

“[It is] not just the goal-scoring part of it, just his complete game, [the] 200-foot game for him, and he’s done really well in that capacity…without the puck,” Viveiros said. “But Paul does have that skill set where if he gets an opportunity [he is dangerous].

“We’re happy with his development.”

Before his recent surge, Cotter had to make his way through a 13-game stretch without a goal, although he did contribute six assists. Managing that type of downturn is one of the many tests that a prospect will face.

“Everybody goes through a little bit of a drought,” Cotter said. “It can kind of hang with you for a bit sometimes. It’s good when you get hot. I think you just need to realize sometimes to go out there and play and have fun.”

Cotter can build on this recent run when the Ontario Reign visit Orleans Arena tonight. On Friday the Silver Knights begin a pair of home games against the San Diego Gulls.

Henderson (23-15-2-1, .598) holds fourth place in the Pacific Division, chasing the third-place Bakersfield Condors (.600) while trying to fight off the fifth-place Colorado Eagles (.587). Despite star goaltender Logan Thompson being on recall with the Golden Knights for all but one game, the Silver Knights went 3-3-0-0 on a six-game road trip, splitting two-game visits to Bakersfield, Colorado, and Tucson. Another six-game trip lies ahead next week for the Silver Knights, and with that more tests for Cotter to pass.

“Obviously you can’t be content in this kind of work, but I’m proud of what I’ve done so far,” Cotter said. “We’re playing pro hockey, and it’s something that I’d rather be doing than anything else in the world.

“As a job, it’s a pretty good thing. When you think like that, just go out and play, [you will] have success.”