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Young Knights forward pushes to make opening-night roster

Bruce Cassidy had a message for Paul Cotter after the Golden Knights’ preseason opener Sunday.

It was nice that the 22-year-old roster hopeful scored in a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. It was good he was physical. It was encouraging he worked hard on defense. The coach called him the Knights’ best player.

But Cassidy reminded Cotter that in the regular season such an effort is required 82 times. That’s where the bar is if he wants to be in the NHL.

Cotter seems to have taken that message to heart. The left wing has played in all three of the Knights’ preseason games and has two goals, an assist and a near miss in the third period Monday that could have won a game against Los Angeles. He’s doing everything in his power to break camp with the big club.

“Three out of the way and still got the rest of the season hopefully,” Cotter said. “A lot more consistency to do.”

Cotter has stood out with the Knights before.

First, there was the time he wore a fedora in his NHL debut Nov. 9 game against Seattle and was teased mercilessly by left wing Jonathan Marchessault. So much so that it brings it back in question.

“We’ll see,” Cotter said. “We’ll see what Marchy thinks.”

There were also the two goals he scored with the Knights last season in seven appearances. Combined with the 19 he tallied in 59 games in Henderson, the 2018 fourth-round pick had a good season.

He came back ready to have a better one.

The speed and physical edge Cotter plays with allows him to generate offense at five-on-five. He showed that in his first preseason game by driving hard to the net against Colorado, using his body to get inside position on defenseman Danila Zhuravlyov and firing a shot on goal.

“NHL play all day,” Cassidy said.

Cotter’s weakness, going back two years, was his play in his own zone. He’s worked hard to bring that up to par. Cassidy noted in the Knights’ first preseason game that Cotter tracked and finished three defensive plays.

He will strengthen his case to make the team if he keeps up that effort and awareness.

“He’s got a great motor,” center Jack Eichel said. “He’s always working. Competes hard on the puck. He’s physical. You see some of the skill level.”

Cotter’s strong preseason showing is coming at the perfect time.

This year marks the first time he’s no longer waiver exempt. That means the other 31 NHL teams will get a chance to poach him if he doesn’t make the Knights’ roster. The same is true of longtime teammates Jake Leschyshyn and Jonas Rondbjerg, who spent more time with the Knights last season than Cotter did.

What makes Cotter stand out — aside from the fact that he’s under contract the next four seasons, one more than Leschyshyn and Rondbjerg — is his offense and versatility. He’s played on three lines in the first three preseason games and stood out on each.

On Wednesday in a 7-1 win over the Avalanche, Cotter was with two NHL players in center Chandler Stephenson and right wing Keegan Kolesar. He scored and set up Kolesar for another goal with a primary assist.

Those kind of performances will make it hard for the Knights to leave Cotter off the opening-night roster.

“It seems like he’s really enjoying hockey right now,” center William Karlsson said. “It looks like he has a lot of confidence, and if you play like that, you’re going to score goals and score points.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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