Let’s flashback to 2017 for a moment (who couldn’t use a reprieve from 2020?) If someone had told you that the 2021 Vegas Golden Knights were set to be one of the NHL’s premier powerhouses, what would your reaction be? Probably a little bit of shock at first, but eventually, you’d realize that was possible. Three seasons is a very long time, and a couple of big free agent signings or trades could make even an expansion team competitive in such time.
But there’s no way your past self would’ve believed how they’ve arrived at this moment. The Golden Knights aren’t emerging from years in the basement like we expected; they’ve been contenders right from the start. A storybook Stanley Cup Final run in year one. Epic collapse on the brink of the second round in year two. And a Western Conference Final run that got much tougher, much quicker than most expected after bulldozing the Blackhawks in the opening round, culminating in a five-game loss to Dallas.
Vegas kept going with the all-in strategy their city is known for during the offseason. Bringing in the belle of the free agency ball should aid their efforts to be best in the West again. But a look at the staggering number of quality players, draft picks, and prospects dealt to build this juggernaut raises questions of Vegas’ sustainability. Better win now before those questions have the chance to be answered.
|Max Pacioretty||William Karlsson||Mark Stone|
|Reilly Smith||Chandler Stephenson||Jonathan Marchessault|
|Nicholas Roy||Cody Glass||Alex Tuch|
|William Carrier||Tomas Nosek||Ryan Reaves|
|Shea Theodore||Alex Pietrangelo|
|Brayden McNabb||Zach Whitecloud (R)|
|Alec Martinez||Nick Holden|
There was no doubt that life-long St. Louis Blues stalwart Alex Pietrangelo was the top prize of unrestricted free agency in 2020. The 30-year old has long been one of the league’s top defensemen. Pietrangelo is a two-way force who plays big minutes against top competition as well as anybody. Pietrangelo has delivered 40+ points in six of his last seven seasons and 50+ in three of them.
When Torey Krug signed in St. Louis, any chance the Blues captain of the last four seasons would not return. Their loss was the Golden Knights game, as general manager Kelly McCrimmon made his first signature move since being promoted to the role in May 2019. The 7-year, $8.8 million AAV contract is steep (it also contains a full no-move clause), but it’s well worth it for one of the game’s premier defensemen.
It’s crazy to think that Vegas’ defense has become a strength after it looked like their biggest weakness twelve months ago. The addition of Alec Martinez at the trade deadline was questioned by some, but he seemed to fit in well on the Vegas blue-line. Zach Whitecloud seems ready for a full-time role (he already has 17 NHL games under his belt). Brayden McNabb has been a consistently underrated cog in Vegas’ well-oiled machine. And Nick Holden is still a capable sixth defenseman.
But you could actually make the argument that Pietrangelo isn’t even the crowned jewel of Vegas’ back-end. That honor may belong to Shea Theodore, the 25-year old who emerged as a Norris Trophy dark horse last season. Theodore has steadily improved since arriving in Vegas in an expansion draft side trade. It’s one Anaheim certainly regrets, as Theodore has hit his potential and then some. He’s an elite puck-mover and great skater that is becoming increasingly difficult to contain. He and Pietrangelo could be the league’s best defensive pair, and it might not even be close.
In order for a team as good as Vegas to add a player as expensive as Pietrangelo, other shoes had to drop. Contending teams just don’t add $9 million dollar players in a flat cap world and get away it (note – this rule does not apply to Colorado).
Let’s be clear — Alex Pietrangelo is better than Nate Schmidt. Yes, the 29-year old Schmidt registered 30+ points in each of his three seasons in Vegas and handled big minutes well. While he’s not as dominant as Pietrangelo, he’s also not as expensive; Schmidt comes at a $5.95 million cap charge for the next six seasons with only a 10-team no-trade clause.
But he’s Vancouver’s problem now. In order to clear the cap space for Pietrangelo, the Golden Knights dealt away two of their higher-paid players for pennies on the dollar. Kelly McCrimmon had virtually no leverage in trade talks with Pietrangelo rumors swirling. The net result was trading the team’s second best defender to a (usual) division rival for just a 3rd round pick worth far less than Schmidt.
Center of Attention
Schmidt wasn’t the only cap casualty of the Vegas offseason. After a quiet inaugural free agency in summer 2017, the Golden Knights needed replacements for departing scorers David Perron and James Neal in 2018. The club opted to sure up their center depth by adding the best non-John Tavares center on the market, inking Paul Stastny to a 3-year deal worth $6.5 million a year.
The veteran playmaker had a tremendous debut in Vegas, scoring 42 points in 50 games during the 2018-19 season. He was apart of a dominant line in the playoffs with Stone and Pacioretty, scoring eight points in seven contests. Year two was a bit of a drop-off (38 points in 71 games), but Stastny was still a reliable veteran and perfectly capable in a middle-six role.
But that $6.5 million cap hit had to be jettisoned to Winnipeg (no pun intended) to make space for Pietrangelo. Stastny was coming off an impressive playoff performance (15 points in 17 games) with Winnipeg when he signed with Vegas, and the Jets needed another center behind Mark Scheifele. Mission accomplished for them, but again, Vegas knowingly got shafted in the trade. All McCrimmon brought back was a 4th round pick and depth defenseman Carl Dahlstrom.
Alex Pietrangelo is certainly a great player, and he’s much better than Schmidt or Stastny. He’s likely better than both players combined, but by just how much? Especially when you consider how important both, especially Schmidt, were to the Vegas dressing room.
The loss of Stastny also exposes Vegas down the middle, which is clearly the team’s biggest weakness. Former sixth overall pick Cody Glass wasn’t able to stick full-time last year, but his 39 game audition should make him better prepared for full-time duties this year. Chandler Stephenson fit in extremely well after coming in from Washington, scoring 22 points in 41 games. But is he really a second-line center? And while William Karlsson is a solid scorer and tremendous two-way player, his 43-goal days are a thing of the past.
Oh, and that projected roster from earlier? It’s still not cap compliant by about $200K. So now Max Pacioretty and Jonathan Marchessault, two of the team’s top scorers, have to deal with their names in trade rumors. If you’re a player in Vegas, you have to wonder if, maybe when, the team will just sign a better player than you halfway through your contract. Yes, that can happen with any team, but it seems to be happening more in Vegas than anywhere else. Yes, the Golden Knights are still in great shape. Just food for thought.
The most logical way to fix Vegas’ cap crisis would be to move their $7 million backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. It was fascinating to see Robin Lehner’s ascent from Malcolm Subban upgrade to clear cut starter, and the drama that ensued from that decision. Lehner justified it with strong play down the stretch and in the playoffs, alleviating the main weakness that axed head coach Gerard Gallant in January.
While having two great goaltenders is a problem lots of teams would like to have, it is definitely a problem for Vegas. A team as cap strapped as the Knights can’t afford to be committing $12 million to their crease. While selling low on Fleury isn’t optimal, it seems to be the smartest option for the Golden Knights. McCrimmon has said they aren’t interested in moving the Flower, but consider me unconvinced. After all, goalies are like quarterbacks; if you have two, you have none.
While there are legitimate concerns in the Sin City, they do little to diminish Vegas’ status as a favorite for the 2021 Stanley Cup. This team was already oozing with high-end talent before adding Pietrangelo. Their depth on the wings is phenomenal, with Selke contender Mark Stone leading the charge. Golden Misfits Karlsson, Marchessault, Alex Tuch, and the versatile Reilly Smith are still impact players. The backend has received several shots in the arm. Fleury is still a capable starter; 2019 Vezina finalist Lehner might be more.
It all adds up to what should be an impressive first full season at the helm for Peter DeBoer’s club. 2021-22 shouldn’t be much different; Martinez is the only notable player in need of a new deal. And remember, Vegas’ expansion fee from 2017 includes automatic exemption from the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. That’s right; Vegas is the only team that won’t lose a piece to Seattle in July.
Two seasons from now, maybe things get dicey. Perhaps another big move (or one that they’ve already made) goes awry, or Cody Glass breaks the bank, or the team fails to replace 2022 UFAs Fleury and Smith adequately. But that’s extreme nitpicking. The foundation in Vegas is safe and sound for the near future. Vegas should find themselves near or at the top of the new West Division. The stage will likely be set for a high-power matchup in the second round with the Colorado Avalanche, another incredible team. It may just be a de-facto Stanley Cup Final. And it’s one the Golden Knights certainly seem ready for.