After exceeding every imaginable expectation in their debut season, the Golden Knights were set to enter Year 2 with a lot of question marks on their roster. Among them: Can they possibly do all of this again? How are they going to replace some of the offense they were losing with the free agency departures of James Neal, David Perron? And the almost inevitable regression from surprise 40-goal scorer William Karlsson.
The former is yet to be determined, but they seem to have found some solutions for the latter.
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After signing Paul Stastny to a three-year contract in free agency, the Golden Knights made their biggest splash of the offseason when they acquired former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty in a trade, and promptly signed him to a four-year contract extension worth $28 million.
Everything about it was a stellar move for the Golden Knights.
Not only is Pacioretty one of the best goal-scoring wingers in the league — and a player who should be primed for a bounceback year after scoring just 17 goals in 64 games a year ago — but they were able to sign him to a fairly reasonable contract extension that doesn’t extend too deep into his 30s.
Building a team that doesn’t have a lot of bad contracts is one of the best things general manager George McPhee has been able to do in his brief time in Vegas, both in terms of financial commitment and term commitment. The only players they are committed to beyond 2021 (three years down the line) are Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, Colin Miller, Brayden McNabb and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury and Pacioretty are the only two in that group that are currently over the age of 27.
By having no player on the team making more than $7 million in any season, McPhee still has a ton of salary cap flexibility at his disposal. For this upcoming season alone, Vegas has $9 million in cap space, even before the eventual placement of David Clarkson on the long-term injured list. For next season, they have what would be more than $23 million in cap space under the current cap number and that is almost certain to increase by the start of next season as the cap continues to rise.
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In terms of the cap, this team is in as good a shape as any contending team in the league.
But let’s talk about what they gave up for Pacioretty, because it’s a fascinating look at the team’s roster management during its first two years in the league.
In exchange for Pacioretty, the Golden Knights sent veteran forward Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round draft pick to the Canadiens. A few things stand out about each asset.
First, Tatar played in just 28 games for the Golden Knights last season after being acquired at the trade deadline for a 2018 first-round pick, 2020 second-round pick and 2021 third-round pick. It was seen as a steep price at the time, but Tatar has been a fairly consistent 20-goal scorer throughout his career and was signed to a long-term contract.
Given that Vegas was likely going to lose Perron and Neal over the summer as free agents (which they did), they were going to need somebody else to step into those roles. Tatar seemed to be a reasonable solution. But for one reason or another it just never worked out in Vegas, to the point where he spent most of the playoffs as a healthy scratch.
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In the days following the Pacioretty trade, much been made of the initial Tatar deal and how that impacts the price for Pacioretty, because you could look at it as Vegas giving up two first-round picks (Suzuki, as well as the 30th overall pick from 2018), two second-round picks and a third-round pick for Pacioretty, which would be a significantly higher price than what they actually sent to Montreal.
McPhee is not looking at it that way.
“The deal we did last March was market driven. That was the price,” McPhee said in a conference call discussing the Pacioretty trade. ”We did it to help our hockey club. We can’t allow what we did months ago to affect a good decision today.”
He is not wrong.
But there is more to the origin of this trade package than just Tomas Tatar.
The only reason Vegas had Suzuki and the 2019 second-round pick in their possession was due to one of the many expansion draft deals that Vegas made more than a year ago. Vegas selected Suzuki with the 13th overall pick in the 2017 draft, one of three first-round picks they were able to make. They got that pick (originally the 24th overall pick in the draft, as well as the second-rounder going to Montreal) as a result of a trade with the Blue Jackets.
The conditions of the trade were that Vegas would get the two draft picks and Clarkson’s contract if the Golden Knights agreed to select Karlsson in the expansion draft instead of Josh Anderson or backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo. Vegas then took that No. 24 overall pick and traded it to Winnipeg for the No. 13 pick as well as a 2019 third-round pick (which Vegas still has) if Vegas promised to take Chris Thorburn in the expansion draft.
Pretty much every asset they moved to acquire Pacioretty was the result of savvy roster management around the expansion draft, as the rest of the league absolutely freaked out about losing one player out of its organization.
What is perhaps most amazing about Vegas’ situation is that even after giving up all of those assets to acquire Pacioretty, they are still sitting in a pretty good position both currently and in the future.
Even with Suzuki gone, they still have two of the top-15 picks from the 2017 draft in the organization (No. 6 overall pick Cody Glass and No. 15 overall pick Erik Brannstrom — the result of an expansion draft draft with the Islanders) and 18 future draft picks over the next two years, including nine in the first three rounds (their own first round pick in 2019 and 2020, three second round picks in 2020 and three third round picks in 2019).
Not everything is going to break Vegas’ way in 2018-19 the way it did a year ago. Karlsson will probably not score 43 goals again. Fleury probably will not have a .927 save percentage again. Maybe Erik Haula is not a 30-goal scorer. But they made a couple of big moves in signing Stastny and acquiring Pacioretty that should help balance some of that out. They also have the salary cap flexibility and future assets to do something else major to add help where they still might need it.
Will the Golden Knights be a 109-point team that reaches the Stanley Cup Final again? Maybe not. But they still put themselves in a position to potentially be really, really good.