With the trade deadline exactly a week away, we get the latest Guest Post from local Las Vegan and fantasy sports guru John Di Bari.
Heading into their inaugural NHL season nobody really knew what to expect from the league’s newest franchise. The consensus was to temper expectations as expansion teams are historically somewhere between horrific on the low-end to mediocre on the high-side. However, once the rules for the expansion draft were put in place and fans and writers started digging through rosters and contracts and began to do their own mock expansion drafts, many started to realize that maybe the new kid on the block might be able to put together a respectable product in year one. Nobody was realistically thinking playoffs, or even a record well above .500. However, that was fine as most expected GM George McPhee to draft a bunch of skill players with a year or two remaining on their contacts with the expectation that he’d be trying to sell as many of them as possible at the trade deadline to acquire additional draft picks and young players.
Then, the damndest thing happened: The Golden Knights started winning. A lot. As of this writing, the Golden Knights sit atop the entire NHL with a comfortable 10-point lead in the Pacific Division. They lead the West in goals scored and goal differential and have the league’s best home record at 22-4-2 58 games into the season. As a fan and season ticket holder, this is a great thing. It’s well documented at this point, but is still worth noting that most of the early winning was done while losing their top 3 goaltenders. The team has been fun to watch, they find different ways to win each night, and barring an otherwise epic collapse, they seem to be a lock for the playoffs. Some current projections have the probability of them making the playoffs at 100% as they sit 14 points ahead of the West’s second wild-card with 24 games to play.
On the surface, that all sounds well and good, but is it? For a single season, the answer is obviously yes, but as a brand new expansion franchise that is supposed to be building towards sustained future success and develop their farm system, the waters get a little muddied. What about the plan to move these expiring contracts and stockpile more picks and youngsters? One would assume that McPhee will want to push forward with the plan and move some of the players who have contracts set to expire at the end of the year. It’s better to get something for them rather than allowing them to walk away for free after what would essentially be a 1-year rental. On the other hand, one would also assume that owner Bill Foley will want to push for the playoffs and start to recoup some of his 500-million-dollar investment. At the end of the day, it will probably be some combination of the two strategies, and since Foley signs the checks in the building, I’ve got to think that if he wants to push for the playoffs, McPhee will have to go along with the boss. In a recent interview with Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Foley made it sound like he was definitely looking to add pieces at the deadline and push for a deep playoff run.
Roster and Salaries
Let’s look at the Golden Knights’ roster and salary situation courtesy of spotrac.com and see what the team is looking at contract-wise at seasons end. The Golden Knights have 11 unrestricted free agents (UFAs) when this season concludes. The most notable among them are James Neal, David Perron and Luca Sbisa. The team also has 13 restricted free agents (RFAs) which includes Tomas Nosek, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller, Oscar Dansk, and leading goal scorer William Karlsson. As much as the Vegas fans have become attached to most of- if not all of- these players, it’s good business to keep the phone lines open to trade offers. The team signed defenseman Brayden McNabb to an extension through 2022 and we saw Jonathan Marchessault and Las Vegas local Derek Engelland get contract extensions as well; Marchessault was locked up for 6 years and Engelland for 1 more season. So it’s possible that we might see more moves like this as the trade deadline of February 26 inches closer. The only other players of note that are under contract past the 2018 season are Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Erik Haula The one takeaway from the contract information, is that this team is going to look very different over the course of the next three years.
So, That Deadline?
With the contract data in hand, combined with their current success and what we think the plan was going into the season, what can we expect at the trade deadline? Looking at the UFAs, I assumed (correctly) that the team would probably want to build around Marchessault and would sign him to a deal before the end of the season, and I assume the same will be true of Luca Sbisa as well. Although, the Golden Knights do have depth on the blue line, so they may be inclined to move him for the right offer. That leaves James Neal and David Perron who are 30 and 29, respectively and are both having very solid seasons. As much as it would be hard to see them leave- Neal in particular- long term it’s probably the smart move for the franchise given their ages and probable return from another playoff team that might be in the need of a scoring option at the deadline. If both (or either) could be flipped for early draft picks and/or solid young prospects outside of the Western Conference (especially the Pacific) it would be difficult for McPhee to turn away from an offer like that.
Digging into the RFAs, it would be hard to imagine the team moving Theodore, Miller, Dansk or Karlsson. All of whom are 25-years-old or younger and have shown some solid play and chemistry with their teammates and are all likely to get new deals to stay in Vegas. Nosek might be the odd man out, but honestly, you can’t expect too much in return for him at this point. All of these RFAs seem like young, long-term building blocks for the team. This brings me back to Oscar Dansk and what in my mind has become an interesting conundrum at goalie. Dansk is only 23 and was the first pick of the 2nd round (31st overall) in the 2012 NHL draft. That same draft saw fellow Golden Knights goalie Malcolm Subban, also only 23-years-old, go 24th overall. As much as 33-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury became the immediate face of the organization after being selected in the expansion draft, it would be in the team’s best interest to kick the tires on deals involving Fleury given how well Subban and Dansk have played up until this point in the season. Barring the early season absence due to injury Fleury has been nothing short of outstanding in net this season, currently ranking 2nd in the league in Goals-against-average and save percentage. At 33, how much longer could he be expected to keep up this pace of play? He is only under contract through next season and might command the highest return of anyone at the deadline given his career resurgence.
The Playoff Push and Beyond
Let’s assume the Golden Knights go on to make the playoffs as the team is currently constructed. Fleury has a history of post-season struggles in the Stanley Cup playoffs and might be a liability if the team is still playing in late April. If the team were to move on from Fleury, they’ll be left with 2- of the top-3 goalies from the 2012 draft who have played outstanding up to this point in the season. In the worst-case scenario, they move Fleury and we watch Subban and Dansk falter down the stretch and collapse in the playoffs and the Golden Knights attack the goalie position via free agency at season’s end. 25-year-old former Golden Knight Calvin Pickard will be an RFA, as well as the Redwings 25-year-old Petr Mrazek and both of the Winnipeg Jets’ 27-year-old netminders; Michael Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck should be available on the open market this off-season. To a lesser extent, Robin Lehner and Darcy Kuemper could also be targets if they were to move Fleury and feel the need to address the position via free agency.
Another less talked about option, is to trade players away at the deadline and then attempt to re-sign them at the end of the season. That scenario is what I’m hoping to see from the team regarding James Neal. It’s easy to imagine a team making a playoff push looking to acquire Neal’s goal-scoring prowess for the playoffs as an end-of-season rental and move on from him after the season. That is less likely to happen with someone like 22-year-old Shea Theodore, a young, former 1st round pick that a team would try to get signed to a new contract as soon as possible. Aside from Neal and possibly Perron, it would be hard to imagine other teams not immediately trying to sign any of the other “rental” players they might be able to acquire given their ages and upside.
In the event the Golden Knights hit a skid down the stretch or decide to stick to the original plan and move several players at the deadline and build via the draft and free agency what might be out there? Looking at the free agents available heading into the 2018-2019 season courtesy of spotrac.com there might not be much out there that would offer the upside of the players already on the roster. Obviously, most hockey fans already know about the crown jewel of this free agency class- the Islanders’ John Tavares. Vegas has the money and roster space to top almost any other offers that he might receive. Aside from that dream scenario, this free agent class is thin outside of the previously mentioned goalies. Evander Kane, Max Domi, Anthony DuClair and Las Vegas local Jason Zucker are the best young forwards that may become available and Matthew Dumba and Jacob Truba are decent options along the blue line they may also be attainable. However, the most interesting Defenseman option might be John Carlson of the Washington Capitals. McPhee selected Carlson in the first round of the 2008 draft when he was GM of the Caps and the two reportedly have a good relationship. Adding Tavares and Carlson would be beyond-words-amazing in addition to resigning several key players already in place. I’d love to see Anthony DuClair in a Knights uniform, but he was recently acquired by the Blackhawks and you’d assume they’re going to try to keep him. Given the impending free agent class, the Golden Knights might be better served by focusing on locking up several of their young players once the deadline passes and use some of their available cap space to make a hard push for the top available free agents.
At the end of the day, this is a good problem to have. Being too good at the trade deadline and your team turning into a buyer instead of a seller is a problem 20 other teams would love to have. Although it might throw a wrench into their original plans, I doubt there is much grumbling in the front office about leading the Western Conference with a little more than month remaining in your inaugural season. The initially projected deadline fire sale is not an option anymore, but I’d still expect to see a few players moved out at the deadline and some new players come in. Although it will be hard to watch any of the current Golden Knights get traded away, the front office needs to build a competitive team for both the remainder of this year and for years to come. The only way to do that as an expansion team is to stick to the plan and move some of their expiring contracts at the deadline. When you spend $500-million dollars on a franchise, you probably want to get a speedy return on that investment, so they should push for the playoffs with most of their current roster in place while at the same time moving a few older players on 1- or 2-year deals that will allow the team to acquire more draft picks and young players for the future.
-John Di Bari
I’d love to hear any feedback and your thoughts on what the Golden Knights should do or will do at the deadline and in free agency. Feel free to reach out to me via Twitter at @dibari22 and thank you to the team here at SinBin.vegas for the opportunity.
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