This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays.
Many of my friends around North America who are hockey writers have dismissed this year’s version of the Vegas Golden Knights as a Stanley Cup contender out of hand. And while I’ll go on record here saying VGK shouldn’t bother making arrangements for a parade down the Strip in the summer, I think my colleague’s assessments are off-base.
Injuries are a part of hockey — of any sport, really — but the VGK’s injury bug this year has been far worse than what could realistically be expected.
This team if fully healthy has the capability of being a Stanley Cup champion. Oh, it has holes. Goaltending has been far too inconsistent. It could use size, particularly in the bottom six. Its speed isn’t what it once was and there are teams that can skate rings around even the healthiest version of the Golden Knights.
The Knights are technically still alive in the playoff hunt, and we’ve seen over the years teams that no one expected to come close get hot at the right time and win it. Remember a healthy Jim Valvano running around the court in Albuquerque, N.M., looking for someone to hug after his North Carolina State Wolfpack won the NCAA men’s basketball championship in 1983?
The Florida Marlins finished nine games out of first in 1997, their fifth season of existence, but made the playoffs and won the World Series. The New Jersey Devils had only a .542 winning percentage in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, but went 16-4 in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup despite finishing ninth overall in the regular season.
So it could happen for the VGK this year. But will it? As the late WWE legend Gorilla Monsoon often would say to his sidekick, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, “Highly unlikely.”
Given that, I’m thinking about next year already. With that in mind, I’m going to break down which of the current roster should return for next season’s run at the Cup, which shouldn’t, and then later, look at five players they might look at acquiring who shouldn’t cost a ton. They’re going to have salary cap issues next season, too, folks, so keep that in mind.
DEFINITELY SHOULD/WILL STAY
1. Jack Eichel: He should be the franchise player starting on Day 1 of training camp next season. He has been good mostly, great at times, maddening at others. But remember he’s playing with a new team after having a neck surgery no player ever had before and he had to adjust to a new system and new teammates. The first day the Knights step onto the ice at City National Arena in September, Eichel had best be the team’s clear best player. If he’s not, that will mean big trouble for years to come.
2. Mark Stone: He has a $9.5 million contract as well as a no-movement clause, so he’ll be back. That contract may look funky in the last couple of years of it, but if the Golden Knights are going to make a run at the Cup in the near future, they need Stone playing how Stone can play and can’t trade him.
3. Alex Pietrangelo: See above. Pietrangelo has an $8.8 million contract that probably won’t wear well, and a no-movement clause. But he’s an elite player still, a great leader, and someone they’ll need if they have a hope of lifting the Cup in 2023.
4. Zach Whitecloud: He’s a bargain at $2.75 million and he gets better every year. Teams that win Stanley Cups have plenty of guys like Whitecloud on the roster.
5. Jonathan Marchessault: This is a team with no shortage of players who could be captain, but Marchessault is among them. He’s made the most out of the talent he’s had, he competes ferociously, and while he may be due for a bit of a decline, he’s a heart-and-soul guy you can’t give up unless you’re overwhelmed in a trade offer. For a team looking to win the Cup, the Knights can’t afford to move him, nor should they.
6. Chandler Stephenson: He’s not as good as he looked at the beginning of the year when he was playing lights out, but he’s a very valuable guy who can play up and down the lineup, provides needed speed, and most importantly to this particular roster, has a salary-cap friend cap hit of $2.75 million.
PROBABLY SHOULD/WILL STAY
7. Shea Theodore: His lengthy goal drought is inexplicable but when he’s healthy and on his game, he’s a borderline No. 1 guy who fits well as a solid No. 2. He could bring a lot in a trade given his youth, but his skating is something the Knights will need with a lot of the core aging and slowing down.
8. Brayden McNabb: He’s been the same guy since Day 1: Physical presence, great penalty killer, reliable night after night and a terrific leader. Signed at $2.85 million, there’s no reason to walk away from him.
9. Max Pacioretty: In the last five seasons, including his final season in Montreal, Pacioretty has missed 18, 16, 0, 8, and now, 43 games. He’ll play most of next season, the finale of a $7 million a year contract, at 34 years old. So those facts alone bear consideration to moving him. Teams who need a consistent goal scorer, a boost for the power play and some tenacity would line up. But those are why the Knights need him, too. So unless GM Kelly McCrimmon can hit a home run on a trade, he should remain a Knight.
10. William Carrier: I struggled with this one greatly. Carrier’s energy and tenacity is invaluable, but he can’t finish and is injury-prone. He has two more years left at $1.4 million a year. I’m not opposed to moving him if they can bring someone in who has his kind of size/speed and grinding ability. But I think he should stay.
11. Logan Thompson: He will have a cap hit of $766,667 next year and he’s proven he’s good enough to be, at worst, a very reliable backup in this league. He may be something more, but he’s not yet. But at that price, pencil him in for the No. 2 role if not a 1B role next year.
12. Robin Lehner: Lehner is no favorite of the VGK fans, who seem to blame him for not stopping every shot he sees, rising gas prices, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s no reason to trade him, though. Now, there was no reason to acquire him when McCrimmon did two years ago, and that move and subsequent ones made as a result of it have cost this franchise greatly. But Lehner has proven in his career he’s good enough to win with when he’s on his game. They could have won with him in the bubble. If they could make a move for a goaltender they can sign to be 1A or clearcut No. 1 who comes in cheaper than Lehner’s $5 million, move him. But if you pair him with Thompson, the tandem makes less than $6 million combined and that’s not bad.
13. William Karlsson: I have loved having Karlsson on this team for nearly every moment since he’s joined it. He’s a low-maintenance guy who plays in both ends, brings needed speed, and has the ability to play up and down the lineup. But he doesn’t score enough for my liking to pay him $5.9 million a season, and he’ll turn 30 next season. He had a dip defensively for a while, but he seems to have righted that problem. Bring him back.
14. Alec Martinez: He’s making $5.25 million and on a cash-strapped team, it’s awfully hard to write that check to a player who will be 35 next year. But if they move him, they’ll desperately miss his willingness to dive in front of 95 mph pucks, his battle level, and his contributions on the offensive end.
15. Michael Amadio: He’s got more skill than the normal 11th or 12th forward and he will cost the team just $762,500 next year. So lean toward keeping him but there are better players out there.
16. Dylan Coghlan: He’s a right-handed defenseman and that alone earns him credit. He only makes $762,500 so he’s affordable. He’s never going to be a No. 1, No. 2, or even No. 3 defensemen, though he could develop into a No. 4 or No. 5 guy. His status depends on what they do with other guys, but if they keep the expensive ones, keep him for inexpensive depth.
17. Ben Hutton: They probably only need one of Hutton and Coghlan will be 24 at the start of training camp and Hutton 29. That probably gives Coghlan the edge, but Hutton is solid depth at a reasonable cost.
PROBABLY SHOULD/WILL GO
18. Evgeni Dadonov: He’s played perfectly fine except for the lengthy goal drought in January/February, but he makes $5 million next year and he’s 33 years old. He’d be a good guy to have on a third line except for his cost. I would hate to have to give up a pick to move his deal. He teetered for me on the 50-50 category with Probably Should/Will Go. But cap issues win out and so they’ll likely move on from him.
DEFINITELY SHOULD/WILL GO
19. Nolan Patrick: Yeah, he played for McCrimmon in junior. So what? He showed little in Philadelphia and less in Las Vegas. They can use that $1.2 million he’s owed next year for someone who might make it into the lineup more than every two months. The trade of Cody Glass for Patrick is one of McCrimmon’s worst, and Glass is verging on being a bust.
20. Laurent Brossoit: Logan Thompson outplayed him and makes a third of the money he does. He’s as good as gone already.
VGK FREE AGENTS
21. Reilly Smith: He’s in a lot of ways the heartbeat and the conscience of this team. Bring him back if feasible, but contract talks could be contentious.
22. Nicolas Roy: He should be a priority. He’s a greatly improving two-way player. He’s going to cost a lot, lot more than he does now, and how much determines whether they should keep him. But they should try.
23. Nic Hague: He’ll likely be back and he made strides before he was injured. His foot speed is an issue, but his size and shot are valuable weapons.
24. Brett Howden: He showed spurts. No huge problem either way.
25. Keegan Kolesar: You look at the size and the speed he has and your mind races. But he hasn’t developed like I’d hoped. He’s not bad, but not great, and is he ever going to be more than he is now? Eh.
26: Jonas Rondbjerg: Re-sign him to a two-way deal.
27: Mattias Janmark: Probably pass unless you can bring him back on an even cheaper deal than the $2 million he made this year.
28: Jake Bischoff: Goodbye.
POTENTIAL FA ACQUISITIONS
I’d like to see the Knights get bigger and quicker among their depth forwards and on their defense. Here are a few players with a relatively low acquisition cost who should be worth exploring if they hit market:
1. Nico Sturm, F, Colorado: He’s 6-3, 210 pounds who’s good in his own end and would create matchup issues at 4C. He shouldn’t cost a lot.
2. Paul Stastny, C, Winnipeg: When the VGK signed him in 2018, he was a No. 2 center who could potentially bump up to No. 1 in a crisis. Now, he’s a 3 or a 4. But if you could get him on a team-friendly deal to play in the bottom six and be available to move up short-term if needed, is it worth it? Perhaps.
3. Calle Jarnkrok, C, Calgary: He’s probably going to be too rich for the VGK’s liking, but it wouldn’t hurt to call. He’s smart, versatile and would fit into this bottom six perfectly.
4. Zach Aston-Reese, LW, Anaheim: He can’t score but he’s physical and fast and a great penalty killer.
5. Nick Bjugstad, F, Minnesota: He’s massive — 6-6, 220 — and he can skate. He’d be another good fit on a re-tooled fourth line, though he doesn’t play the physical game you think he would when you see him.