This season, diehard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist Kevin Iole will be delivering columns a few times a month on Sundays. Today, Kevin wants the focus to shift off Jack Eichel, and on to another, cheaper center.
Drafting well is the best way to build a contender in the NHL and it’s the best way to remain one. Teams can’t build a championship team exclusively through free agency, though it is a tool. And teams aren’t going to trade their way to a title either, though, again, it’s a tool.
The Golden Knights have been outstanding traders, and their free agent moves have worked.
But it’s all been buoyed by a trait that is far underappreciated: Their ability to draft and develop well.
And yes, I’m serious.
Let’s look at it: Were it not for a smart draft pick in 2017, there’d be no Max Pacioretty. The Knights were able to land the prolific goal-scorer they needed on their first line because they did exceptionally well to draft Nick Suzuki at No. 13 in 2017.
There’s no Mark Stone without a few picks later the selection of Erik Brannstrom. He hasn’t turned out to be the player either the VGK or the Ottawa Senators thought he’d be yet, but he’s only 22 and players develop differently than others. In a draft that produced Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar at Nos. 3 & 4, plenty of teams felt the VGK got a steal grabbing Brannstrom at 15.
The Eichel Watch wouldn’t have ended in the VGK’s favor on Thursday were it not for the shrewd pick of Peyton Krebs, who dropped from No. 10 on the final ranking of North American skaters to the 17th overall choice because he was injured at the time.
Obviously, Alex Tuch was the key component in the deal that sent Jack Eichel and his injury neck to the Golden Knights, but ever since word leaked out that the Knights were interested, the word was that there was no deal if Krebs wasn’t involved.
In the end, the Knights sent Tuch, Krebs, a Top 10-protected 2022 first-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick to Buffalo for Eichel and a 2023 third-round pick.
Now that the deal is done, there will probably be further casualties when — if — all are healthy to get the team salary cap compliant. Fairly and accurately grading this deal will take years.
But if the Knights don’t win the Stanley Cup with Eichel on the team during the term of his $10 million a year contract, then even if he turns into the next Connor McDavid, the deal will be a bust of epic proportions.
This deal is about winning the Stanley Cup, and as Coach Pete DeBoer said at his media availability, the Knights have never been shy about their intentions.
The opportunity to get a guy like [Eichel] is very rare. There’s been no bones made about the fact that this organization wants to win, and they want to win now, and they’re willing to provide whatever resources to the players, the coaches, and to the fans in order to chase a Stanley Cup. -Pete DeBoer
What the Knights need now is a little bit of the unexpected. They need someone they’ve drafted or signed to step up and blossom, perhaps even more than is expected. They drafted Jack Dugan in the fifth round in 2017.
If he could step up and be a reliable contributor in the middle six, that would be a godsend for a team that needs a bit of luck to make all of this work.
Maybe when the KHL season is over Ivan Morozov joins the team and has that kind of impact.
Elvenes, Cotter, Jones, Primeau, somebody, anybody.
Whoever it is, the Knights need some players in their organization to play beyond expectations to fill the holes that are going to inevitably be created by the slashing that’s going to come to get cap compliant.
VGK fans will moan about that, but they’re lucky they’re in a salary-cap league. If there were no cap, it would have been a battle of the richest teams to land Eichel: Instead of Calgary and Vegas as the finalists, Buffalo would have been auctioning Eichel to the Rangers, the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens, the Red Wings and the Kings.
The cap put Vegas into position to land the mega-talents that McCrimmon and George McPhee have acquired. The trick is augmenting the superstars with enough talent from draft picks and college signings to make it all work.
When you talk about player acquisition, you can’t forget the college free agent signings. Zach Whitecloud is an indispensable piece of this team, and he was signed as a college free agent.
The VGK would be fortunate if Dugan, or Morozov or another player in the system steps up and plays a prominent role. The more production they can get from minimum-contract players, the better.
The trade is a huge gamble, of course, but acquiring a potential superstar at a position of need who is only 25 is worthwhile.
Drafting well helped the Knights land Eichel, as well as Stone and Pacioretty.
Hopefully, there are more good picks to come, because McCrimmon and McPhee have left the cupboard nearly as barren as Jim Rutherford did with the Pittsburgh Penguins.