With a few days to spare before the scheduled arbitration hearing, Keegan Kolesar agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $1.4 million per year. It’s a length and a price that fits perfectly for everyone involved, including the cap-strapped Golden Knights.
To understand why, it starts with setting aside any preconceived notions one may have of Kolesar’s game, the chief among them being his inability to score. There’s no denying the fact that Kolesar could have doubled his goal output last season had he been more clinical around the goal. But the fact remains, even still, he scored seven goals and posted 17 assists in 77 games, and did it while shooting well under the league average at 7.4%.
If he can improve his shooting even a bit, just to around 10%, we’re counting his goals using both hands and a few toes. But even if he can’t, five to seven goals for a player in Kolesar’s role is perfectly acceptable.
That’s because there’s more to Kolesar’s game than putting the puck in the back of the net. He led the team in hits last season, dishing out 246, nearly 100 more than every other Golden Knight. He’s one of the better forecheckers on the team while also being defensively responsible. He logged the 6th most penalty kill minutes among forwards, and with Mattias Janmark leaving that number could go up. And he even filled in on the power play, scoring a goal in just 35:42 of man-advantage time.
Plus, despite my personal feelings for the role of enforcer, Kolesar fought nine times last season, accounting for literally half of the team’s total number. If you have to have a guy like that on the roster, which it seems the Golden Knights remain committed to, he might as well be able to score a few goals, chip in 20+ assists, and play in all situations.
Combine it all, and there’s no reason why Kolesar is worth anything less than $1.5 million. (Don’t believe me? Look up Zach Aston-Reese and/or Garnet Hathaway.) However, with the Golden Knights’ situation, they need to maximize every dollar they can, which is why $1.4 million is a good number for Vegas in 2022-23. Throwing on the extra years to avoid arbitration likely kept Kolesar’s contract from pushing closer to $2 million in a year VGK can barely afford to field a legal lineup.
It also sets Vegas up nicely for the future. If Kolesar can take even the smallest step forward in the finishing department, he has the capability of being about a $3 million player. Paying him just $1.5 for each of the next three years offers a rare chance for a player to significantly outperform his contract, something the Golden Knights are in desperate need of. Even if things don’t get well, $1.5 million is easy to move or bury in the AHL.
On the other hand, for Kolesar, he’s set up nicely not only for now but for three years down the road. For a player who had logged just 45 games in the first six years after being drafted, he parlayed his first true full season in the NHL into $4.5 million guaranteed.
Had he gone to arbitration, he likely would have gotten a pinch more, but the term would have been just a single year. That would have forced him into another prove-it season which could easily have resulted in a mid-season trade or even not getting a qualifying offer next season. Instead, he now has three seasons to build on his game and position himself for his next contract, when he will be a 28-year-old UFA in a year where the cap could jump 10-15%.
Keegan Kolesar is not the perfect hockey player. Heck, he’s not even the perfect fourth liner, but he’s certainly above replacement level with enough untapped offensive upside and physical intangibles to be worth much more than the league minimum.
The Golden Knights now have him locked in for three seasons in which at the absolute worst he costs less than $300,000 against the cap while buried in the AHL. At the absolute best, he’s filling the role of enforcer while potting double-digit goals and killing penalties along the way.
Low-risk, high-reward. A bet you take every time. Especially in Vegas.