GM George McPhee’s work in the next few days will determine Golden Knights’ Year 2 fate
Rarely, if ever, has there been a successful, championship-level NHL team built largely through free agency.
Even before the NHL instituted a salary cap, drafting and developing players was still the surefire way to build into a contender.
As the Vegas Golden Knights head into their first offseason and the start of free agency looms, many in the team’s fan base are in a panic. Reporters who cover the team daily have suggested that none of the four unrestricted free agents — James Neal, David Perron, Luca Sbisa and Ryan Reaves — will return.
This has been the source of great alarm. Neal was fourth on the team with 25 goals and sixth with 44 points. Perron was sixth in goals with 16, first in assists with 50 and third in points with 66.
General manager George McPhee told reporters following the NHL Entry Draft Saturday he’d made offers to all four players.
We’ve made offers to all the players. In a cap world, you don’t have the flexibility to do what you like to do all the time.
So if Neal and Perron leave, that will gut the Knights’ second line. Alex Tuch improved dramatically as the season wore on and by the playoffs, was better than Perron and was on that line with Neal and center Erik Haula. There is, though, no obvious replacement for Neal.
It’s not like Neal is irreplaceable. He’s slow, and getting slower and the NHL is a fast league that is getting faster. He’ll be 31 on opening night, isn’t a great defensive player and doesn’t figure to maintain his game as he ages. So if the Knights were to give him a one- or two-year deal, signing him would be great. But a long-term deal of four or more years would carry significant risk.
When the season ended three wins shy of a Stanley Cup championship, VGK fans were consoled by the fact that the team had more than $30 million in cap space, an owner who was committed to winning and would spend what it took and that there were so many elite players available.
Knights’ fans were making goo-goo eyes at both center John Tavares, an unrestricted free agent, and defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has one more year remaining on his deal with the Senators and is likely to be dealt.
But if you believe the reporters covering Tavares’ free agency, the Knights aren’t one of the teams Tavares is considering. Multiple reports say that Tavares will decide among the Islanders, Sharks, Bruins, Lightning, Maple Leafs and Stars.
Given the quality of the management team, the club’s performance, its fan base and cap space, it’s puzzling Tavares reportedly isn’t more seriously considering the Knights. McPhee made the case well to ESPN’s estimable Greg Wyshynski.
Why wouldn’t you want to play there? It’s a good team, good ownership, fantastic fans, sold out, beautiful facilities … game rink, practice rink. It’s an easy way to live. It’s easy to get around. The weather’s great. There’s no state tax. If we do our job in management, then we can win here because we got everything we need and we can win. First year was a good start, and we’ll see what develops now.
The Knights are strong at center with William Karlsson, Haula, Cody Eakin and Pierre Bellemare, though Tavares would have been transformative. But with 2017 first-round picks Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki about a year or two away, the Knights have good center depth.
The problem for the Knights, though, is what it will take to get Erik Karlsson. It’s been reported that defenseman Shea Theodore is going to be a part of any package the Knights send to Ottawa for Erik Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman and a four-time post-season all-star.
There was one report that had the VGK sending Theodore, Tuch, defenseman Eric Brannstrom (who was a first-round pick in 2017) and a future draft pick to Ottawa for Karlsson. Recognizing that Erik Karlsson is one of the NHL’s great players, that’s entirely too much. Theodore and Tuch are going to be first-rate players, if not stars, in the league, and come with low salaries. Brannstrom is projected as a good offensive defenseman who skates well, can distribute the puck and has added bulk that will help him play in his own end.
That would be tough for the Knights to part with, partly because of the losses to the major league roster but also because of the system’s lack of depth. The Knights haven’t had years to draft and develop players and giving away four potentially quality young players isn’t the way most general managers of expansion franchises want to start.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that McPhee, the reigning NHL General Manager of the Year, convinces Ottawa counterpart Pierre Dorion to take a package that does not include Tuch, but say includes Theodore, Brannstrom and two future picks.
You can do that because of Erik Karlsson’s greatness, but it would make things tricky. Erik Karlsson would be an obvious upgrade on Theodore, although it says here that Theodore will eventually be a star in the NHL. And if Tuch stays, he’d probably be at least a push with Neal in 2018-19 and figures to exceed him after that.
Karlsson’s transition game would help the offense and make up for the loss of Neal and Perron to some degree.
Either Jon Merrill or Zach Whitecloud figures to take Sbisa’s role, and while that may represent a hit to the penalty killing unit, Whitecloud has potential and Sbisa was frequently hurt.
A good player for the Knights to reach out to would be Michael Grabner, one of the fastest players in the league as well as a great penalty killer. Grabner didn’t have a great playoff for the New Jersey Devils, but his speed, size (6-1, 190) and defensive awareness would make him a good fit. He’s scored 27 goals each of the last three years and would help the Knights rebuild their forward depth if they lose Perron and Neal.
Adding Grabner and Erik Karlsson would increase the team’s speed immeasurably, and the Knights were one of the league’s fastest teams in their first year.
If they lose Neal and Perron and don’t get Erik Karlsson, the Knights will be facing a decline. They had plenty of players performing at career levels, and even slight declines from William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Nate Schmidt and Haula would hurt.
As free agency dawns, the Knights stand in an odd position. If things break their way, they could be substantially better than they were last year. The best-case scenario would be to trade for Erik Karlsson, sign Tavares, let Neal, Perron, Sbisa and Reaves walk and fill in the holes with low-budget signings.
The worst-case scenario would be that Tavares goes to the Sharks, a divisional rival, Ottawa keeps Erik Karlsson, Neal, et al, leave and the Knights take a step back in Year 2.
Either scenario is possible. We’ll know in about 10 days how it went.