It’s the least sexy idea, but standing pat at trade deadline could pay dividends for the Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2018 in their first year of existence, and were it not for an all-timer save by Braden Holtby on Alex Tuch in the waning moments of Game 2, the Knights could have paraded the Cup down Las Vegas Boulevard in their first year of existence.
After signing Paul Stastny as a free agent and trading for Max Pacioretty, with those two essentially replacing James Neal and David Perron, the Knights are definitely more talented than they were in their first season.
They’re not necessarily a better team, though, and that’s a problem for them as the NHL’s Feb. 25 trade deadline draws nearer.
The Knights have lost four in a row at home and six of eight overall and are looking at starting the playoffs on the road at either Calgary or San Jose. Neither is an appealing proposition.
If this was the Golden Knights’ 10th year of existence and the circumstances were the same as they are now, there is no question that general manager George McPhee would be all in attempting to add the final pieces that put the Knights over the top.
But it’s the team’s second season and going all in, while sounding good in marketing materials to the team’s rabid fan base, may not be so wise. The Knights don’t have much of a farm system given they’ve only had two drafts and have already traded several of the picks they acquired in the expansion draft.
To land Pacioretty from Montreal in that blockbuster Sept. 10 deal, McPhee traded Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick. That’s a high-price, considering Suzuki was a first-round draft pick in 2017 and Tatar cost the Knights a first, a second and a third in a deal with the Red Wings at the 2018 trade deadline.
So if you want to look at it another way, to get Pacioretty, Vegas gave up two firsts, two seconds and a third. Now, Pacioretty has been mostly excellent for the Knights and his only issue is staying healthy. Still, that’s a lot to pay for any one player.
The Knights acquired Tatar only after a 2018 deadline deal to acquire defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa fell apart late. Had McPhee kept those picks, the Knights probably would have been able to land Karlsson in the offseason by using them. And he’d certainly be more valuable to the VGK than Pacioretty, with all due respect to the former Canadiens’ captain.
Karlsson is a right-handed shot, which the Knights badly need on the blue line, and he’d be the team’s leading scorer. He has 43 points for San Jose in 47 games while Tuch leads the Golden Knights with 40 points in 50 games.
The Knights could use a strong two-way forward, a defenseman and a veteran backup goalie and if McPhee were to land the right players, it’s not out of the question that his team could win the Western Conference championship again.
It’s a massive gamble, though, made larger by the Knights’ lack of organizational depth. The depth the team does have is remarkable and a testament to the work of McPhee, assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon and staff.
Players who are believed to be available at the trading deadline who would be of help to the Golden Knights are, in no particular order, Ottawa right wing Mark Stone, Columbus left wing Artemi Panarin, Anaheim right wing Jakob Silfverberg, Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard, Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk, Carolina left wing Micheal Ferland, Rangers center Kevin Hayes, Kings left wing Carl Hagelin and Detroit right wing Gustav Nyquist.
The most popular acquisition would probably be Stone, who played junior hockey for McCrimmon’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
Stone, who is on an expiring contract and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, is 6-4, 220 pounds, a terrific defender and has scored more than 20 goals in each of the last five years. This year, he has 26 goals and 57 points, both of which would lead the VGK, in 56 games.
If the Knights acquired him, the Knights could put him on their first line and move Reilly Smith to the third. With no other moves, that would allow for something like this:
Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson-Stone
Smith-Cody Eakin-Brandon Pirri
Will Carrier-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Ryan Reaves
That would be four very solid lines, including three of which could be expected to score consistently. With Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, that could be a Cup-worthy forward group.
There’s always a but and the but here is whether the Golden Knights a) have the resources to acquire Stone and b) whether it would make sense to do so.
The Knights don’t have the prospect depth that other teams do given they’d only been around two years. So what could they offer Ottawa to entice it to trade Stone?
Well, let’s start with the 2019 first-round draft pick. That’s a starter. And while the VGK has a solid group of young defense prospects, it’s almost a guarantee that it won’t include Erik Brannstrom in any deal. Brannstrom was a 2017 first-round pick and excelled at the World Juniors this season.
So for a second-piece, the Knights would probably have to include defenseman Nic Hague, a 6-6 20-year-old who has a booming shot and can play on a top power play. Hague was a second-rounder in 2017 but would probably go in the late first if there was a re-draft now.
Ottawa may also want defenseman Zach Whitecloud, who the Knights signed as a college free agent last year. He isn’t a guy who is going to win the Norris Trophy, but he has the look of a guy who can play in the top six, maybe the top four, of a winning team.
There would probably be at least another pick, maybe the second in 2020 the Knights got from Pittsburgh at the Expansion Draft and maybe the rights to Nikita Gusev. Gusev leads the KHL with 74 points in 58 games and his contract expires after this season, making him eligible to come to the NHL next year. Though at 5-9 and 176 pounds he’s small by NHL standards, he’s a great skater and looks like a top six forward.
Something close to that is what it is going to take to get a player of Stone’s caliber, and then the team that acquires him is going to have to sign him.
If the Knights give up that type of haul — say a 2019 first, a 2020 second, Hague and Gusev — it would be worth it if they win the Cup in June. But if they give that up and don’t win it, McPhee’s job becomes infinitely harder. And then he has issues at the 2020 trade deadline
Of course, they could try to make smaller moves, and Silfverberg would fit perfectly if Anaheim doesn’t resign him and moves him to get something for him. But again, it’s going to take picks and with no depth in the system to speak of, those picks are precious for the Knights. Hagelin’s speed would be huge for the Knights, who love to get in quick on the forecheck, and he could be had cheaply.
The best course of action this year, though, is probably the least sexy one, and that’s to stand pat. The team hasn’t had one game this year where its full lineup all played. It’s unknown if Erik Haula will be back this year, but if he does get it, he’d solve a problem by boosting that third line.
If Haula comes back and contributes and the team picks it up down the stretch, the Knights are a threat. But they’ll be even a better threat next year with the likely addition of Brannstrom and fellow 2017 first-rounder Cody Glass in the line-up. Glass had a great World Junior for Team Canada and is showing the signs of being an impact player.
The Knights can be players in free agency again in the offseason, and if they bring in Gusev and sign a free agent in July, that could be a big step up.
Trade deadline day is fun, but it’s not always productive for the teams.
I urge McPhee to pass and keep this franchise a contender in both the short- and long-term.