Alex Pietrangelo heads to the desert to bring a Cup to the Golden Knights
Perhaps it was obvious in the Western Conference finals, when the Vegas Golden Knights made Anton Khudobin look like a prime Marty Brodeur and were dumped from the Stanley Cup playoffs in five games after scoring just eight goals. Maybe it was obvious back in January, when Gerard Gallant was shockingly dumped as head coach and replaced by Peter DeBoer.
Whenever it was, George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon at some point came to the determination that the Golden Knights weren’t good enough to win the Stanley Cup as constituted and needed a major tweak. Well, the tweak came on Monday, when they successfully ended their pursuit of free agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo by signing him away from the St. Louis Blues to a seven-year, $61.6 million contract, the second-largest in team history to Mark Stone’s deal.
That comes on the heels of re-signing goaltender Robin Lehner to a five-year, $25 million contract. As a result of those two signings, the Knights traded center Paul Stastny and his $6.5 million salary to Winnipeg for a conditional fourth-round pick and a minor league defenseman. Then, they shipped the ever-popular Nate Schmidt and his $5.9 million contract to division rival Vancouver for a third-round pick.
So if we look at all of these moves as if they were a single trade, the Knights got Pietrangelo, a third-round pick, a conditional fourth-round pick and minor league defenseman Carl Dahlstrom for Stastny and Schmidt. Most people would like the Knights’ side of that equation.
But I’m not so certain their chances of winning the Cup in the next two or three years are any better than they’d have been if they’d just stood pat or pecked at the edges. For sure, four years and more down the road, their chances are far worse as Pietrangelo hits his mid-30s and his salary cap comes with a full no movement clause.
When Bill Foley was granted the franchise, he famously said, “Playoffs in three; Stanley Cup in six.”
Now, while some may see the team way ahead of schedule, McPhee, the team’s president of hockey operations, and McCrimmon, its general manager, now have to deliver a Cup by the end of the 2022-23 season to meet the owner’s mandate. And though Pietrangelo is one of the NHL’s elite defensemen, it’s by no means a sure thing that the Knights will bring a Cup home by then.
Pietrangelo is unquestionably a better player than Schmidt. Moving on from Stastny, at the age of 34 with that kind of a contract and only a year remaining on his contract, wouldn’t ordinarily be that bad of a move. But the Knights only have one bonafide top six center now, William Karlsson.
They’re going to count on 2017 first-round pick Cody Glass to fill Stastny’s role. It’s a tactic elite teams often do, move veterans a year early and replace them with a talented young player in need of an opportunity. Glass showed flashes last season of why he was the sixth overall pick in 2017, particularly when he was playing between Stone and Max Pacioretty.
But he’s been incredibly injury prone and he’s never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Knights are snug against the cap and have a $7 million a year backup goalie. If they determine at the trade deadline next year that Glass isn’t the guy in the middle to deliver the Cup, do they have the wherewithal to make the moves they want to acquire that player? Cap-wise, it will be tight, and because of all the trades they’ve made, they’re short of picks.
“Along the way we left no stone unturned,” McCrimmon said in a conference call to announce the signing. “We have been in constant contact with GMs for the past month. We determined what the path would look like. … We then asked ourselves if it improves our chances and makes us a better team. We think it does.”
If they make no more moves, they would begin next season with a top defense pairing of Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore. It’s not a reach to say that could be the best pair in the league.
They’d have Alex Martinez and Brayden McNabb as the No. 2 pairing and Nick Holden and Zach Whitecloud on the third. That’s a very solid defense.
Whatever the difference between Pietrangelo and Schmidt will have to make up, next year at least, for the difference between Stastny and Glass. If Glass produces, this should work out. But if he doesn’t — or, if he’s injured for a long period — there is trouble. Let’s assume a first line of Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, which has been the top line in franchise history. Then, put Glass between Stone and Pacioretty. Among the better top sixes in the league if Glass comes through.
But if Glass gets hurt or doesn’t perform, then they have to plug Chandler Stephenson in there, and suddenly the bottom line lines could look like a wasteland from a scoring standpoint. Right now, the third line looks like Stephenson with Nic Roy and Alex Tuch, and the fourth line with Tomas Nosek between Ryan Reaves and Will Carrier.
You’re not going to generate a lot of offense from the bottom six if Stephenson has to go up to fill in for Glass. That will be a problem.
Perhaps 2019 first-round pick Peyton Krebs will be able to contribute by some point next year and could jump in on the third line if needed.
In a salary cap era, you’re going to need rookie and young players to fill key roles if you’re going to win the Cup. Glass and Krebs have a lot of talent, but it might be asking a lot of them next year.
It’s odd to think that signing the No. 1 free agent on the market would be a gamble, but that’s really what it is for McPhee, McCrimmon and the Knights. If he ages well, the contract looks better and better.
But they’re paying a combined $18.3 million to two players with no movement clauses, Stone and Pietrangelo, and another $7 million to a backup goalie. That’s $25.3 million for three players, one of whom won’t even play most nights. There’s not going to be a lot of wiggle room for a while.
This is a results business and McPhee and McCrimmon have made their bets. They’d better be right, or in a couple of years, we’ll be at a news conference listening to the new GM articulate his vision for the franchise.