The smallest moves have had a huge impact upon VGK’s early successes
Fans and media love major trades and big-money free agent signings. Potential trades are speculated about daily and when one year’s free agent signings end, speculation immediately begins about who will sign where the following year.
The Vegas Golden Knights have garnered more than their fair share of headlines in their brief existence for mega-trades and high-priced free agent signings. Over five-plus seasons, the Knights have swung trades for frontline players like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Robin Lehner, Tomas Tatar and Alec Martinez, and that doesn’t even count the masterful trades George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon pulled off at the expansion draft.
As for free agent signings, well, Alex Pietrangelo was the No. 1 free agent in 2020 and the VGK nabbed him.
Building a championship roster, especially in a league with a salary cap, is never simply about big swings, however. And with the Knights completing the 2022-23 NHL season’s first 10 games at an astounding 8-2, it’s never been more apparent how important some of the less-publicized moves turned out to be.
Most Knights’ fans were thrilled when Pietrangelo was signed, even though the team was immediately forced to trade Nate Schmidt for a draft pick to get cap compliant. Signing Pietrangelo had most Knights’ fans exuberant, until they learned it cost the team Schmidt, one of its most popular players and best defenders.
Trading for Jack Eichel last year not only cost the Knights Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs, as well as a first-round draft pick, but it led directly to the trade of both Pacioretty and Dylan Coghlan for nothing — literally nothing.
The Knights didn’t get much acclaim from the fan base in 2018 when they signed an unknown defenseman out of the collegiate ranks. But now, Zach Whitecloud is an indispensable member of the team signed to a reasonably priced multi-year deal. Imagine where the Knights would be without Whitecloud, who plays on the VGK’s third pairing with Nicolas Hague but would be a second-pair defenseman with about half of the teams in the league.
Next to no one noticed when they signed goaltender Logan Thompson on July 13, 2020, out of the ECHL. Thompson has played so well, and has two shutouts in six starts, that he is being touted as a Rookie of the Year candidate. He’s been one of the key cogs to the VGK’s quick start.
So, too, has his goaltending partner Adin Hill, who got precious little support in past NHL stops in Arizona and San Jose. The Knights traded for him this year and that acquisition barely received notice. But Hill has been fantastic in his four starts and played a huge role in saving Sunday’s 2-1 overtime victory over Winnipeg. The Knights were dominating Winnipeg in every way possible, but they couldn’t beat Connor Hellebuyck. But in overtime, it was Hill who made the big stops to allow Eichel to perform the game-winning heroics with seven seconds left.
Erik Haula was a popular member of the VGK’s inaugural team, but after Season 2, he was dumped in one of the many salary-cap related trades that McPhee and McCrimmon made. Some fans may have believed they got nothing, but Nic Roy is a far better player now than Haula ever was and he is still improving. One of the keys to this season’s fast start has been the stellar play of the bottom six, and Roy has been an anchor there, playing superbly defensively and contributing enough offensively that he’s on the second power play unit.
Speaking of the bottom six, Brett Howden has been another solid performer. He was acquired when Ryan Reaves was traded, much to the consternation of VGK Nation. Reaves was one of the most popular players in franchise history, and might have been second-most popular overall behind Marc-Andre Fleury. When Reaves returned to T-Mobile Arena last year as a member of the New York Rangers, he received a thunderous welcome from appreciative Knights’ fans.
But Howden, who hasn’t hit his stride year offensively yet, has played on either the second or third line so far and has been a positive addition. He signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal in the offseason that didn’t get much acclaim, but having Roy ($3 million), Howden ($1.5 million), William Carrier ($1.4 million), Keegan Kolesar ($1.4 million), Phil Kessel ($1.5 million) and Michael Amadio ($762,500) signed for this year at a combined $9,562,500, or $437,500 less than Eichel makes himself, has allowed the team to have the depth to compete in this very even league.
Coach Bruce Cassidy knows the season is a marathon and there is a grueling road ahead. But he can’t help but be optimistic based on what he’s seen so far.
“As far as our identity, I want it to be that we’re hard to play against,” he said following the stirring 2-1 victory over the Jets on Sunday. “We’re going to be solid defensively as a group. And I think that [through 10 games] that has definitely been our identity. There’s no doubt about it. … We also want to be a team that transitions and scores and I think we’ve done a lot of that, as well. Our goal numbers aren’t as high as what we’ve actually done on the ice. When I look at a night like tonight, I know those are going to go in down the road.”
Eichel played Superman on Sunday, showing why the Knights gave up so much quality for him. The Knights will have to win the Cup sometime during Eichel’s tenure to make that deal worth it. He’s had a good start to this season and has 10 points to lead the team. He hasn’t had the impact that, say, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who was picked one spot ahead of him in 2015, has had, nor has he had the kind of impact that Nate MacKinnon and Cale Makar have had for Colorado.
If he can have that type of impact for the VGK, this will be a very different looking team when the playoffs begin.
But if the Knights go on a long postseason run this year or, dare I say it, win the Cup to fulfill owner Bill Foley’s dream of a Stanley Cup championship within six years, it’s going to be not just Eichel, Stone and Pietrangelo who make the difference. It will be guys like Thompson, Roy, Howden, Whitecloud and even Chandler Stephenson, acquired for a song of a fifth-round pick in 2019 who has become a top-line player for the team who will have a huge part in what becomes of this team.