In his final off-season as General Manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, George McPhee has his work cut out for him. Once again, William Karlsson is a hot-ticket Restricted Free Agent (RFA). He also has a Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) superstar in Nikita Gusev who is an RFA looking to join the team, after burning his ELC deal last postseason. A handful of role players are hitting the open market as RFAs or Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), only adding to his summer workload. An increasingly tricky salary cap situation awaits the Golden Knights this summer, making his job that much harder. McPhee has a lot of work to do, before handing the reins to Kelly McCrimmon on September 1.
William Karlsson (USA Today Sports)
Could Wild Bill be on the move?
First and foremost, raises are helping make this off-season trickier for McPhee’s swan song as GM. There are five major contract extensions that will be coming into play, representing a payroll increase of $13,425,000 heading into the 2019-20 season. Below is the list of Golden Knights raises, listed in order of their 2019-20 cap hits.
Player: 2018 Cap Hit / 2019 Cap Hit:
Mark Stone: $7.35 million / $9.5 million
Max Pacioretty: $4.5 million / $7.0 million
Marc-Andre Fleury: $5.75 million / $7.0 million
Nate Schmidt: $2.25 million / $5.95 million
Alex Tuch: $925k / $4.75 million
Interestingly, outside of those five men, only five other players have more than one year left on their current deals (C-Paul Stastny: 2, RW-Reilly Smith: 3, D-Shea Theodore: 6, D-Colin Miller: 3, and D-Brayden McNabb: 3). Moving forward, McCrimmon clearly won’t be at a loss for action, despite the work that is cut out for McPhee and Co. this summer.
Looking into the team’s needs for next season, third line left wing is a clear opening with an intended solution. Gusev is projected to fill that role and will command a decent contract. Karlsson’s contract status and the Golden Knights’ surplus of centers leaves the rest of that line in question. If Karlsson does come back, he slots into his normal spot, leaving Cody Eakin and Erik Haula to fill as bottom-six centers. Although that would be the easy fix, the Golden Knights can’t simply re-sign Karlsson and keep the rest the same, as Jimmy Schuldt, Tomas Nosek, and Malcolm Subban are expected to be in the mix and need new deals.
In order to become cap compliant, the Golden Knights brass will need to swing a few deals, to shed some salary. The most common names being tossed around in rumors are Miller (3 years/$3.875 million), Eakin (1 year/$3.850 million), Haula (1 year/$2.75 million), and Ryan Reaves (1 year/$2.775 million). Not to say these men can’t play, but they have cap hits that could provide enough relief to resign Karlsson. Alternatively, the club could choose to trade Karlsson’s RFA rights to another team, allowing them to keep their other tradeable assets. On the Free Agent market, RFA Brayden Point (Tampa) and UFA Matt Duchene (CBJ) are the premier options at center. Nobody knows what McPhee will do, but here are a few potential dance partners for McPhee this summer.
Thanks to their recently-dismissed GM, the Flyers have a whole bunch of cap room and a need for the Golden Knights’ specific surpluses. Heading into the 2019-20 season with a ton of optimism and a desire to “win now”, the Flyers will be one of the teams looking to make a splash in free agency and/or the trade market. Sean Couturier established himself as an elite option as first-line center, when captain Claude Giroux made the move to wing this past season. 2017 second overall pick, Nolan Patrick slots into the middle six at center and Scott Laughton could be a desirable fourth-line center if they were able to nab another middle-six option.
Nolan Patrick (USA Today Sports)
Nolan Patrick could either be the 2C or 3C next season in Philly.
Quite frankly, this club could take on any of the three of Karlsson, Haula, or Eakin and immediately improve. They also could use a big-shot, right-handed defenseman that excels on the power play. As Broad Street Hockey's Brad Keffer pointed out
, the Flyers make a ton of sense as a potential landing spot for Miller. Miller and one of the centers could be a great haul for the orange and black. Never known as a team to be shy, the Flyers could sit back and wait to offer sheet Point or make a run at Duchene, but making a deal with the Golden Knights fills two clear-cut needs for their team. Imagining a young and talented defense corps of Ivan Provorov, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, Philippe Myers, Colin Miller, and Radko Gudas should push GM Chuck Fletcher to make a deal with McPhee.
Colin Miller (USA Today Sports)
Miller could be a trade target for numerous teams this summer.
As a team that missed the playoffs, after signing James van Riemsdyk to a big contract in free agency last summer. Their new GM was brought in to take the next step, building on his predecessor Ron Hextall’s stockpiling of draft picks and prospects. Despite signing van Riemsdyk, Hextall was too stagnant and shown the door. McPhee could score a haul of draft picks and/or one of the Flyers’ better prospects such as defenseman Sam Morin, forward Isaac Ratcliffe, or goaltender Felix Sandstrom.
New Jersey Devils
One of the luckier teams in the NHL, the Devils won the draft lottery and were gifted the number one pick in this year’s Entry Draft, as they got in the summer of 2017 when they selected Nico Hischier number one. The consensus choice for the number one pick this year is forward Jack Hughes. Selecting either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko at number one mixed with the salary cap flexibility to wheel and deal with the Golden Knights could give the Devils the bounce back season they crave in New Jersey.
Their roster already boasts the likes of Hischier, who could be an impact player for years to come, playing alongside the 2018 Most Valuable Player, Taylor Hall. Adding Hughes or Kakko to the mix with any combination of players they can work off McPhee’s hands could be all it takes to reverse their downward trend and contend for the playoffs. Hall and Corey Schneider are the highest paid players on the team at $6 million per season, which gives them tons of cap flexibility.
Nico Hischier (USA Today Sports)
Although they play in the same conference, the Avs play in the Central Division, not the Pacific and could make a suitable trade partner for the Golden Knights. In terms of forwards, the Avalanche only have six players inked to contracts for next season. They could possibly part with in-house options and opt to deal with the Knights for one of their talented forwards that are sure to be on the block. Once they resign their prized RFA Mikko Rantanen, the Avalanche will look to round out their team with a deeper core of forwards. There’s no denying the talent of their top-three of Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon, but they were ultimately snake-bitten by the lack of offensive depth.
Mikko Rantanen (USA Today Sports)
Could he have a new linemate from Vegas next season?
Any of the three Golden Knight centers could walk in the door and become the first-line center in Colorado, to slide MacKinnon to the wing, wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. To more evenly spread out offensive production, the Avalanche could acquire a guy like Haula or Eakin to center the second line, with Rantanen on their wing. Eakin showed an ability to move up and down the lineup, playing a solid 200-foot game when the injury bug struck in Vegas. In his own right, Haula scored 29 goals in his last full season (2017-18), which would put him ahead of every player in Colorado not named MacKinnon, Rantanen, or Landeskog.
These three teams present intriguing options for McPhee. The Flyers have a ton of draft picks stocked up and could afford to move for the Knights’ proven talent. Meanwhile, the Devils and Avalanche have high-profile picks that they may not be looking to move out of, at first and fourth respectively. One thing that’s for sure is that McPhee has some dealing to do, in order to maintain the level of success that Vegas has become accustomed to in their first two seasons. Out of the three options listed, the Flyers make the most sense as a trade partner. Fletcher is being urged to make moves and take the next step and the Golden Knights need to shed salary this summer.
Karlsson is a fan-favorite (I mean, come on, look at the guy) and will most-likely be inked to a long-term deal, but both sides were far apart last summer when filing for arbitration. His camp wanted $6.5 million, the club filed for $3.5 million, and they avoided arbitration with a one-year, $5.25 million deal. If contract talks are still stagnating, he could certainly be an option to move, as his rights will be well worth avoiding a potential offer sheet scenario. This will be an interesting saga to follow during the off-season. If it weren’t for having to start a whole new team in 2017, through an expansion draft, this would be the hands-down hardest job McPhee has had to do thus far in Vegas.
When all is said and done, he will leave the GM position with a strong legacy in place. Once September comes Kelly McCrimmon will officially take over as the club’s GM and from all accounts, it will be business-as-usual. Free agency officially starts on July 1 and if GMs decide to utilize offer sheets on RFAs, we could be in for a fun ride this summer. In addition to Karlsson, big names such as Rantanen (COL), Point (TBL), Mitch Marner (TOR), Patrick Laine (WPG), Sebastian Aho (CAR), Brock Boeser (VAN), and Timo Meier (SJS) are on the RFA list. Most will resign with their club, but others (Point, Laine, Meier) will be looking at substantial raises, for clubs with limited cap space.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter for up-to-date Golden Knights news, updates, and discussion. I will be very active all summer, as the Vegas Golden Knights head into their third season of play, here in Sin City.