Is anyone really prepared for this?
We’re less than an hour away from what will surely be the craziest opening day of free agency we’ve ever seen. Several big-name players like Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Taylor Hall and more are expected to hit the open market. There will be an insane amount of goaltenders out there. And the one key thread that unites them all is the consequences of the flat salary cap for the 2020-21 season.
Teams simply won’t have the ability to throw money around as they have in previous seasons. Several teams are in jeopardy already and that’s before even making a run at improving the team. The Vegas Golden Knights have several players popping up in trade talks from the obvious Marc-Andre Fleury to Peter Stastny and Nate Schmidt. Yes, the VGK could use some breathing room because of how tight to the cap ceiling they are. PuckPedia has the Golden Knights currently sitting at -$2.5M in cap room, and other teams are in no rush to help them out. Other clubs are bound by their own constraints of real money, internal caps and contract issues. Plus you really can’t expect teams to line up to help a club that made the Western Conference Final.
On top of it all, most teams will be active in free agency this year because there will be bargains aplenty. Guys who pre-virus thought they were due for a raise might find the market unwilling. This is going to cause a lot more shifting in the sands especially at the lower reaches as players go without qualifying offers and flood the market even more.
When asked what to expect on Friday, Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon said “I think that’s the question everyone is asking.”
He talked about how having more players available on top of the compressed timeline from draft to free agency makes for an unusual year. McCrimmon cited the example of Nick Cousins, whom the Golden Knights did not qualify because of cap constraints.
“He’s an example of one of those players that played well enough you would have easily been able to justify qualifying him. It doesn’t mean we won’t revisit it. We like Nick, we thought he contributed in his time here, but in terms of making the decision (for the opening of free agency) that was the direction that we went.”
Cousins could end up back in a Vegas sweater. Head coach Pete DeBoer seemed to take a shine to him, and his effort in the playoffs was noticeable. But again, it boils down to dollars and sense. Clearly Vegas wants to take a run at some of the bigger names out there, but will they be able to afford it? And even provided they make some room for a splash, can they then fill out the roster around the shiny new bauble?
It’s a hard argument to settle. I wouldn’t tell anyone to get their hopes up, but it’s not impossible either. Many teams are in similar situations for the next year or two at least and the teams that can afford to help them know that. The prices extracted for that help will be high. But in terms of taking a run in your window to win a Stanley Cup, you have to sacrifice something. For the Golden Knights, it could be organizational depth in terms of prospects and picks. It could be cash. And it could mean parting with a player you really like, but have to move to get a deal done.
The Good News
There is already a lot of good news for VGK fans. Your starting goalie of the future is locked up for the next five years. You also have solid deals in place with players like Shea Theodore and Mark Stone. The core of a contender is solidly there.
Cost certainty is a phrase you’re going to hear a lot over the next few days for good reason. It’s important for teams to know who they have and for how long when projecting ahead to an NHL where the cap simply doesn’t rise. It’s going to take a while for hockey-related revenue to bounce back, which means the handcuffs teams find themselves in now are going to be on them for a few more seasons. Vegas is going into free agency seeking that certainty not only for this season but beyond. It’s crucial to the stability of the on-ice product and the ability to contend over the next several seasons.
At some point contracts have to move. At its core, hockey is a business. Players are assets. When those assets are no longer returning the expected investment, you divest yourself of them. The hard part is when you form the attachment that makes teams do foolish things like hang onto players too long. It’s a hard part of the process.
So I expect McCrimmon and the Golden Knights to make some tough decisions. Just like they had to do with Cousins, it isn’t easy but it has to be done in today’s game. Fleury, Schmidt, Stastny and many other names will be in play. It wouldn’t surprise me to see another forward moved out, or perhaps a top prospect. Vegas has not shied away from moving good young players like Nick Suzuki or Erik Brannstrom in previous trades.
Whatever deals may come, Vegas is about to take its fans on a wild ride into next season. Buckle up!
The Stage is Set for Vegas to Run Away Early
When the Vegas Golden Knights saw the team’s schedule for this season, I’m willing to bet there were more than a few smiles in the front office. While no game in the NHL is a guarantee, the way the schedule breaks down for the VGK to start the season favors them jumping out to a lead that will be tough to overtake in the Honda West Division.
Looking at the first six games, it’s easy to see how the Golden Knights could potentially win all of them. Opening with a pair against the struggling Anaheim Ducks followed by four against an Arizona Coyotes team that will still be figuring out its new identity this season. the Golden Knights have it comparatively easy. Consider the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, the two best teams in the division outside of Nevada, face each other twice right away.
After those six games, a pair with St. Louis could yield a split. So let’s call it 7-1 at that point. After that, six more games against the bottom-dwelling California teams. Vegas will play two each against the San Jose Sharks, LA Kings and Ducks once more.
I’m not saying things always go perfectly. They often don’t. But it is possible that before the Golden Knights play four in a row against the Colorado Avalanche a month from now, they could potentially be 13-1, 12-2 or something resembling that mark. No other team in the HWD has that type of chance to jump out in front and Vegas needs to capitalize.
Here’s the other advantage for Vegas in starting with six games against perceptibly weaker opponents: the ability to lock in. Line combinations, defensive groupings, special teams. All the things you take time on in pre-season games. All things that every other NHL team didn’t have a chance to do because we had no pre-season. Vegas is fortunate to have those games on the schedule right away to dial things in just a little bit more over the course of two weeks of games.
If the VGK capitalize and get off to a fast start, there’s no way anyone in the HWD will catch them.
Why Five Defenseman For The Vegas Golden Knights?
The Vegas Golden Knights are going into tonight’s game with only five defensemen and 13 forwards instead of the usual 6+12=18 setup for skaters.
Why? The answer is simple. Cap compliance.
By dressing Keegan Kolesar and his $725k salary, the Golden Knights will barely clear the bar and get under this season’s $81.5M salary cap. After signing Alex Pietrangelo in the off-season and trading away Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt, the Golden Knights were still a sliver over. So they waived Nick Holden and were able to shave another ~$1M against the cap. The problem is, they don’t have a sixth defenseman they want to dress who makes what Kolesar does. So 13 forwards it is.
Vegas will have to do similar juggling all season long, but GM Kelly McCrimmon doesn’t seem concerned. McCrimmon cited the workhorse time on ice numbers of both Shea Theodore who led Vegas in that category last year, and Alex Pietrangelo who led the St. Louis Blues in the same category. Perhaps rotating five defensemen and giving more ice time to the workhorses will bode well for Vegas. If there’s a season to do it, one that only lasts 56 games as opposed to 82 might be the one to do it.
Keep an eye on how the defense fares over the first two or three weeks of the season. If things go well, expect to see this setup more often than not for the Golden Knights.
Four Bold Predictions For The Vegas Golden Knights
When we say bold predictions, we mean BOLD.
Vegas Hockey Now is very big on keeping things real and giving you the unfiltered analysis – good and bad – on the Vegas Golden Knights.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t think big like Golden Knights fans either. If everything were to go right this season, what great things could happen? This isn’t a list that includes ‘the team will be good this season’ on it. This is shooting for the moon and having fun doing it. Here we go.
Prediction #1 – Major Hardware
This is the year the Golden Knights add more hardware to the trophy case, but not something they’ve won before. With two legitimate Norris Trophy candidates on the roster in Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore the VGK will be in the conversation all season long when it comes to defense. The only worry I have is one player cannibalizing the other because they’re on the same team. I’ve seen it happen.
That said, I’m predicting Robin Lehner puts forth a Vezina-winning campaign this year. Partly because he’s been nominated before and is fully capabale, but also look at the defense in front of him. I fully expect Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury to capture the William Jennings Trophy (fewest goals against) this season, and Lehner should be making room for his first Vezina Trophy.
Prediction #2 – Chandler Stephenson, NHL All-Star
No, there wont’ be an All-Star Game this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the NHL won’t hand out selections. Even if it ends up being post-season First and Second Team All-Stars, Stephenson will be on the list. Playing between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, we predict a huge season for the pivot that sends folks scrambling to pick him up in fantasy leagues across North America. He hasn’t looked out of place whatsoever and that’s even with Pacioretty flying around like he has wings on his skates. This line will be electric and Stephenson is literally in the middle of it all.
Prediction #3 – Vegas Has Highest-Scoring Defense in the NHL
A reach? We don’t think so. Pietrangelo and Theodore will obviously play a big role in this, but don’t overlook the rest of the defenders. Plus, Pete DeBoer likes an active defense jumping up into the play to make things happen offensively. It makes for a nice attacking blend of hockey that helps the Golden Knights keep other teams back on their heels. Offense from the defense will be a tremendous bonus on a team that has one of the best top six forward groups in the NHL, and could potentially boast one of the best power plays this year.
Prediction #4 – The Stanley Cup Comes To Vegas
I’m not buying the Colorado hype. I think the entire East Division is going to beat itself to a pulp. Tampa Bay is the most likely Stanley Cup opponent and they’ll get Nikita Kucherov back by then (no cap in the playoffs). So don’t kid yourself, this isn’t going to be easy. But Vegas is deeper than Tampa up front and on defense. While I definitely give the edge in special teams and goal to the Lightning, I believe the Golden Knights have what it takes to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to The Strip this season. You heard it here first!
So there you go, four bold predictions for this season. What are your predictions? Tell us in the comments… Golden Knights or otherwise!