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!