The Golden Knights could only get by with what they had for so long.
Once you take out all the LTIR guys who were never going to play a game for them last season, Vegas had one of the cheapest teams in recent memory, spending pennies on the dollar compared with what many teams that fared worse in the standings shelled out.
And that’s fine, because they didn’t expect to be competitive this year so they got a very nice surprise, but the sheer number of free agents the team has on the docket is also going to do two things for George McPhee:
Keep him extremely busy for the next month-plus.
Require him to show a lot of restraint.
It’s incredibly easy for GMs to fall in love with teams that brought them success, and specifically the guys who were perceived to have driven that success. Famously, teams like the Kings and Bruins rewarded too many depth players with too-rich contracts that ended up requiring them to make some unhappy personnel decisions that were ultimately fatal for their GMs.
McPhee’s main job, then, is to not use the vast expanse of cap space the Golden Knights carry into the summer on signing guys who he thinks brought them success but who, in reality, can be replaced quickly, easily, and most important, cheaply.
The problem is how to modulate expectation. The fanbase now probably thinks this team is supposed to be good year in and year out, and it might feel incumbent upon McPhee to meet those new and unreasonable expectations. You can’t reasonably project another .930 season from Marc-Andre Fleury, so what does this team’s record look like when it only gets, say, .915 goaltending? And how quickly does the fanbase sour on a team that spends a lot more time on the playoff bubble?
This, obviously, doesn’t matter to James Neal, a pending UFA who will be 31 in early September and scored a good number of goals this season. He is without a doubt a useful second-line winger (who wore an A this season) but the extent to which he will be worth something resembling the $5 million cap hit he carried on his expiring contract is very much up for debate. Frankly, $5 million seems like kind of a lot for 44 points, and if you’re signing James Neal you’re not getting him for both short money and short term; you’d be lucky to get one or the other. Would Neal take a hometown discount? Probably, but what does that look like, and what does it cost you?
Teams can and have definitely overpaid for second-line talent, and while it’s a good thing to have and even an overpay of $2 million AAV wouldn’t break the bank for this club, it’s something to consider if they are, as rumored, going to take a run at every notable UFA and impact player on the trade market.
That is to say, no one would suggest signing James Neal is a mistake, in and of itself, but you have to be awfully careful in the “how” of it. This same logic can be applied to David Perron, who had a 60-point season and only arrived on the wrong side of 30 in late May. Other players, however, are much less worthy of such consideration, and might receive it anyway.
Take, for instance, Ryan Reaves. Not a good player, demonstrably, but one that played what people seemed to by and large think was a big role in their late success in the postseason. The extent to which Gerard Gallant used him in the Western Conference and Cup Finals was certainly outsized, but spawned no shortage of takes about the usefulness of role players like him. McPhee would be wise to avoid re-signing Reaves at all costs, not just because his role is outmoded but also because he probably costs like $1.25 million against the cap and you can find some plug from the AHL to do his job exactly as well for the league minimum. Again, an offer here is more about the troubling symbolism than the money — what’s half a million dollars between friends? — but if you’re pursuing the ability to remain remotely competitive, you have to strip out guys like Reaves and Clayton Stoner who don’t have a place in today’s game.
As to the RFAs the team has to re-up, it’s kind of a who’s who of “good young players other teams inexplicably gave away and are likely to command significant raises.” Wild Bill Karlsson needs a new contract and you can bet both sides will be a lot more focused on the 40-plus goals than the 24-plus shooting percentage that got him there.
What about Tomas Nosek, who was pretty useful in the playoffs after an ineffectual regular season, or pretty-good-but-not-great youngish defensemen like Colin Miller and Shea Theodore who likewise had good postseason runs.
Vegas has so much cap space — something like $33 million right now — and so little to actually spend it on that they can perhaps be forgiven an overspend here and there. They can add so much talent, if they want to, beyond those overpays. But if they want to stay in the hunt near the top of their own division, they need to add that very real talent that reliably produces and prevents goals. So the question becomes how much McPhee believes the answers are already in the dressing room.
The good news is that the team’s well-past-rumored pursuit of Erik Karlsson, and still-just-rumored of maybe Johns Tavares and Carlson and even Ilya Kovalchuk, indicates an understanding that the teams which are able to consistently get deep into the playoffs do so with elite talent. Vegas, because it’s an expansion team, doesn’t have much.
If McPhee is willing to torch all that cap space in pursuit of two, maybe even three elite players, then the Golden Knights are going to be well-positioned to win out in the Pacific again. Their success last year might be a selling point to top UFAs (so too, the lack of Nevada state income tax), but a couple swings and misses on the open market this summer could leave McPhee feeling like he has to use the space for the sake of using it, or simply rolling out another $50 million team.
If the former, great. With a top defenseman or two plus another excellent forward, this is a team to be feared even if (cough when cough cough) Fleury regresses.
If the latter, well, Vegas will get a taste of what being an expansion team is actually supposed to feel like.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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