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After expansion success, Golden Knights face challenge of improving without a blank slate

Golden Knights GM George McPhee had a blank slate when building Vegas last season, but now he faces the same issues that plagued his GM counterparts last season, including potential albatross contracts and risks of altering the locker room culture.

LAS VEGAS – With a team as quick and efficient as the Vegas Golden Knights were this season, perhaps it should come as no surprise that they cleaned out their stalls and broke for the season a little more than 12 hours after they lost Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.

And now, after the Golden Knights took their fans and the rest of the hockey world on one of the wildest rides in NHL history, the work begins anew. The reality is that in light of the way the Capitals rolled over them in the final, the Golden Knights are a little further from being a championship team than we all thought. What they did by finishing fifth overall in the NHL with 109 points and winning three rounds was impressive, but it’s fair to say the Knights overachieved.

If they want to be back in this vicinity of the playoffs, they have to get better. Their speed game was stalled in the Stanley Cup final, their defense was exposed in a lot of ways and they did not get the goaltending they needed to steal the final. It will be interesting to see how they react. The whole playoff-in-three, Stanley-Cup-in-five prediction made by owner Bill Foley when the team launched has pretty much been tossed out the window. Their development has been accelerated and they’ll have to do more than tweak to maintain serious contender status.

And that clean slate, that blank canvas that GM George McPhee had when the team was established, is starting to get a little clogged up. Tomas Tatar, who was healthy scratch until Game 4 of the final, is on the books for three more years at $5.3 million per year, meaning that depending upon how Tatar responds to his lack of play, the Golden Knights might just have their first contract albatross on the books. And then there’s the elephant in the room. The Golden Knights came very close to acquiring Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson at the trade deadline, but doing so would also mean they would have to take on Bobby Ryan, a winger who has produced sub-par and has four years remaining on his deal at $7.25 million per year. That might be Albatross No. 2 right there.

Karlsson would make a team that has speed and pushes the pace even more dangerous and exciting to watch next season. But even he is not without risk. The Golden Knights would not want to acquire him without first trying to work out a long-term contract extension. Karlsson, a perennial Norris Trophy contender, saw his play and production dip last season after having his ankle surgically repaired. If healthy, he would definitely make Vegas a serious long-term contender in the west.

And here is where the tough decision comes in. McPhee would undoubtedly have to part with some of his young assets and take on $7.25 million in cap space in Ryan’s contract. Suddenly, that deal might not look so appealing to him. One of the biggest factors in the Golden Knights success this season was that players who deserved to play were in the lineup. That’s why Tatar sat for so long despite being the highest-paid skater on the team. It’s also why the Knights bit the bullet and bought out Vadim Shipachyov after realizing they had made a mistake signing him.

“We’d like to keep this identity,” McPhee said on Friday. “It’s a very tight-knit group. It’s a hardworking team. They really played well for Gerard. He coached them well. That’s what we want to keep. What I love about our room is there’s no hierarchy. There’s no entitlement. It’s just a bunch of guys that show up and work their tails off and get along and represent this organization and this city very well.”

Would introducing Karlsson and Ryan into that mix jeopardize that? And what ripple effect would it have on the team moving forward. The Golden Knights have a ton of cap space, but that will get eaten up quickly, particularly when 43-goal-man William Karlsson – speaking of Karlssons – receives his massive raise over the summer. The team will also have to make a decision on James Neal, a player who was originally acquired in the expansion draft as a player to deal at the trade deadline before all the winning started. “I want to come back,” Neal said. “I thought we got a great thing going here. I want to win. We were so close. We have a great group of guys here and I think it will work out.”

McPhee, meanwhile, wants to maintain the culture and the up-tempo, entertaining style of play the Golden Knights rode to being the most successful expansion team in professional sports history. But he also knows that you get mired in the muck when you start making rash decisions. “You have to be really smart on all of the deals that you do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where in the lineup, you have to be smart about what you do. We have all of these resources now and we’re in a cap world. Mistakes happen and you don’t want to be a part of them. They only get in the way of winning.”

Viewed from that prism, the Golden Knights are no longer the Golden Misfits. They’re a strong team with financial muscle and now that the unlikely Year 1 ride is over, they’re coming to grips with the reality that making a team better comes with a lot more angst and uncertainty that building one from scratch.

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