As the Vegas Golden Knights head towards the assembly of the team’s first roster, GM George McPhee has a number of tools in his arsenal. Among them are a staff that has spent the better part of the past year scouting, an expansion draft that stands to help him build a competitive squad right out of the gate and draft rules that could see rival GMs strike deals to keep additional players safe.
But as pre-expansion draft rumors and rumblings start to find the light of day, it appears that maybe the greatest weapon McPhee has at the ready is a boatload of cap space.
Over the past few seasons, the league has seen a number of teams, namely the Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils, utilize cap space not only as a means to sign players but as an asset that can brighten up the future of their respective franchises. Teams with wiggle room under the cap have taken on bad contracts, or at least those that another team is dying to get out from under, in exchange for landing a contributing roster player, promising prospect or a worthwhile draft choice.
The past summer was a prime example of GMs using their cap space as an asset, too.
Almost exactly one year ago, the Devils used their cap space to take on the contract of retired center Marc Savard from the Florida Panthers. In order for New Jersey to accept the deal, though, a second-round selection in the 2018 draft was tacked on with Graham Black and Paul Thompson, two players who spent the majority of the past year in the AHL, heading the other way. Shortly after that, with Chicago set to undergo their now-annual cap purge, the Hurricanes took on Bryan Bickell’s contract from the Blackhawks. However, in order for Carolina to agree, Chicago also had to throw in winger Teuvo Teravainen, an up-and-comer with oodles of potential who was no doubt hard for the Blackhawks to part ways with. And at the June draft, a deal was struck to send the KHL-bound Pavel Datsyuk from the Red Wings to the Coyotes. To sweeten the pot for Arizona, Detroit GM Ken Holland swapped first-round picks with the Coyotes, moving down four spots and giving the Desert Dogs the 16th-overall selection — one which turned in Jakob Chychrun, a rookie rearguard who wound up playing nearly 70 games in this past season.
And with those deals in mind, it appears similar swaps could be in the works for Vegas as the expansion draft approaches.
Wednesday afternoon, TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported that the Golden Knights could be on the verge of completing a deal with the Blackhawks that would see both center Marcus Kruger and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk end up Sin City next season. While the specifics of the deal are still a bit murky, it would make sense were the agreement to see Kruger, who was likely to go unprotected ahead of the expansion draft, plucked from Chicago with van Riemsdyk shipped out shortly thereafter as payment for Vegas at least partially relieving what is a tough cap situation in the Windy City.
The swap would be one that would absolutely make sense for both sides, as well. From the Blackhawks’ perspective, being rid of Kruger’s nearly $3.1-million cap hit makes the financial situation at least slightly easier to handle, even if it does come at the cost of losing a defenseman that coach Joel Quenneville has come to rely on as a second- or third-pairing player over the past few seasons. Meanwhile, it allows the Golden Knights to land not one but two players with incredible post-season and Stanley Cup championship experience. Acquiring both Kruger and van Riemsdyk would benefit Vegas beyond their respective backgrounds, however.
While van Riemsdyk may not be the best and brightest rearguard Chicago has to offer, he’s learned from some tremendous teammates over the past few seasons. And given he’s only 25, van Riemsdyk could be far from reaching his ceiling. He has long been considered the best acquisition the Golden Knights would be able to make off the Blackhawks’ roster, and that’s because he would bring size, a shot and some serious upside to the Vegas blueline.
As for Kruger, he remains one of the more underrated defensive pivots in the league, even after continuous selections to the Swedish squad in best-on-best tournaments. While his cap hit may have some clamoring for more offense out of the 27-year-old, what Kruger brings above all else is the shutdown ability that every team seeks. Kruger is a Quenneville favorite in Chicago, often thrown over the boards for a mountain of defensive-zone starts and put up against top pivots on a regular basis, and, if the deal is made, Kruger would legitimize the Golden Knights’ bottom-six in a hurry. None of this is to mention he’s also a great penalty killer, and while Chicago’s shorthanded play wasn’t great this past season, Kruger’s absence and subsequent return to the Blackhawks’ lineup helped instantly improve a team that looked lost at times while down a man. He’s still capable of chipping in on the scoresheet, too, and he could build on his offensive potential if given a larger role. Everything about his game would make him a great fit for a roster that might need to rely on defending ahead of pure offense in Year One.
Don’t go assuming McPhee will stop turning his cap space into an asset after one deal, either. Nothing is set in stone, but TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that there’s a possibility for the Golden Knights to use their cap space to take on “a bad contract” in exchange for a first-round draft choice. And while few would suggest Datsyuk was on a bad contract when he was sent to the Coyotes — it was purely his departure that necessitated the deal — that sounds an awful lot like what Arizona did in making its swap with the Red Wings.
There was never any doubt that the weeks leading up to the expansion draft were going to be busy with GMs attempting to limit their losses, but with McPhee very clearly interested in seeing how he can use a slate clean of any cap commitments to beef up his roster, it certainly seems as though the most interesting deals could be those that involve Vegas.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.