One of the things that attracted George McPhee most to the challenge of building the Vegas Golden Knights from the ground up was the blank canvas he had when it came to constructing his roster. No residual baggage, no clashing personalities and, best of all, no bad contracts to endure.
And Vadim Shipachyov and Tomas Tatar notwithstanding, the Golden Knights GM has done a pretty good job of avoiding those albatross contracts. And when he has either signed or acquired them, as we’ve seen in the case of Shipachyov and Tatar, he’s done an efficient and quick job of extricating himself from them. And by signing the newly acquired Max Pacioretty to a four-year extension with $28 million that kicks in after this season, he managed to avoid a bad contract once again.
“I hope we’re a better team than we were last year,” McPhee told the media in Vegas in a news conference Monday afternoon. “We haven’t gone long-term on anyone. We’re comfortable in the contracts we’ve done. We’re comfortable on the cap. We’ve signed 11 players…and we’re in a good place on the cap, with where our team now is and where our draft picks are. We like where we are today.”
As he should be. Because as much as the deal was a good one for Montreal, they landed a top prospect, but also took on a player whose three years at $4.8 million could start looking really ugly. With the pressure of a seven-hour window to complete an extension – one that McPhee said was done with one minute to spare – he managed to get a scoring winger under a contract that is not wildly out of whack either in money or term. (And if that’s all it would have taken for the Canadiens to re-sign him, the fact they did not speaks volumes about how much they really wanted to cut ties with the player.)
So now the Golden Knights have a top line that consists of William Karlsson centering Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault and a second unit that consists of Paul Stastny between Pacioretty and Alex Tuch. This coming season, the last before Pacioretty’s extension kicks in and Tuch and Karlsson are re-signed, those six salaries will account for just $26.7 million, which is 33.6 percent of the upper limit of $79.5 million.
As we all know, McPhee manipulated the expansion process masterfully last season, loading up on draft picks and prospects while building a team that made an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup final. And that gift continues to give and McPhee keeps manipulating. Of the three picks he gave up for Tatar, the first-rounder in 2018 and the third-rounder in 2020 were Golden Knights picks, but the second-rounder in 2020 was acquired from the New York Islanders. Nick Suzuki, the crown jewel of this trade from the Canadiens perspective, was drafted with a first-rounder acquired from the Winnipeg Jets and the second-rounder included in the Pacioretty trade was a pick that originally belonged to the Columbus Blue Jackets. So McPhee gives up only two draft picks that were actually his to begin with and gets a 29-year-old with the potential to score 30 goals as a second-line winger.
And McPhee is right about not signing anyone long-term. The player under contract for the longest term is Marchessault, whose $5 million-per-season deal runs for another six seasons. McPhee managed to avoid the temptation to sign Karlsson, who scored 43 goals last season after never scoring more than nine in any season prior to that, to a long-term deal in the basis of one out-of-this-world season where he scored on 25 percent of his shots. In signing Karlsson to a one-year deal before his arbitration hearing, McPhee has essentially bought himself two years – this coming season and 2019-20, when Karlsson could once again go to arbitration – to see what he has. If Karlsson duplicates his accomplishments from last season, the price will go up considerably, but there will be far more certainty from McPhee’s perspective and he probably won’t mind paying a player who will have proved he was not a one-year wonder.
So McPhee hopes his team is better than it was last year. He shouldn’t have to hope. With all due respect to David Perron and James Neal, Pacioretty and Paul Stastny are an upgrade at forward. The Golden Knights are indeed better than they were last season and they’re in as good of long-term shape as any franchise in the NHL, thanks to the shrewd work of their GM.