It’s not over yet, but after the Washington Capitals’ convincing Game 4 victory in the Stanley Cup final, the Vegas Golden Knights are one loss away from having their fairytale season come to a sudden halt. And if — or, given the unlikelihood of a Vegas comeback, when — that happens, the questions will begin about what the Golden Knights do for an encore.
To be sure, the inaugural campaign will be impossible to follow. Truth be told, even if Vegas falls short this time around only to go on to win the Stanley Cup next season, the championship season still won’t quite measure up to this improbable and exciting debut from the expansion franchise. But as important as how Vegas follows up their current campaign is the roster they assemble and the decisions they make when they attempt to get all the way back to this point. And as the Golden Knights teeter on the brink of elimination, they do so while looking ahead to what will most certainly be a busy off-season.
As it stands, the Golden Knights have about 20 contracts to take care of ahead of next season, though a number of those are going to fall well down GM George McPhee’s to-do list. There are also a few that aren’t going to be on the list at all. For example, while McPhee may look at bringing back unrestricted free agents Ryan Reaves, Brandon Pirri and Maxime Lagace, they’re not likely to register as top priorities. Meanwhile, UFAs Jason Garrison, Mikhail Grabovski and Clayton Stoner are as good as gone. When it comes to restricted free agents, Stefan Matteau, Oscar Dansk, Teemu Pulkkinen and Philip Holm likely fall into the get-around-to-it category, unlike William Karlsson, Tomas Nosek, William Carrier, Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, who will likely be high-priority signings given they’ve been part of the playoff roster.
The good news when it comes to Vegas’ RFA class, though, is there’s an element of team control, so time is on the Golden Knights’ side when it comes to inking the Karlssons and Millers and Theodores of the roster. Those three in particular, however, are due significant raises. Karlsson, who broke out with a 43-goal, 78-point campaign, could be looking in the range of $6 million per season, particularly if Vegas goes the bridge-deal route. (And that might be advisable given Karlsson’s exorbitant shooting percentage and the chance for serious regression.) Meanwhile, Miller is likely due a sizeable pay increase as Vegas’ highest-scoring regular-season defenseman, and Theodore’s position as a top-four, high-scoring rearguard should see him get a nice pay raise as well.
But if those three contracts come in around, say, $12 million per season — and that’s a high estimate — it’s not all that concerning for the Golden Knights. Reason being is Vegas is currently projected to have upward of $26 million in cap space this summer and that’s before any increase in the spending limit. Add $5 million or so to that figure and Vegas could be clear of $30 million in cap room. So, the trio of RFA signings would leave the Golden Knights with somewhere in the $20-million range. That’s most important to note when it comes to retaining some notable UFAs, most notably James Neal.
Neal has been a consistent 25-goal scorer and when healthy he’s a 30-goal man. And lest one think that’s a number inflated by his monster 40-goal season back in 2011-12 with the Penguins, the aforementioned scoring pace has only been calculated using the past six seasons. In fact, using Neal’s final two campaigns in Pittsburgh, his tenure in Nashville and the current one-year stint in Vegas, he has found the scoresheet at the same rate as a 30-goal, 60-point player. One doesn’t need look far for a comparable for that type of production on a free agent deal, either, because the San Jose Sharks just signed that exact player.
Sure, Evander Kane, who inked a seven-year, $49-million pact with the Sharks two weeks back, is younger than Neal and brings other elements that Neal doesn’t necessarily, namely skating speed that the veteran can’t match, the elder winger’s production outshines that of Kane. Even if we’re just to limit things to the past three seasons, with Kane entering into and reaching his prime, Neal has the slight edge in overall scoring with 79 goals and 143 points in 223 games to Kane’s 77 goals and 132 points in 213 outings. So, while a seven-year pact might be out of the question given it would carry Neal through to the end of his 37-year-old season, a five-year deal that pays him somewhere around $30 million could be the ask.
Now, that doesn’t preclude him for sticking around in Vegas. Matter of fact, though there’s no deal in place that will keep him a Golden Knight next season, it was reported by Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos around mid-season that there were at least some discussions vis-a-vis a new deal for the free agent-to-be. And the money is there, no doubt. If we estimate Neal at roughly $6 million per season with the three aforementioned re-signings — Karlsson, Miller and Theodore — at about $12 million, Vegas would still have $12 million to play with in the off-season.
Chances are, though, that Karlsson’s big year paired with Neal’s potential deal and any potential off-season upgrades for the Golden Knights will make at least one notable free agent-to-be expendable. David Perron put up 16 goals and a career-high 66 points for the Golden Knights this past season, and while he missed some time with injury during the regular season and in the playoffs, he was seemingly a healthy scratch in Game 4 against Washington. Even if that’s not the case and he's nursing an injury, it’s difficult to see his fit in Vegas beyond this season as other organizations could potentially offer him greater term, money and a bigger role. Finishing up a two-year pact worth $7.5 million with the best season of his career likely means he’s going to see a decent raise, possibly even upwards of $5 million per season, from the $3.75 million he earned this past campaign.
Of course, the Golden Knights' entire salary structure could be altered this summer and Neal, Perron and potentially another notable name could be on the outs if Vegas uses its considerable supply of draft choices, prospects and young talent to acquire a stud defenseman — they were in the mix for Erik Karlsson, you’ll recall — or if they want to dive headfirst into the John Tavares sweepstakes. But if Vegas is content to stick with most of the talent that got them to the Stanley Cup final, it appears they’ll have no trouble attempting to achieve the unimaginable two years in a row with almost all of their top contributors coming back into the fold.
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