Pieces quickly slid into place on various NHL bluelines from the moment 2020 free agency opened Oct. 9, and the Alex Pietrangelo suitors began disappearing. The St. Louis Blues, the team he captained to a Stanley Cup, the team he’d spent his entire career with since being drafted in 2008, walked away and inked Torey Krug. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed T.J. Brodie. Meanwhile, the Vegas Golden Knights were moving mountains – a.k.a. cap space – to show their interest in Pietrangelo, sending Paul Stastny’s $6.5-million cap hit to the Winnipeg Jets. With the other landing spots dropping out of the race, Vegas Golden Knights quickly became an inevitability for Pietrangelo.
After he spent the weekend meeting with the team and exploring the city, it was all but guaranteed he’d end up there, and the news finally dropped Monday night: the Golden Knights have signed Pietrangelo, 30, to a seven-year, $61.6-million contract carrying an $8.8-million cap hit and a full no-movement clause. The deal will make Pietrangelo the fifth-richest defenseman in the NHL on an AAV basis, trailing only Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi.
The Golden Knights, fresh off a run to the Western Conference final, clearly believe they’re ready to win a Stanley Cup, so the rationale for chasing the top UFA in the league at any position makes sense from an all-in perspective. The Golden Knights tilted the ice for much of the post-season before running into some great goaltending against the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars. In the past two years, they’ve swung headline-maker trades for Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Robin Lehner. They’re committed to spending to the cap and believe they can be as good as any NHL team next season, and the confidence is warranted. They finished the season 15-5-2 after Pete DeBoer took over from Gerard Gallant as coach in January.
They were already on the shortlist of elite Cup contenders for 2020-21, and they’re obviously adding a championship-caliber piece in the big, rangy, well-rounded Pietrangelo. He’s a three-time second-team all-star who has finished top-five in Norris Trophy voting three times. He excels at both ends of the ice, can work the power play or kill penalties equally well and is relied upon to play half of every game in the post-season. Pietrangelo has been a quintessential top-pair defenseman his whole career.
How consistently excellent was he for the Blues? He's played 10 full seasons in the NHL, during which he’s averaged 12 goals and 49 points per 82 games, playing 24:48 per contest. He’s hit double figures in goals six times and topped 50 points four times. In that 10-season stretch since 2010-11, he’s top-10 in goals, assists and points at his position. He’s also fresh off arguably the best season of his career. Playing just 70 games because of the COVID-19 shutdown, he’d already set a career high with 16 goals, and his 52 points put him on pace to easily smash his personal best of 54. Among 99 defensemen who logged 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Pietrangelo had the fifth-lowest mark in Corsi Against per 60. His offensive numbers and power-play acumen stand out, but he’s also a truly elite defensive player.
So it’s all good news for Vegas, right? Well…probably. There’s no denying they’ve scored a fantastic player who should remain one of the best in the league at his position for at least the first few seasons of his deal. But adding Pietrangelo already meant displacing Stastny, which was a tad concerning for a team that already needed more help at center, not less. Even after shipping out Stastny’s cap hit, the Pietrangelo addition still put Vegas at $88.42 million in spending, a mile above the $81.5-million cap. They had to make at least one major trade to become cap compliant in time for next season. Scratch that: they had to make a trade so they weren't more than 10 percent over the cap before they could even make the Pietrangelo deal official.
It happened Monday night: they sent defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2022 third-round draft pick. It's a steal for the Canucks. He's under contract five more years at a $5.95-million cap hit and brings great speed and the ability to play left and right defense. Per The Athletic's Jesse Granger, the Golden Knights are now just $124,105 over the cap.
Good on GM Kelly McCrimmon for clearing the space to lock up Pietrangelo, but it has to hurt to lose Schmidt. The best-case scenario would've been to move defenseman Alec Martinez's $4-million AAV and/or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who carries a $7-million AAV and is now the 1B to freshly re-signed Lehner’s 1A. The goaltender market dried up a lot over the past several days, however, with the likes of Corey Crawford, Jacob Markstrom and Braden Holtby finding new homes. How many teams still need a starting goalie at this point? Maybe McCrimmon couldn't find a team willing to kick the tires, though it still wouldn't be a surprise to see Vegas work out a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins or maybe the Carolina Hurricanes, especially if Vegas retained some salary. Trading Schmidt creates enough cap room to do that.
So maybe McCrimmon still trades Fleury and/or Martinez. But even if the Golden Knights don't do anything else major, they've already given up Schmidt and Stastny, not to mention letting useful checker Nick Cousins walk, to bring in Pietrangelo. Is the net result a better team? Probably, but it's a bit concerning that it's even a question. The Golden Knights were already great defensively, and their greatest need was a No. 1 center. Will doubling down on their strengths up their chances of winning a Cup next year? We'll see.