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Five free agents Golden Knights could target during their exclusive window

The Golden Knights will get a chance to chat with free agents as part of the expansion draft. But who could they potentially bring to Vegas?

Sunday will be like Christmas morning for Golden Knights GM George McPhee. After months of waiting, he’ll finally get to tear the wrapping off of each team’s list of unprotected list and get to take a look at what’s inside. But don’t go assuming he’s going to find something he likes on every list he sees.

Part of the lead up to the expansion draft, and what has made the past several days so heavy on trade speculation, is that GMs throughout the league are attempting to mitigate their losses by shuffling the deck and exposing as little as possible. Already, a couple of teams have been successful.

Take the Capitals, for instance. While Washington’s acquisition of Tyler Graovac wasn’t one that stopped the presses, it was one that was awfully clever when you dig below the surface. You see, without Graovac on the roster, expansion draft exposure rules would have forced the Capitals to expose at least two forwards who were crucial members of the team, with most pointing to Lars Eller, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson as the three most likely to be left open for selection. With Graovac, however, only one of those three need to left exposed.

The Lightning’s deal with the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday also a similar impact in Tampa Bay. If the Lightning entered the expansion draft with Jonathan Drouin on the roster, he would have required a protection slot. Mikhail Sergachev, however, is exempt. That means one extra spot has opened up in Tampa Bay, which could mean Lightning GM Steve Yzerman can protect one additional forward. Say, J.T. Brown or Vladislav Namestnikov.

The issue with all of this for the Golden Knights is that the maneuvering by rival GMs could leave McPhee with very little to pluck away in terms of players under contract. Several organizations could be quite bare-bones when it comes to what’s up for grabs. And in those scenarios, McPhee could go looking at a team’s unrestricted free agents.

Per expansion draft rules, Vegas will have an exclusive window in which they can discuss a contract with any pending UFA from any team. However, making an offer to and inking a free agent would then count as the Golden Knights’ selection from a team. An example would have been if Ben Bishop remained with the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent. If Vegas signed the netminder, he would have then been the Golden Knights’ selection from the Kings. 

Make sense? Great. Because here’s a list of five UFAs who could be scooped up by Vegas in place of a signed roster player come the expansion draft:

Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes

There’s not a whole lot enticing about the Coyotes potential unprotected list. Are there some pieces with upside? Sure. Teemu Pulkkinen was an AHL scoring machine, but that hasn’t translated to the NHL. Jeremy Morin has consistently moved around while looking for a place to call home, but he’s yet to become an NHL regular. Meanwhile, defensemen Luke Schenn, Kevin Connauton and Jamie McBain would likely get lost in the shuffle on what stands to be a talented back end in Vegas.

With that in mind, why not bring some scoring to town right away? At 36, Vrbata doesn’t have much tread left on the tires, but the veteran winger is still capable of popping home 20 goals if he’s given good power play time, and the Golden Knights can’t go with a roster of purely young guns. It’s good to have some mentors on the squad. Vrbata could be that guy. He probably won’t cost much, either, and he put up 20 goals and 55 points on a bad Coyotes team this past season. The only trouble will be persuading him into a move from Arizona to Nevada.

Michael Stone, Calgary Flames

There will be a couple of tough customers available to McPhee in Micheal Ferland and Brandon Bollig, as well as some projects, such as Hunter Shinkaruk and Emile Poirier, but the best bet might be to go with a defender like Stone. Over the past three seasons, Stone has consistently been a top-four guy in both Arizona and Calgary, and his addition to the Flames’ defense this past season made an already solid group that much better.

Is Stone going to be a top-pairing guy? Probably not, or at least not on a team that has aspirations to earn a post-season berth. But there’s still some development to be done there and the 26-year-old has room to grow. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s got some offense to his game, either. During the 2015-16 campaign, he blasted home six goals and 36 points for the Coyotes and worked well on the Arizona power play. 

Michael Del Zotto, Philadelphia Flyers

To land Del Zotto, McPhee would have to pass over some others on the Flyers roster, including Matt Read, Michael Raffl, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Jordan Weal. But taking a long look at bringing in the 26-year-old defenseman would be in McPhee’s best interest, especially given the offensive upside that the rearguard can bring. Though he’s dealt with some injury issues throughout his career, Del Zotto, when healthy, is a mobile guy who can do a lot for the defense. 

No one is going to confuse him with a top shutdown guy, but paired with a stay-at-home defender, Del Zotto can move the puck up ice in a hurry, skate it out of danger and be a playmaker from the back end. His numbers have taken a hit in recent years — which comes with the territory when you skate in just 103 of a possible 164 games across two seasons — but he has two 10-goal, 30-point years under his belt. Vegas will need someone to quarterback the power play. Del Zotto can be that guy.

Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals

Remember that Graovac scenario? Well, it doesn’t exactly clear up all the problems the Capitals have heading into the expansion draft. Defensively, Washington finds themselves in some trouble, with contributors such as Nate Schmidt, top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk and longtime Capital Alzner up for grabs. And it’s Alzner who might make the most sense as someone McPhee is interested in.

What Alzner brings to the table is more of a pure defensive game than potentially any other pickup the Golden Knights can make in the draft. His offense is limited, but he’s the kind of player who can be relied upon for penalty killing minutes and no one is going to doubt his willingness to help out by stepping in front of shots. Alzner is also a player who can be relied upon game-in and game-out. He has not missed a single regular season contest in the past seven seasons.

Worth noting is that Alzner was a draft pick of McPhee’s back in 2007. There’s a history there, and McPhee could certainly look into the potential for a reunion between he and the rearguard.

The one catch is that Vegas would have to pass on goaltender Philipp Grubauer, and the Golden Knights may have no intention of letting a highly sought after backup slip through the cracks.

Joe Thornton or Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks

Long shot? Absolutely. But it’s worth it for McPhee to kick the tires on bringing either of the Sharks veterans over to Sin City.

Look at it this way: the Golden Knights are likely to have oodles of cash to spend and that money is going to have to go somewhere. Landing either of Thornton or Marleau immediately brings the franchise a marketable name that casual fans will recognize, plus you can’t go wrong with having either helping shepherd along the young players that the roster is sure to have. That’s not to mention Thornton and Marleau have proven they can still produce. Thornton had seven goals and 50 points in 2016-17, while Marleau potted 27 goals and 46 points. Both are captain material, too.

Yes, this idea has a few flaws. First, they’re both 37, on the cusp of retirement and still without a Stanley Cup. They probably want to win now while they have the chance, and they’re not about to do that with the Golden Knights. Then, of course, to assume Vegas chases Thornton and Marleau would be to assume that both go unprotected, that the Golden Knights are willing to pass on players such as Brenden Dillon, David Schlemko and Aaron Dell and that someone more enticing isn’t available. With Mikkel Boedker’s potential for exposure, he might make more sense in Vegas than either veteran Shark.

So, again, it’s a long shot. A lot of things would need to fall into place for either to land in Vegas, but it’d sure be an interesting fit for either Thornton or Marleau.

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