When the Vegas Golden Knights picked James Neal in the expansion draft, it helped to legitimize the team’s offense. It gave them a weapon, a pure scorer, a triggerman for their power play and a go-to guy at even strength. He has 79 more goals and 73 more points across his career than any other player on the roster, and he’s undoubtedly the most consistent NHL-scoring talent that Vegas landed at the draft.
But he may not be long for Sin City.
As the Golden Knights prepare to play the inaugural game of their inaugural season next week, Neal is sidelined, recovering from off-season hand surgery, but beginning to show signs he could be ready. He practiced this past Tuesday and could suit up opening night. If not then, he should be ready shortly thereafter. And each game he plays, each goal he scores and each time he adds another point to his resume, he could be getting ever closer to taking a step out the door and on to his next NHL destination.
None of this is to be overly bleak about Neal’s time in Vegas nor is it to say he’s going to simply go through the motions with the Golden Knights. But even Vegas GM George McPhee seems to understand the reality of the situation. Neal is in the final season of a six-year, $30-million contract. He has been the 14th-highest scoring left winger since that contract kicked in during the lockout-shortened season. His 125 goals are the sixth-most among players at his position since the start of that same campaign. Add his physical play and leadership qualities to the equation and Neal is going to be sought after next summer. McPhee knows this as well as anyone, admitting this could be an audition for free agency for Neal.
“We’ll see where the year goes, whether we want to extend him or whether he’s playing for a contract with someone else,” McPhee told Sportsnet’s FAN590. “That’ll be determined as we move along here.”
Re-signing in Vegas is definitely an option for Neal. No one will discount that. He could fall in love with the city, he could look to put down roots or, you never know, the Golden Knights could shock everyone and look more ready to compete than anyone expected. All of those things could sway Neal. The truth of the matter, though, is that before he’s even stepped foot on the ice, it’s easy to understand why Neal might be looking to move on when he gets the chance.
At 30, Neal is entering the back nine of his career, particularly as the league continues to get younger, and he may not want to spend more than one of his remaining years as part of an expansion franchise that’s trying to build from the ground up. Consider his playing situation, too. Neal has gone from one extreme to the other over the course of the summer. In June, Neal and the Nashville Predators were fresh off of winning a Western Conference championship and suiting up in the Stanley Cup final. He watched his team fall two wins short of winning the whole shebang. Now he's playing for a team that’s not expected to do much more than be in the mix for the best odds in the draft lottery. That’s quite the swing and not one Neal had any hand in. It was decided for him by way of the expansion draft.
Neal shouldn’t be the only one singled out, though. David Perron, Jonathan Marchessault, Jason Garrison, Luca Sbisa, Clayton Stoner and Brayden McNabb are also in the final year of their respective deals, all in their late 20s or older and could be looking at a chance to hit the open market next summer. Each player with UFA status on the horizon could be using this season to increase their stock when it comes time to hit the open market.
For that reason, it’s hard not to sympathize with McPhee. Few players destined for the Golden Knights’ opening night roster came to Vegas by choice. Vadim Shipachyov signed as a free agent out of Russia. Tomas Hyka took a shot on an entry-level deal coming out of the Czech Republic. Marc-Andre Fleury also waived his no-movement clause specifically to join the Golden Knights. But no big-name NHL free agents signed in Vegas and the Neals and Perrons and Marchessaults all left better situations to come to a club that’s only just starting to build.
That isn’t McPhee’s fault, though. Plucking players away from their chosen destinations is one of the difficulties for an expansion franchise. It has tended to create a number of off-season exits, too. Just ask the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets. In the summer after their first NHL season, the Predators lost seven players to the open market. The Thrashers, surprisingly, only lost four. But the Wild and Blue Jackets lost 12 and 13 players over the course of one summer, respectively. The Golden Knights could very well be on track for a similar number of departures, but of a much higher profile. There are 10 players scheduled for free agency at season’s end, most of which are NHL regulars. And without promise of success in the near future, will many of those players want to stick around?
When McPhee acknowledges Neal could playing for a contract elsewhere, he’s doing so with the understanding that this isn’t where some of the veteran players saw themselves this season and doing so knowing full well that some could choose to find new homes next. That McPhee understands that is best for the organization, too, because it allows him to seek returns for those players who want to move along when the deadline rolls around. And trading Neal — or any of the other free agents-to-be, for that matter — instead of outright losing him would at least see the Golden Knights recoup assets that can make this franchise successful in the future.
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