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Golden Knights loaded up on defensemen and it may have created a problem

The Golden Knights went defense-heavy in the expansion draft, acquiring 15 blueliners with picks and trades. But has the draft strategy backfired on Vegas?

In the weeks leading up to the expansion draft, there was chatter about the possibility of the Vegas Golden Knights cornering the goaltending market by selecting four, five or even six goaltenders. The thought was that if Vegas did so, GM George McPhee could then flip an Antti Raanta, Petr Mrazek or Philipp Grubauer to the highest bidder and collect some extra assets. And, as strange as the idea was, it actually made some semblance of sense.

The expansion draft came and went without the Golden Knights selecting a whole host of goaltenders, however, and Marc-Andre Fleury, Calvin Pickard and J-F Berube were the only masked men taken by the expansion franchise. But just because Vegas stopped at three goaltenders doesn’t meant they didn’t try loading up elsewhere.

Defensively, the Golden Knights went wild on draft day, and of the 37 players the club acquired through the selection process and trades, a whopping 15 were rearguards. That meant McPhee and Co. exited the draft with more than a handful of extra defenders, especially when you consider that only two of the defensemen selected, Griffin Reinhart and Jake Bischoff, weren’t NHL regulars during the past campaign. The thing is the Golden Knights’ decision to go all-in on the back end, while it may have seemed somewhat savvy at the time, isn’t looking so astute at the moment.

When the draft was wrapping up, the prevailing thought was McPhee would find a way to flip a good number of the defenders he had available, offering teams with holes on their blueline an NHL-ready rearguard, some even of top-four calibre, in exchange for an asset or two. And in the days immediately following the draft, it looked as though Vegas would be successful in their endeavour. Trevor van Riemsdyk, selected from the Chicago Blackhawks, was shipped to the Carolina Hurricanes for a second-round pick. Next, David Schlemko, plucked from the San Jose Sharks, was sent to the Montreal Canadiens for a fifth-round selection, and, on Monday, Marc Methot, Vegas’ pick from the Ottawa Senators, was traded to the Dallas Stars for a second-round pick and prospect Dylan Ferguson.

But the movement has since ceased. There was talk about the potential to move Jason Garrison, Alexei Emelin and Luca Sbisa, but it seems as though that has all but dried up, and with only days to go before the opening of free agency, several teams seem more than willing to head into the summer signing season with holes on their blueline that need to be filled. The reason for that is obvious, too.

While Vegas has some interesting names on the back end, the ones McPhee would be most willing to move are all older defensemen with significant cap hits. Garrison, for instance, has one year remaining on his deal at $4.6 million. That’s a lot of money to pay up for a 32-year-old who slipped down the Tampa Bay Lightning depth chart this past season. Likewise, Emelin is owed $4.1 million, and despite the Canadiens reportedly testing the waters on reacquiring the 31-year-old, it appears Montreal will see what’s out there in free agency. Then you look at Sbisa and Clayton Stoner, who earn a combined $6.825 million, and it seems a given that no team is going to want to pay up to acquire either unless Vegas is willing to retain some salary.

In effect, the high price tag attached to McPhee’s most expendable rearguards makes it cheaper for the teams seeking defensemen to look at the open market. It’s not as if the free agency is lacking defenders, either. Among the available rearguards are: Kevin Shattenkirk, Ron Hainsey, Dmitry Kulikov, Andrei Markov, Trevor Daley, Michael Stone, Dennis Wideman, Karl Alzner, Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Johnny Oduya, Cody Franson, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, John-Michael Liles, Kyle Quincey, Nikita Nesterov and Christian Folin. Is it a crop that’s lacking out-and-out star talent? Sure, but there are enough steady rearguards there that can be had without losing an asset.

And that leaves the Golden Knights in a sticky situation. Vegas still has nine NHL-ready defensemen and more than $21.25 million tied up in their blueline, and there’s no way McPhee saw his season starting with several of his young defensemen fighting for minutes with the older, higher-paid players who were taken through the draft. If Garrison, Emelin, Sbisa and Stoner — four defensemen making a combined $15.55 million — are still on the roster come opening night, what does it mean for Colin Miller, Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt? Does the money spent on elder statesmen force them into the lineup, pushing one of the up-and-comers out of action?

You can see the argument there. After all, the Golden Knights aren’t going to want to bury big contracts in the minors or have a $4-million defender watch from the press box this early in their existence, but playing those defensemen also prevents a younger blueliner from taking quality reps with the big club. And as much as burying money or throwing it away on a healthy scratch doesn’t make any sense, it’d be equally as foolish to send an NHL-ready prospect such as Theodore down to the minors because there’s no room for him on the Golden Knights.

There is, of course, a way out of this for Vegas. Despite the sheer number of defenders available on the market, some teams are going to miss out on signing a player they have interest in. That could result in a team circling back to Vegas with interest in a defender. And if that’s the case, it would be wise for McPhee to lower his asking price in order to clear some space for his younger defensemen to get the spots they deserve on the back end. 

It’s not what McPhee had in mind, no doubt, but it may be the only way to prevent his plan from creating a mess on the blueline that’s difficult to get out from under.

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