For the Buffalo Sabres, simply getting the blockbuster trade done was a tremendous weight off the franchise’s shoulders.
GM Kevyn Adams held strong again and got a package for Jack Eichel he was satisfied with: top prospect Peyton Krebs – whom the Vegas Golden Knights originally did not want to part with – top-six forward Alex Tuch, and conditional first and second-round picks. It marks a clear break from their former captain, who was stripped of the ‘C’ over the summer, and the Sabres get four pieces for their already impressive young core.
For the Knights, this might be their splashiest move yet, but the work’s just getting started. Eichel will now be able to get the surgery of his choosing, and it’s now a question of when – not if – he will return to the ice, though he faces a recovery time measured in months and not weeks. Eichel offers no immediate help for the Knights, perhaps ruining their chances of winning a third division title in five seasons.
The bigger headache is going to be getting under the cap. With Eichel, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Jake Bischoff on LTIR, and Nolan Patrick and Zach Whitecloud on IR, there is no need to find an immediate answer for Vegas to fit everyone. With all the long-term injury relief, Vegas’ current cap space (ie. sum of all cap hit values that can be added to remain compliant at end of the season) stands at a little over $16 million right now, the highest in the league and more than the Habs ($12.1 million) and the Lightning ($8.1 million). The only player missing from Vegas’ pre-trade lineup is Krebs, who has made a very marginal impact so far and will report to the AHL following the trade, so there’s little reason to think Vegas will take any further steps back.
Vegas can kick the can down the road as much as they want this season, and that seems to be the modus operandi of most teams. If you’re close to the cap, it (usually) means you have a competitive team, so the goal is to figure out how to win right now and then work out the potential problems later when solutions may present itself over time. But, at some point, Vegas will have to face the cap ceiling. (Note: The Sabres acquired Johnny Boychuk’s contract to reach the floor… which also opens up cap space for the Isles. Something to keep in mind the rest of the season).
As of now, assuming all players on Vegas’ current roster are healthy and they carry a 23-man roster, they are a little over $7 million over the cap, including the overage cap charges as of Nov. 4, 2021. The lineup below represents their optimal – albeit non-cap compliant – roster with Brett Howden, Keegan Kolesar and Dylan Coghlan as the three spares. Even if Vegas carries the bare minimum of 20 players, they would still be around $5 million over the cap.
Presumably, Eichel, Pacioretty and Stone will return to the lineup at different times, which will further affect how Vegas manages to be cap compliant. Paper moves to save some money here and there for minor-league reassignments and other roster transactions can be used to create space. There are still a few levers Vegas can pull and other trades they could make between now until the end of the season. But what about after the current season?
The immediate answer for the 2022-23 season would be to let Reilly Smith, Mattias Janmark and Brayden McNabb walk in free agency, or even trade them before that happens. That’s a combined $9.5 million off the books this coming summer, and perhaps sooner depending on Vegas’ cap situation as the current season progresses, but managing the cap is rarely a straightforward line. Here’s a simple projection of Vegas’ lineup next season, but with caveats that warrant further discussion now and later.
With a roster of 20, Vegas does not have to trim anything beyond their impending UFA’s. With zero overage cap charges and zero bonuses, the projected roster gives them $284,125 in cap space, assuming the cap ceiling remains the same. There’s been talk that the cap ceiling will rise by $1 million next season, but that’s all it is – just talk – at this point, and there are no guarantees that will happen with hockey-related revenue still being impacted by COVID.
Unless you’ve got a flair for numbers like former tax accountant and current Lightning GM Julien BriseBois, this is a nightmare situation for any team. It’s cutting it way too close; any injury, visa delay or issue affecting the roster could mean the Knights may have to ice a lineup with fewer than 18 skaters, assuming no Vegas player starts the 2022-23 season on LTIR.
Vegas can also only make this projected lineup work with the assumption that RFA’s Brett Howden ($929,260), Nicolas Roy ($787,500), Keegan Kolesar ($787,500) and Nic Hague ($874,125) all accept their minimum qualifying offers, and there’s close to zero chance of that happening. With the way Roy and Hague have been playing so far, they both deserve long-term contracts with big raises. Hague alone could cost Vegas upwards of $3 million per season; he’s younger and has been more effective than Whitecloud, who received a six-year extension with a $2.75-million cap hit.
If Vegas continues to be so heavily invested in their elite players, to make it all work they’ll have to trim the excess fat to literal bare bones. They cannot afford to overpay depth players (alternatively, they cannot have depth players who underperform), and may end up relying on various league-minimum or entry-level contracts to fill out the rest of the roster.
Chandler Stephenson’s $2.75 million contract is a bargain, but Karlsson’s modified no-trade clause limits their options and maybe Vegas has no choice but to find an even cheaper third-line center. Evgenii Dadonov seems like a likely candidate, but entertaining the idea of trading a player just nine games after acquiring them makes Vegas look even more like a franchise with zero loyalty, lest we forget how they jettisoned (former) franchise cornerstone Marc-André Fleury. Both Dadonov and Jonathan Marchessault carry no-trade clauses, which just further complicates things.
Shea Theodore is excellent, but Alec Martinez has a no-trade clause and Alex Pietrangelo has a no-move clause, so Theodore (unfortunately) may be the odd-man out, especially if the Knights commit to Hague and think he can bring offense with his heavy shot. Laurent Brossoit is a $2.3-million backup and a luxury Vegas can’t really afford, either.
We joke about Vegas’ obsessive win-now mentality, and they have been run much like a demanding owner’s desire to have the shiniest new toy in his sandbox. But enough is enough, because Vegas can’t perpetually go after every big name that hits the market. They’ve made big bets, and they’re nearly out of house money. They’ve now traded their first four first-round selections – Brendan Brisson and Zachary Dean, you’re up next – in their quest for a championship.
A first line of Eichel between Stone and Pacioretty, Pietrangelo on the back end and Lehner in net makes at least 20 other teams envious, and based on their hefty contracts and Vegas’ relative lack of flexibility navigating the cap, this looks like – nay, it has to be – Vegas’ core for the long term. Ultimately, only time will tell if their big-game hunting strategy was the winning one.
All salary cap calculations and information provided by CapFriendly.com.