In any discussion about the Golden Knights this season, the matter of Vegas’ long-term plan and their roster beyond this season crops up. Such chatter is unavoidable, really, when you consider the makeup of the ragtag group that GM George McPhee came with more long-term questions than it did answers.
On the roster, there were more than a dozen pending free agents. Many of those, too, were of the unrestricted variety. Players such as James Neal, David Perron and Jonathan Marchessault up front, with defensemen Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland and (the since demoted) Jason Garrison on the blueline. None of this is to mention the litany of players due new deals as restricted free agents in the near future, including William Karlsson, Colin Miller and Shea Theodore. The prevailing belief, however, was that those on expiring contracts were trade bait at best and playing out their final string of games in the big leagues at worst.
But then a funny thing happened.
The Golden Knights won. And then they won again. And won some more. Lo and behold, here we are nearly one-third of the way through their inaugural campaign and Vegas finds themselves not simply holding down a playoff spot, but in top spot in the entire Pacific Division, ahead of recent Stanley Cup finalists the San Jose Sharks, recent Stanley Cup champions the Los Angeles Kings and a perennial post-season team in the Anaheim Ducks. The winning ways had some wondering, too, if plans may have changed in Vegas, if maybe the Golden Knights, once perceived as a team set to be top sellers come the deadline, could reverse course and see where this magic could take them. And that might just be what Wednesday’s signing of UFA-to-be Brayden McNabb to a brand-new deal is hinting at.
On Wednesday, the Golden Knights announced that the team had come to terms with McNabb, 26, on a four-year, $10-million contract, a deal which undoubtedly takes the blueliner off the rental market, at the very least. McNabb has been solid for Vegas this season, too. While not the next coming of Bobby Orr in any way, shape or form, McNabb’s solid, shutdown play has turned heads and earned him nearly 20 minutes per night under coach Gerard Gallant. McPhee sung his praises, as well, in speaking with Vegas’ website.
“He plays against the other team’s top players and it’s nice to have that size to be able to snuff people out in front of the net and down low,” McPhee said. “Around the net, you need that size sometimes. He’s got a long stick, uses it very well and is excellent on the penalty kill. We are delighted to have him, we were delighted to be able to claim him this summer and with the growth in his game to date and the room for growth that is still there, we are really happy to extend him for four years.”
It almost feels as if the signing almost sends a message, though. Like McPhee and Co. are signalling that this isn’t a franchise ready to sell anyone and everyone off for futures as soon as the trade deadline approaches. That’s a place where many — present company included — thought this team was headed. With a winning record and an honest-to-goodness shot at earning a playoff berth, however, why not rethink that whole idea?
Few would argue the Golden Knights are leaps and bounds ahead of where it was believed they would be at this point in the campaign, and patchwork as it may seem, the roster is jelling remarkably well, even outrunning some goaltending issues that would have sunk many teams. So, while the likes of Neal, Perron and Marchessault would no doubt fetch a pretty penny at the deadline, maybe it’s worth keeping one, two or all three in Vegas if things keep going this way. With that, of course, would come the possibility of getting burned in free agency and losing one, two or all three for nothing come July. But, again, maybe this McNabb signing shows us something.
When speaking about the deal to the Golden Knights’ website, McNabb said he was grateful Vegas took a chance on him and picked him in the expansion draft, but admitted he was “unsure” about coming to the Golden Knights. Who could blame him? The track record for expansion teams isn’t great and history has shown it takes a while for such teams to start piecing together wins. Vegas, though, has bucked that trend, and McNabb said he “didn’t have to think about it too long” once an extension was discussed. And when it comes to the winning? “I don’t think it’s a fluke where we are right now,” McNabb told the Golden Knights' Gary Lawless.
If that’s the feeling permeating the Golden Knights’ dressing room, then there’s reason to believe several of Vegas’ notable free agents see this as more than a stepping stone to their next destination. The Neals, Perrons and Marchessaults might instead see Vegas as a place they can win. That has always been one of the most important questions, too, when it came to the pending free agents: whether or not they saw a future with the Golden Knights. The on-ice success and McNabb’s no-doubt response about remaining in Vegas proves some players most certainly do see themselves remaining with the Golden Knights. That might mean some UFAs – maybe not all, but some – staring down free agency could think twice about supposed greener pastures, as well, giving the Vegas a real shot at retaining even those who most assumed would be gone by the playoffs.
There’s still a lot of season to be played, of course, with three months separating today from the trade deadline. A lot can change in 90 days. But if the Golden Knights can remain successful on ice and McPhee has some productive discussions, don’t be surprised if Vegas go from a team perceived as one of the deadline’s biggest sellers to a franchise locking up a few of its key players ahead of its first foray into the post-season.
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