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Trying to make sense of the Golden Knights' early season decisions

From demoting Vadim Shipachyov to waiving and trading Calvin Pickard, the Golden Knights have made some puzzling roster decisions. What's the reasoning?

Almost as quickly as reports of Vadim Shipachyov’s unhappiness with his situation with the Vegas Golden Knights surfaced and talk of his interest in returning to the KHL raised eyebrows, those same rumblings came to a halt. His agent, Petr Svoboda, denied there was any issue and told TSN’s Darren Dreger that Shipachyov doesn’t have any designs on heading back to Russia.

And even if that is the case, that the report could be believed for a moment is the issue, especially when it’s not all that difficult to understand how such a rumor started.

As teams prepared their 23-man rosters, Shipachyov’s demotion to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves was among the most surprising moves from across the league. In part, that was because ahead of the season, Shipachyov had his suitors. It was reported several teams were interested in bringing him aboard, but instead of heading elsewhere, Shipachyov went to Vegas where he knew — or believed — he’d get the chance to showcase his ability with quality ice time. He was the only big-name free agent who signed with the expansion franchise. And when he put pen to paper on his deal, a two-year, $9-million contract, Shipachyov knew full well he was potentially giving up his chance to suit up at the Olympics, a situation which has since become a reality.

And while in four pre-season games Shipachyov had managed only one assist, the exhibition slate is rarely telling of a player’s true ability and many had Shipachyov pegged to center the first line in Vegas on opening night. He was a 30-year-old pivot with playmaking ability and offensive upside who was coming off of an outstanding season in the KHL. He was the type of talent Vegas needed up front.

Thus, many assumed Shipachyov would be back with the Golden Knights and in Vegas’ lineup when they set off on their inaugural campaign. But when opening night came, Shipachyov was still, technically, on the AHL roster. Then came the Golden Knights’ second game and Shipachyov was nowhere to be found. And now we’re nearly one week into the season, with Vegas set to skate out for their home opener, and Shipachyov is still in limbo.

So, what’s going on? Well, it appears the plan, as many assumed, was to demote Shipachyov only as a paper transaction. According to's Nick Cotsonika, McPhee made clear to Shipachyov that the demotion had nothing to do with performance and that he’d be up with the big club as soon as possible. But the issue facing the Golden Knights now is that there isn’t really a way to get Shipachyov onto the roster — or at least not without making a move — and doing so is proving harder than McPhee expected, it would seem.

At present, the Golden Knights have a nine-defenseman logjam on the blueline and a full stable of forwards with not a single player on either side of the puck able to be sent down without clearing waivers, opening up a scenario in which Vegas could potentially lose a skater for nothing. For McPhee, who wants to build through drafting and development, that’s not an ideal situation. Thus, he’s looking to make a move now that benefits the team in the long term rather than look for ways to hotshot Shipachyov into the lineup.

Mind you, the head-scratching when it comes to Vegas’ roster moves doesn’t end with Shipachyov, as winger Alex Tuch and defenseman Shea Theodore were likewise waiver-exempt players who were demoted ahead of the season, though Tuch and Theodore, unlike Shipachyov, have suited up in both of the Wolves’ games thus far. 

Theodore, arguably capable of top-pairing minutes with the big club, has made a statement in the early going with three goals and five points in two AHL games. Tuch, meanwhile, has three goals and four points of his own. Some could say the extra seasoning in the minors is far from the worst thing for either player — 22 and 21 years old, respectively — but that doesn’t change the fact they should've been in the opening night lineup. And McPhee realizes, too, that they, like Shipachyov, deserve to be up. “The three guys we sent down have all earned the right to be here,” McPhee told Cotsonika. “And we'll get them here at the right time, or as soon as we can.”

Like Shipachyov, though, that can’t happen until a move is made, ideally one that clears the blueline and makes room for Theodore to come up and take his rightful place. (And that could happen sooner rather than later.'s Danny Webster reported that Theodore was absent from Wolves practice Tuesday.)

But that does leave one more question, one concerning Vegas’ decision to pluck Malcolm Subban off the waiver wire at the expense of Calvin Pickard, who was waived and subsequently traded. Asked by Cotsonika, McPhee said they see Subban as a netminder with a higher upside, one who can be a future No. 1 in the league with the right tutelage. He’ll surely get good guidance from Marc-Andre Fleury, too. But one has to wonder why the Golden Knights would sacrifice Pickard, who is little more than one year older than Subban and has already proven he can compete on the world stage, to make that move happen.

In the AHL, both netminders have put up comparable numbers, with Subban holding the edge. His .918 save percentage puts him four points up on Pickard, who boasts a career .914 SP in the minors. But what separates the two and should give a sizeable edge to Pickard at this stage of their careers are their NHL numbers. Small sample, sure, but Subban has twice seen NHL action and has allowed six goals on 22 shots. He has been beaten out for backup NHL jobs by Zane McIntyre and Anton Khudobin. Meanwhile, Pickard was an expansion draft choice who has 86 NHL outings and a .914 SP in the big leagues to his name, not to mention two runs with Team Canada at the World Championship, including a seven-game, silver-medal performance earlier this year in which he posted a .938 SP. Only time can tell if the Golden Knights made the right decision, of course, but it’s a decision that’s hard to make sense of at the moment.

The hope, however, is that patience and big picture thinking — not just with Subban, but with Shipachyov, Theodore and Tuch, too — can allow the Golden Knights to build up assets, prospects and a roster that can lead this team forward in the future. 

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