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Vegas will take bad contracts — but only if GMs are willing to pay up

Vegas GM George McPhee isn't afraid to take big contracts from rival GMs, but teams will have to pay the price if the Golden Knights are going to saddle themselves with bad deals.

There may not be anyone in an NHL front office busier than George McPhee. 

The Golden Knights GM has spent the past several months poring over possible lists of protected and unprotected roster players as he gets set to build the inaugural Vegas roster through the expansion draft, and has had to do that while also keeping an eye on the group of talent set to enter the league through the entry draft. And while he’s doing all of that, McPhee has been fielding offers from rival GMs who are looking to use Vegas’ considerable cap space as a way to free up some spending money.

McPhee is open to the idea of taking on those contracts, too. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Steve Carp, McPhee said that there are “a lot of teams offering us big contracts,” and the Vegas GM said that he’s going to consider the moves and even take a few of the deals on. The catch, though, is that it’s going to cost the teams who are looking to give the Golden Knights the dud deals. The price? Draft picks.

“There’s been a lot of discussion, and a lot of the (GMs) have been forthright about what they’d like to do and who they’d like to protect,” McPhee told Carp. “We’re trying to find ways to accommodate each other.”

Carp reported that McPhee is looking to stockpile picks for the upcoming draft and beyond with an eye on building a competitive team down the road using picks and prospects. It’s the same method a number of teams have used in the past, including the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have had the most success turning a bottom-feeding franchise into a playoff team in only a few short seasons using a hoard of draft choices to build a young, exciting club. 

That McPhee is interested in acquiring the contracts for picks shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. At his introductory press conference in July 2016, McPhee repeatedly pointed to the entry draft as the key to finding stars to build around in Vegas and he has a history of leading up a draft team that has found quite a few impact players in the draft. During his days as the Capitals GM, Washington drafted forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner and goaltender Braden Holtby, among others. A similar approach and comparable success in the draft would help build a winner in Vegas.

So, if McPhee is set saddle his team with the unsightly signings of other GMs in exchange for draft picks, who could be suiting up in Vegas next season? Here are several candidates whose contracts could be heading to the Golden Knights in a cap-clearing deal:

Marian Gaborik or Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings

With Rob Blake now in the GMs chair, the Kings are set to undergo some changes. How drastic those changes are is to be seen, but it’s clear that something will need to be done sometime in the near future about the contracts for the 32-year-old Brown and 35-year-old Gaborik, both of whom have underperformed. And given there has been some chatter in the past few days about the possibility of Los Angeles going out and acquiring Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres, it would make some sense to try and free up some cap space by getting Brown or Gaborik off the books and over to Las Vegas. There’s no real hurdles for the Kings to clear here, either. Neither Brown or Gaborik carries a no-movement clause.

The issue here might not just be the money, though. There’s still term left on both deals. Brown is owed $5.875 million for five more seasons, while Gaborik is on the hook for four more years at $4.875 million per campaign. That’s a commitment for the Golden Knights, and the compensation could be too rich for the Kings’ blood. Already with a weak prospect stock, giving up a top selection or two could put Los Angeles in a bad spot in a few years’ time.

Brooks Orpik, Washington Capitals

The Capitals are facing a serious cap crunch this off-season with a handful of key players up for free agency. Among those that Washington GM Brian MacLellan has to lock up, or at least try to sign, are Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. That’s going to cost a pretty penny, and it’d be that much easier to handle if Orpik’s $5.5 million were to come off the books.

Orpik’s time is about up in Washington, too. Despite being the second-highest paid defender in D.C., Orpik spent the majority of the campaign skating bottom-pairing minutes, was the sixth defender throughout much of the post-season and was targeted by the opposition attack on a number of occasions.

As a veteran rearguard, Orpik could have some usefulness in Vegas for the two more years he’s under contract, and Washington can afford to part ways with a few more picks that other clubs because the window for the Capitals to win is now. They have to go for it at whatever cost, meaning MacLellan might be willing to pay a loftier price for the additional cap space.

Andrew MacDonald, Philadelphia Flyers

It’s impossible to consider any amount of money absolutely unmovable in a world where the David Clarkson contract was traded, even if we are living in the salary cap era. In this case, it means Philadelphia may have finally found a way to get out from under the MacDonald contract that has haunted them almost from the moment pen was put to paper.

What really plays into the Flyers’ hands here is that they have a healthy stock of prospects. In THN’s Future Watch 2017, a panel of scouts ranked Philadelphia’s prospect group, a crop which is about to improve that much more with the second-overall selection and a shot at Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier, as the sixth-best in the league. They can part ways with picks and not lose out on much, and the Flyers have picks to use. They have seven selections in the first four rounds, including three fourth-rounders, and moving a couple of those could help get a deal done to get rid of MacDonald and his $5 million cap hit.

MacDonald can actually provide some value in Vegas, too. He was a second-pairing defender in Philadelphia this past season after a troublesome 2015-16 campaign that was spent mostly in the AHL. He potted two goals and 18 points and averaged 20-plus minutes for the Flyers, and could be a depth guy in Vegas.

Jori Lehtera, St. Louis Blues

The Blues aren’t the first team one thinks of when a cap crunch comes to mind, but St. Louis is in for a tough off-season. Young standout defenseman Colton Parayko is up for a new deal this summer and the 24-year-old is set to get a good size contract. That poses some problems as the Blues currently have $4.46 million in cap space. Moving out Lehtera, who is set to earn $4.7 million in each of the next two seasons, could be the right move for the Blues.

When he first came to St. Louis, Lehtera flew out of the gates with a 14-goal, 44-point season as he skated middle-six minutes, but he’s declined each of the past two seasons, first with a 34-point season and then a 22-point campaign in 2016-17. His ice time has also dropped to the point he’s a bottom-six guy, no questions asked. That’s a lot of money to pay a guy who could be replaced for half of his salary.

Lehtera isn’t going to magically turn into a top-line center in Vegas, but the Golden Knights could take on the contract if, say, a prospect and one of the Blues’ third-round picks in 2018 heads to Sin City. And if that won’t work, Blues GM Doug Armstrong always has two first-round selections at his disposal this year.

Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, Dallas Stars

You can go ahead and take the third-overall selection off the table. No matter how much Stars GM Jim Nill might want to clear up his goaltending situation heading into the off-season, he’s not going to give up a top-three selection to make that happen. It’s a pick that’s much better utilized on an actual prospect or thrown into a deal to acquire a defenseman to shore up the back end in Dallas.

That said, among other things, the Stars have two first-round picks this summer, two fourth-round picks next season and some interesting prospects that might allow Nill to throw a package together that sees Lehtonen or Niemi leave town without any buyout cap hit on the books. Lehtonen might be the better of the two to get rid of, too, even if he’s put up the better numbers. There’s an extra $1.4 million to be had if it’s Lehtonen who leaves town over Niemi, and that’s the price of an impactful bottom-six roster player.

There’s no sure-thing top goaltender to be had in the expansion draft for the Golden Knights, and having a veteran come aboard wouldn’t be the worst thing. It’s not as if Vegas taking on the Lehtonen or Niemi contracts are going to completely hamstring the squad, either. Both deals are over following the 2017-18 campaign. McPhee could turn the short-term pain of taking one of the deals into long-term gain.

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