Now that the Vegas Golden Knights have officially signed Nate Schmidt to an extension, and everyone from the Expansion Draft still on the roster is signed, the team can finally begin to shift focus to bigger things.
For example, we are less than a month away from the start of training camp. The dog days of summer are very nearly behind us, friends. The rookies’ first practice is scheduled for September 8th and the main camp, starting with medicals and fitness testing, opens six days later on September 14th.
Yet there is one off-season domino that has yet to fall before the Golden Knights take the ice for the start of their inaugural season. Specifically, something that addresses the logjam of NHL defensemen that will be vying for a position on the Vegas blue line.
According to CapFriendly, the Golden Knights have 11 defenders under contract at the NHL level, which does not include any of the rookies (Erik Brännström, Nicolas Hague) or Will Butcher, who recently met with Vegas brass (Dalton Mack covered it here in this article).
Clearly not all can make the final roster. Normally only seven or eight do, which includes two reserves. If my math is correct -- and to be fair, I was a journalism major so it might not be -- that leaves between three to four defensemen as the odd men out.
There are players we expect to see, of course. Let's start there. Brayden McNabb, Nate Schmidt, Luca Sbisa, and Colin Miller. That is likely your top-four.
Given that Deryk Engelland and Jason Garrison have been at events representing the Golden Knights, seen in Golden Knights jerseys by fans, it is difficult to foresee a situation where the two do not start the season with the team. I will leave it to you to decide if that is a good thing or not.
And then there is gritty veteran Clayton Stoner and his $3.5MM cap hit. They could bury him, or they could play him to try and build up some level of trade value for the deadline.
Right there are six, maybe seven defensemen that likely have already cracked your 23-man roster without even entering training camp. This is where the real complication in the numbers game on the back end presents itself.
The Golden Knights have too many aging, declining blue liners.
How do the Golden Knights handle their aging veterans?
When the Vegas Golden Knights signed Deryk Engelland to a contract this off-season I made the joke that they had signed their team mascot. In retrospect what they may have done is perpetrate the team’s first unforced error on the roster side.
Signing Engelland to be present at the expansion draft was great from a public relations point of view as it gave the Vegas fans a ‘hometown hero’ of sorts. The side effect of which was it added another replacement level (or worse) defenseman to the roster.
And by introducing him to the fans, it puts the team in a tough situation whereby they are likely expected to play him.
A similar situation can be applied to Jason Garrison who has also been introduced to the fans as one of the faces of their young franchise (along with Marc-Andre Fleury). It seems rather unlikely the team would spend time introducing these players to fans, making them the first faces fans see wearing a Golden Knights jersey, if they were expected to be healthy scratches for most games.
Yes, the team is expected to be bad, and on bad teams, a couple replacement level defensemen getting minutes to make the fans happy is not the worst possible scenario. But, it is not the ideal one, either.
With Garrison and Engelland occupying the fifth and sixth defenseman slots it potentially blocks other younger, potentially more intriguing players from getting a shot.
Among the 11 defensemen on the roster who might fight for spots there are Jon Merrill and Griffin Reinhart. They could struggle to earn minutes with so few available spots open which would deprive the Golden Knights of finding out if they can live up to their draft picks.
Why does this matter? The answer is asset management. Not getting a look at two players fighting desperately to get a foothold in the league before time runs out on their once-promising careers is bad asset management.
Merrill is a former second-round selection who most recently put in some very tough minutes on the New Jersey Devils blue line, but, they were not exactly efficient minutes. For a full scouting report, go here. Reinhart was once the fourth-overall pick but has since been traded, exposed in the expansion draft, and has yet to draw into a lineup with any consistency. Full Knights On Ice scouting report here.
In a year where you do not expect wins and losses to matter, the only thing that really does is developing and scouting the players on your roster—players who could be useful in three or four seasons when you hope to compete.
Further, the veteran logjam could conceivably hinder the development of the Golden Knights prize acquisition from the expansion draft.
Shea Theodore is NHL-ready right now and is, if not their top defensive prospect, their 1-B defensive prospect. If he has an exceptionally good camp and pre-season, he could force himself into the top-four which would make things only more difficult for the Golden Knights coaching staff. After all, the 22-year-old did notch eight points in 14 playoff games for the Ducks this past spring. Should they choose to leave him in the minors due to a lack of an open spot, he would be wasted at the AHL level.
The team has some viable options available, though none are ideal
What we see now is that the veterans, having taken two or three roster spots, have put the Golden Knights in a tough situation and the number of spots available for younger d-men could depend on how much playing time those veterans are expected to see.
From here, there are three likely scenarios so far as I can tell (honourable mention goes to healthy scratching Garrison and Engelland, which is my choice, but as mentioned earlier seems unlikely).
Option 1: Garrison and Engelland are made the 5-6 defensemen as a ‘thank you’ from the Golden Knights for their services in the off-season combined with their veteran status. This likely means Theodore is sent back down, and Merrill/Reinhart are lucky to be reserves. Who knows what happens to Stoner.
Option 2: A trade. The general consensus has been that we are going to see another trade from the Golden Knights, and we still might, but the trade market has gone quiet (as has the rest of the NHL, save for some Olympic discussion) and there are still some quality options available in free agency that might affect the market further.
Yet, if there is a trade available, perhaps to a team like Arizona who still needs defensive help, the options available for the Golden Knights to trade come with their own distinct drawbacks.
The likely candidates to be moved are those fighting for the final two spots in the everyday lineup. As previously stated, it would be a bad look for the organization to trade Garrison or Engelland before either have so much as played a game for the team. They are the faces, after all.
But, would the Golden Knights trade a younger, more intriguing piece simply to save face with said veterans and fans? Is the organization really helped by keeping Engelland and Garrison on the team and potentially in the lineup short-term if it means not seeing if Merrill or Reinhart can fit into their system?
Option 3: The rarely used seven defensemen option. I nearly did not mention this as it is so rarely done but as it has been recently employed by the Washington Capitals in the playoffs as a way to keep Nate Schmidt in the lineup upon the return of Karl Alzner it might be a possibility.
Granted, it messes with the balance of your forward lines, and would cause some creative shuffling by the coaching staff to both keep the forwards fresh and the five, six, and seven D’s sharp and in the game, but this could theoretically solve the problems for the Golden Knights.
In this scenario, an NHL-ready Theodore could still make the roster as the 7th defenseman, although, like in Option 1, you’re likely playing the veterans in the five and six slots and leaving guys like Merrill and Reinhart in the press box. Or, potentially forcing Theodore to stay in the minors so as to give that playing time to Merrill or Reinhart without taking from others.
None of these are ideal situations for the team and good pre-seasons by Merrill, Reinhart, and Theodore could really push the team into an impossible decision that might affect the organization as they look to the future.
And it was entirely avoidable.
What would you do to clear the log-jam on defense?
This poll is closed
Option 1: Veterans play, scratch Merrill/Reinhart
Option 2: Trade the Veterans, who cares how it looks
Option 2.1: Trade Merrill/Reinhart, they probably won’t be good, anyway
Option 3: Run seven defensemen, clearly