When General Manager George McPhee sat down with his advisers, scouts and other members of management to mold what would eventually become the first Vegas Golden Knights roster at the expansion draft in June, he largely did so with the NHL’s trade deadline in mind.
To that end, the roster currently has six unrestricted free agents, along with another eight restricted free agents, on the books. Just as was planned.
Slightly less a part of the plan is the fact that the Golden Knights also lead the Western Conference with a 39-16-4 record (82 points).
The Golden Knights now find themselves in an incredibly rare position in the sports world. They enter Monday’s trade deadline with the contracts, prospects and draft picks available to be both buyers and sellers.
With that in mind, here are a few moves on my wishlist as we approach the deadline.
Trade James Neal
I recently wrote that you don’t have to trade Neal at the deadline. You can, as I put it, have your cake and eat it too. Just don’t re-sign him after the season.
Today, I’m going to explain why you probably should trade Neal, anyway.
You’re going to get a first-round pick for James Neal, that much is for sure. As Sportsnet’s Jonathan Willis’ article shows us, over the last five or so seasons all of Jason Pominville, David Perron and Andrew Ladd have gone for a first-plus and these are fair approximations of Neal and his value. Jarome Iginla, five years older than Neal is today, went for a first-round pick when he was moved from Calgary to Pittsburgh.
Teams love to overpay at the deadline for goal scoring wingers on expiring deals. They love it like I love sushi on a Monday. It is their most favorite thing to do, besides overpay slow, aging defensive defenseman. Some might question whether a first-round pick and some mid-round picks or prospects is worth not having Neal for the playoffs.
To that, I say yes. Every time.
Trading Neal brings in assets that the team can then flip for other assets that fit better into the long-term future of the team. They’ll need to spend pick collateral to get the players I have in mind, but selling a player or two lessens the overall loss.
Trade a defender — finally
It’s time to pull the trigger on moving a defender. I don’t know which and I don’t know for what, but some of Luca Sbisa, Jon Merrill, Griffin Reinhart, Jason Garrison, Clayton Stoner and Brad Hunt need to go. It’s time to collect the sixth or seventh-round picks and move on from the overcrowded blueline. You’ll need the roster space.
“But Mike, isn’t Luca Sbisa really good?”
Not really. At least not so much that he can’t be improved upon or replaced.
Even if he is playing top pairing minutes or assignments there is some reason to believe Sbisa is actually a drag on his defensive partner. Take Nate Schmidt, his most common defensive partner. Together the two have a 44.0 Corsi For percentage. Apart, Sbisa has a 41.55 CF% while Schmidt boasts an impressive 57.75 CF%, albeit in small samples at 5-on-5.
Moving him also opens up the door for something like this...
Trade for Mike Green or Christopher Tanev
To this point I have traded a bunch of defenders and gotten pieces for James Neal. It’s time to start spending those pieces. The Golden Knights defense is a work in progress and adding a veteran defender should be of the utmost importance for management. Finding one who can play the right side is an added bonus.
The Knights have two right-handed shots in Deryk Engelland and Colin Miller while Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb are all lefties. Trading Sbisa leaves one spot in the top four open for a right-handed defender. Green or Tanev fit that role.
The cost is the real issue here.
Both have been dangled on the block for the better part of eternity and one has to assume the reason neither have found themselves in a new city is due to their respective teams’ demands. The Golden Knights are in a place where they can meet those demands. With nineteen picks over the next two seasons it is conceivable that the Golden Knights could find a way to bring in either defender.
Which one is up to GMGM and coach Gerard Gallant. Tanev is a more stay-at-home type defender who won’t often light up the score sheet but could act as a solid defensive stalwart for someone like Schmidt or Theodore. Green, on the other hand, is an offensive-minded puck mover who is historically a strong possession player and adds to the overall firepower of the Golden Knights’ blueline.
Trade for Michael Grabner
Hey, remember when I traded James Neal? Let’s do something about that.
The Golden Knights could use some reinforcements and Grabner is a solid, cheap option. He has been undervalued throughout his career, which has led to him being bounced around (traded twice — first to the New York Islanders and then to the Toronto Maple Leafs before getting a two-year deal from the Rangers in free agency). Now the Rangers are looking to shed themselves of the 20-goal scoring UFA to-be.
All of this to say the Golden Knights should be able to acquire him for less than what they trade Neal for. This is important as Grabner will likely slide into Neal’s role on the team.
Statistically, with 25 goals this season Grabner is one ahead of Neal and has more even strength goals (24 to 19) as well.
Stylistically, Grabner could help the Golden Knights fifteenth-ranked penalty kill. But, above all else, he is fast. Like, really fast. Which fits the Golden Knights’ team philosophy very well.
Finally, one can assume they should also be able re-sign him for significantly less than the rumored $6.5 million Neal will be asking for. Grabner currently accounts for just $1.650 million against the cap.
Check on the availability of James van Riemsdyk
This is more for due diligence. I want JVR, as I have pointed out in my earlier Neal article. For the full reasons why, check out that article.
In summation, James van Riemsdyk is essentially a younger version of Neal in terms of production (they don’t really play that similar of a game stylistically), but younger and historically more durable. Further, signing JVR (and having Perron on the right) allows the team to keep Tuch on the third line for another season. This potentially makes the third line Grabner—Glass/Suzuki—Tuch.
If the Maple Leafs are willing to be reasonable then there is no reason the Golden Knights shouldn’t pull the trigger. So long as they also get permission to work on an extension with van Riemsdyk beforehand. Trading for him must come with an extension otherwise there is no point.
If Vegas could manage to acquire and immediately re-sign him while having also managed to acquire Grabner, both make up for the loss of Neal. And then some.
While collecting both early might cost the Golden Knights more than waiting for free agency and trying to get them then, acquiring both for the playoff run and extending them while also getting assets for Neal can only be seen as a win for the team.
If the Leafs are asking for too much, the Golden Knights can simply walk away and look for him in the offseason, but for now it would not be a bad idea for the team to check on his availability.
At the end of it all my wishlist for the Golden Knights involves both buying and selling, with the buying involving bringing in players the team should be looking to sign in the offseason, and doing so early so they won’t have other teams to contend with in the open market.
While it may also mean the Golden Knights spend more assets then they acquire (specifically picks), the long-term outlook for the franchise more than makes up for it.
My final lines and pairings are: