Despite losing to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final, the Golden Knights’ 2017-18 season will go down as one of the most memorable campaigns in the history of sports. After having 500-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup, the Golden Knights shocked the world by capturing the hearts of the hockey universe with their fast, opportunistic game, paving the way to an unforeseen Pacific Division-winning season.
Of course, their success didn’t end in the regular season. Once the playoffs began, the Knights’ unparalleled ride continued when they ran through the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets in just 15 games to advance to the Final. And though they didn’t end up lifting the Holy Grail, no one in their right mind can reasonably call Vegas’ inaugural campaign anything other than an overwhelming success.
So where do the Knights go from here? Topping Year 1 will be no easy task for the Knights, but a few alterations to the roster could certainly put Vegas in position to do just that in Year 2.
Improving the Forwards
As we stand right now, the Golden Knights have a plethora of decisions to make regarding their group of forwards. Not only are James Neal, David Perron and Ryan Reaves all set to become unrestricted free agents, but William Karlsson, Tomas Nosek and Will Carrier are also in line to become restricted free agents at noon (eastern time) on July 1.
That said, we’ve already been given a small glimpse at what George McPhee and company may be planning for the offseason. According to Perron himself, he and the team had discussed a contract extension throughout the season. An agreement was never reached, but Perron made it clear that he wants to stay in Vegas, and he believes the Knights don’t want to lose him, either. So if one of the aforementioned pending UFAs is to remain in Vegas, it would appear Perron would be the most likely to get an extension.
Neal and Reaves, on the other hand, are in a much different situation. Reaves is 31 years old, and despite playing some impactful hockey in the postseason, he simply doesn’t fit the Knights’ style of play. Neal, however, played a massive role for the Golden Knights all season as a second-line winger. The All-Star forward registered 25 goals and 44 points through 71 games this season and was a vocal leader in the Vegas locker room from day one. However, Neal will turn 31 this summer and likely won’t come very cheap. McPhee made it clear in his exit interview that not all of the Knights’ star players will be back next season. And considering his age and asking price, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if Neal doesn’t return for the Knights’ 2018-19 campaign.
Concerning the RFAs, it’s almost a given that Karlsson will be back next season. Wild Bill is just 25 years old and coming off a ridiculous 43-goal breakout season. While there’s always the risk of overpaying for a player coming off a career year, investing in Karlsson long-term is a gamble the Golden Knights simply cannot botch. Especially with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, Karlsson’s linemates from last season, both remaining in Vegas for the foreseeable future.
Also in the running for a new deal is Nosek, who quietly put together a fine campaign as a fourth-liner and penalty killing specialist. Coming off a season in which Nosek made just $612,500, it doesn’t seem like the Knights would have much issue with retaining the 25-year-old winger from a financial standpoint. Carrier would be a welcome return to the roster as well, but his history with nagging injuries is a bit of a concern.
Taking all of that into consideration, here’s what the Golden Knights’ group of forwards could look like if Neal and Reaves do not return for the 2018-19 season.
Projection: 2018-19 Golden Knights Forwards
|Jonathan Marchessault||William Karlsson||Reilly Smith|
|*VACANT*||Erik Haula||Alex Tuch|
|David Perron||Cody Eakin||Tomas Tatar|
|*VACANT*||Pierre-Edouard Bellemare||Tomas Nosek|
With a solid crop of centermen in the fold, the obvious area of need for the Knights is on the wing, especially if Neal and Reaves both jettison elsewhere. Luckily, though, there are a few quality wingers set to become UFAs who may interest the Knights this offseason. One of which being Rick Nash. At 33 years old, Nash is far beyond his prime, but likely won’t command a pricy long-term deal. Even coming off the worst season of his career, Nash still managed to score 21 goals as a bottom-six forward. Throw in his capabilities as a penalty killer and Nash would more than qualify as a worthy addition to the Knights’ bottom six.
Also hitting the free agent market is Thomas Vanek, who, even at 34 years old, remains a quality source of point production. Over the last five years, Vanek has played on a whopping eight different teams, averaging around 20 goals in each of those seasons. The Austrian forward isn’t expected to cost much this offseason, and considering what he brings to the table as a goal scorer, both at even strength and as a power play juggernaut, Vegas would be wise to at least entertain the idea of bringing in the veteran winger.
Of course, the Golden Knights certainly aren’t required to sign a player from outside the organization in order to accommodate their needs. Assuming they’re ready to take on a larger role, players like Ryan Carpenter, Tomas Hyka, Brandon Pirri or even one of the Knights’ top prospects (Cody Glass or Nick Suzuki) could earn a permanent role with a strong showing during training camp.
Improving the Defense
Now that we’ve examined the holes in Vegas’ group of forwards, let’s evaluate the Golden Knights’ needs on the back end.
Brayden McNabb, Nate Schmidt and Deryk Engelland are all under contract for next season, but Colin Miller and Shea Theodore are both set to become RFAs. The only pending UFA of the Golden Knights’ defensive core is Luca Sbisa, who likely won’t be returning to Vegas anyway after a largely unimpressive 2017-18 campaign.
While Miller and Theodore had their hiccups in the defensive zone from time to time, both established themselves as the best offensive defensemen on the Knights’ roster. Both drove play extremely well throughout the year and are due for larger roles next season (specifically Miller, who, when playing alongside Nate Schmidt on the top line, albeit on rare occasions, had an excellent 60.13 Corsi For percentage at 5v5). Due to their offensive playmaking abilities, it’s hard to imagine Vegas letting either Miller or Theodore walk in free agency. Neither Miller nor Theodore are expected to earn a very big pay raise, and considering both are still relatively young (particularly Theodore at just 22 years old), it seems all but certain that Vegas will have the two return for the 2018-19 season.
Below is a projection of the Golden Knights’ ideal defensive pairings for the 2018-19 season.
Projection: 2018-19 Golden Knights Defensemen
|Nate Schmidt||Colin Miller|
|Shea Theodore||Brayden McNabb|
While 26-year-old Oklahoma native Jon Merrill and 29-year-old journeyman Brad Hunt had their moments during the regular season, bringing in a player from outside the organization may be the Knights’ best option when filling the final spot of the defensive core. Both Merrill and Hunt are quality seventh defensemen, but their game-by-game consistency is questionable at best.
What defensemen could interest the Knights in free agency? Let’s start with the obvious — John Carlson. The Capitals blueliner is coming off the best statistical campaign of his career with 15 goals and 68 points through 82 games. The 28-year-old right-shot defenseman gave Vegas fits in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Knights certainly took notice. There’s no guarantee Carlson will even want to leave the nation’s capital after winning the Cup with the team that drafted him back in 2008, but if he does, he’ll be looking for a massive payday. And he’ll be worth every penny.
If the Knights opt to pursue a cheaper option, they could always look to sign a player like Ian Cole, who Vegas reportedly had interest in last November. Cole, 29, doesn’t play a flashy game, but serves as a fantastic locker room presence and specializes at killing penalties. The two-time Stanley Cup winner is coming off a 20-point season, and considering the Golden Knights’ apparent liking to former Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury, David Perron, James Neal, Ryan Reaves), Cole would certainly fit the criteria.
And of course, Vegas could also take the more aggressive route and make another effort at trading for two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. According to Elliotte Friedman in his most recent edition of 31 Thoughts, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the Golden Knights to rekindle their trade negotiations with Ottawa if it lands them Karlsson.
The Golden Knights came close to acquiring Erik Karlsson at the deadline. After seeing how the Capitals locked down the neutral zone and point men in the final, you can see how they might revisit something like this.
Karlsson may very well be the best defenseman on the planet. The 28-year-old Swede is coming off somewhat of a “down” year (he had 62 points on one of the worst teams in the NHL), but is still every bit capable of returning to point-per-game form. It’s a long shot, but adding one of the best players in the world to the roster certainly wouldn’t hurt the Knights’ chances at making another deep playoff run next season.