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Building an off-season plan for the Golden Knights

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There are many ways to build the future of the Golden Knights, this is one of them.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The time has come. The games have been played, the postmortems are being written, and now we are truly in the NHL’s off-season which means dealing with contract negotiations, the Entry Draft, and free agency.

All of the things necessary for building a roster for the start of the next season.

And while we here at Knights On Ice are preparing our player grades and contract negotiation primers while simultaneously scouting the draft and scouring the internet for trade rumors— it’s a busy time even without an expansion draft— I want to dig into my off-season plan for what I would do if I were the Vegas Golden Knights, as the title suggests.

Basically, this is a wish list of players I would like to see targeted mixed with a philosophical template for how I personally would like to see the team treat the off-season from a team and organization building perspective. However, this is only one man’s opinion.

Time to get down to business... and treat it like a business.

The Vegas Golden Knights did the unthinkable and made a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in year one of existence. It was amazing.

That’s over now. It’s time to move on. Put your loving memories of clutch goals and playoff runs in a box, slide it under your bed, and let’s get to work on building the best possible team for year two and beyond.

The original “plan” was a six-year build predicated around drafting and fostering young talent and developing them into the future of the team. That plan is still true. At least it should be.

The Golden Knights have only completed one draft, and while it is nice to assume every player in that draft is going to crack the NHL someday, the truth is far more likely to be that two or fewer actually become everyday NHL players and the rest become trade pieces, organizational depth, or wash out of the league and end up in Europe somewhere.

The Golden Knights have to be careful when trading away draft picks. Big swings like the Tomas Tatar trade make fans excited, sure, but they hurt the team in the long run. The team needs to continue to collect picks and only spend them when absolutely necessary. Create the best farm system possible. They’re going to need it.

With that in mind, however, the Golden Knights have a chance to be competitive in a weak Pacific Division until the young players they already have are ready to take over for the current group.

Finding the balance here between a team building for the future while also remaining competitive is difficult. To accomplish it, decisions must be made without emotional attachment. Hockey is a business and the Golden Knights have advantages other teams do not.

They need to make the most of them. Which leads me to part one of the list.

Do not re-sign any Unrestricted Free Agent— unless they come cheap

I know, I know. James Neal, David Perron, Ryan Reaves, and Luca Sbisa are all UFA’s for the Golden Knights (along with Mikhail Grabovski and Clayton Stoner). People love Neal. People love Perron. They did great things for the Golden Knights this season.

I thank them for their hard work while wishing them good luck in free agency.

I know the Golden Knights have a lot of cap space available, but this isn’t about signing a player for too much money. This is about avoiding unforced errors. Avoiding signing contracts you know aren’t going to age well. Avoiding giving contracts to players who might not make the team competitive next season or beyond.

My reasons behind not re-signing Neal remain the same from my article in February aptly titled “The case for the Golden Knights to not re-sign James Neal” but to sum it up; he’s already 30 years old, has durability concerns, and while he is a good player he is not great, and definitely not elite. 25 goals and 44 points are not irreplaceable. The contract he is expected to get, one north of $6-million, is too rich for my blood.

As for Perron— he’s an interesting case. I have a rule that you don’t pay players for a career year if you don’t have to. The Golden Knights don’t have to pay Perron for his 60-point season if they don’t want to and I can see a case for not wanting to.

However, unlike Neal who seems like a no-brainer to let leave in the off-season, the Golden Knights seem to want to bring Perron back. He’s clearly in their plans for the future. He’s just not in mine. Not unless the deal is somewhere in the vicinity of four-years and between $4.75-million and $5-million per season.

Which, honestly, he could probably get better offers in free agency. One projection has him earning as much as $6.68-million. No thank you. However, the word is he loves Vegas so anything is possible, ultimately.

As for the others, listen, Reaves was better than I expected him to be in the playoffs but the team has younger, more skilled players for the fourth line and I’d like to see them get NHL minutes while Sbisa didn’t become the player I hoped he would be when the Golden Knights selected him out of Vancouver in the expansion draft. He wasn’t terrible, but he’s definitely someone the team can find an upgrade on.

Trade Targets, otherwise known as the part where Mike is a giant hypocrite

Okay, so yes, I did say that the team has to find a way to build for now without sacrificing the future. And yes, the team only has one draft class in the organization and should work towards filling the chauffeurs before dealing away picks.

However.

There are some players rumored to be available that you just can’t find anywhere else. Specifically, I’m referring to top-four defensemen. Those very rarely hit the open market. Often teams trick themselves into thinking free agent defensemen are better than they are but the truth is more often than not teams either have to draft or trade for top-four defensemen.

This might be a chance for Vegas to trade for one.

TSN, one of the big sports networks in Canada, released a list of 25 assets they have heard or believe are on the market this off-season.

The highlights are (age and cap hit according to the article, some may be RFA’s needing new contracts): Erik Karlsson (28-years-old, $6.5M cap hit), P.K. Subban (29, $9M), Justin Faulk (26, $4.83M), Noah Hanifin (21, $925K), Dougie Hamilton (24, $5.75M), Jacob Trouba (24, 2.81M), and Chris Tanev (28, $4.5M).

But, Mike! What about Rasmus Ristolainen or Alex Petrovic? They were on the list.”

Yes, but you see... they aren’t good. Not on the same level as others on the list. Ristolainen is a powerplay specialist who gets hemmed in and slaughtered 5-v-5, and Petrovic is a third-pairing defenseman which the Golden Knights have in abundance.

There is some forward talent in there as well with names such as Jeff Skinner (26, $5.73M), Max Domi (23, $1.36M), Alex Galchenyuk (24, $4.9M), and Sam Reinhart (22, $894K). That said, quality forwards hit the market with far more regularity and so the Golden Knights can find some there. The trade market is for defensemen.

For me, Faulk and Hanifin from Carolina and Hamilton from Calgary are my top choices. They are young, they are exceptional, and they should cost the Golden Knights less to acquire than a Subban or a Karlsson.

Justin Faulk

A 26-year-old right-handed defenseman who plays over 20-minutes per game, though in an offensive role (58.3% offensive zone starts). His possession numbers are very good (55.7 Corsi-For) and he could make a good option to play beside Theodore or Schmidt next season. Some might balk at his combined negative-85 over the last four seasons but I have to remind everyone that his goalies were Scott Darling and Cam Ward during that time. Neither were league average behind Faulk over the years.

Dougie Hamilton

Hamilton got just his second test as a 20-minute per game defenseman in 2017-18 as a member of the Calgary Flames and he held up well. A soon-to-be 25-year-old defenseman, Hamilton put up 17 goals and 44 points from the blueline, was a 57.4 CF% player, and the least sheltered of the three here (53.1 % offensive zone starts). He has been traded before so we have an idea as to what he might cost (was a first-round pick and two second-round picks from Calgary to Boston in 2015).

Noah Hanifin

He’s a 21-year-old defenseman that Carolina has no business trading... But what if they do? He’s a solid 30-point guy, for a young defenseman, he’s comparable to Shea Theodore in that way. His 56.5 CF% is extremely good on what was a bad team with a bad goalie. Vegas has a good goalie, so I wonder if he could improve on the 95.8 PDO from last season. My only concern, he’s not a minute-eater or a shutdown guy and has to this point been heavily sheltered (63.1% offensive zone starts).

The TSN list misses one player I’d have a huge amount of interest in if he is truly available.

Oscar Klefbom

Oh, Edmonton. What are you doing? Peter Chiarelli, please screw this one up.

Klefbom is a top-pairing defenseman, he’s exactly the kind of defensive defenseman that makes a good pair for a guy like Schmidt for the Golden Knights. He won’t put up a ton of points, though 30 isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. He’s a positive possession player (52.6 CF%), is currently just 24-years-old, and the kind of big body defenseman most teams hope to find and is mobile for his size. Why Edmonton is trading him I cannot tell you, but it would be great to have Vegas take advantage of the Oilers mistake.

I know the sexiest move is to go after the big fish. The Subban or the Karlsson on the list. Norris contenders. For me, I can’t justify the price tag. Not when it possibly involves key young players in the system, possibly ones on the roster, too, plus a boatload of draft picks. Not for a Golden Knights team with a farm system consisting of only one draft class so far.

I just can’t.

They have the money and free agency is for the bold

This is where some risks are worth taking for the Golden Knights.

Normally, I’d rather take prospects and picks and make moves for young, controllable players. I would do that for my hometown team in Toronto. The difference here is that they have a full cabinet of prospects and picks whereas Vegas, as mentioned, has just one draft class in theirs.

The other difference is cap space. Vegas has all they could ever want. Not many teams do.

You still have to be smart, of course. You still have to sign players who make the team better and whose contract isn’t paying for just their declining years. You want players who can contribute for most the length of their contract at a rate consistent with what they are being paid.

John Tavares or John Carlson

Because of the sheer size of the contract these players are going to sign for, this is definitely a one or the other situation. If Tavares is willing to play in Vegas then he is my top choice. Tavares is an elite-level player in the game, a true difference maker coming off an 84 point season that saw him score 37 goals for the New York Islanders. He’ll start next season at just 28 years old and is the kind of player any team would be lucky to have.

This is not a situation whereby the Golden Knights should find the next-best option if Tavares doesn’t sign. The only reason I even go for Tavares is that he is such a force that you can’t pass on him. If he doesn’t come to Vegas I’d move on to the Nashville model. Stack the defense.

Carlson may not be an elite point-scoring defenseman every season, and this might seem like paying a player for a career year, but it really isn’t. What I’m paying for is a 28-year-old right shot defenseman who plays 20-minutes every night so I can play him beside Nate Schmidt and he can help take his former teammates game to a new level.

One or the other. Either would make the Golden Knights better next season.

Michael Grabner

Uh, Mike... he’s 30. How can you be okay with Grabner but not Neal?

I’m not going to go too deep into this right now as I have another article planned for Grabner, but he is not Neal. They aren’t the same. Yes, he’s 30-years-old, but, they won’t have to pay him a big money deal to get him. There is no world where Vegas needs to pay north of $5-million to sign Grabner, and they definitely won’t need to give him term.

Also— I’m just going to say it, he’s better than Neal. He outscored Neal at even strength (25 goals to 20). He plays on the penalty kill, something Vegas’ league average kill could use. And he’s played 80 games in two of the last three seasons. And played 76 in the third.

At two-years and somewhere around $2.5-million, this guy fits perfectly with the Knights’ speed-first style. He’s definitely worth more than that, but as one of the most underrated players in the game, I don’t expect his contract will break the bank.

Cody Franson (if the Golden Knights sign Tavares)

This might be a controversial take for people but I like Cody Franson as a depth option for the Golden Knights if they go the route of signing Tavares rather than loading up on defense with Carlson. He’s a step up from Sbisa skill-wise while playing a similar role to Sbisa and Deryk Engelland, he’s a right-handed shot, he can play on the penalty kill, basically a cheap option that provides solid depth for a team who won’t have a ton of cap if they land a big fish like Tavares.

His 59.9 CF% this past season is very good, though he was sheltered and played just 16 minutes a night in just 23 games in 2017-18. Still, I could see Franson and Engelland swapping in and out of the lineup to keep both fresh. Keep in mind Engelland is nearing the age of 36 and could probably use some time off here and there.

Depth is not the enemy.

Final Roster Outlook

Some notes before the big reveal.

For the sake of making things easier on me here, I chose Faulk as the defenseman to trade for in both scenarios, but any of the four are on the table. I just chose one to insert and Faulk was that guy. I traded a future first, second, and fourth for him. It’s a lot, but he has years left on a team friendly contract so I paid it. I’m sure Carolina fans will say it isn’t enough. Such is life. If Edmonton or Calgary except similar deals for Klefbom or Hamilton it could be either of them just as easily.

Also, I’m running under the assumption Perron would agree to the same cap hit as Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Furthermore, all of the RFA’s are re-signed using my own projections for short-term and bridge deals. William Karlsson on a two-year “show me” deal (I explain my stance on a bridge deal for Karlsson here), Miller and Theodore on contracts similar to (though slightly higher than) Schmidt as they have proven more than Schmidt had when his contract was signed. Both are also short-term deals. They might be a bit off financially.

If Vegas gets Tavares then Faulk (or whichever defenseman can be acquired) becomes the teams top-pairing RHD, I would then bring in Franson for some depth, and the Golden Knights look like this under my plan.

If the Golden Knights don’t get Tavares and instead go after and lure Carlson away from Washington, somehow, this is what the team looks like entering next season (also have about $4.5-million left under the cap to make tweaks if necessary).

Cody Glass as a third-line center may seem radical but having him sheltered and surrounded by scoring wingers like Grabner and Tatar wouldn’t be the worst thing. Truly, in the worst case scenario he simply gets sent back down before he burns a year on his ELC and Ryan Carpenter plays in that spot. I’m not worried.

George McPhee and Bill Foley, I’ll be awaiting your call for a job within the organization.

[Knights On Ice readers! As always, I would love to read your opinions, be it on the roster and wish list I’ve created here or with your own view on how you would like to see the off-season handled by the Vegas Golden Knights, so leave a comment and enter the conversation below!]