“There will be no pity parties here,” said Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee on locker cleanout day. “We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves or anything else. Stuff happens in games. We’re gonna take the rear-view mirror out and move forward, put a real good team on the ice next year and go compete again.”
It may not have happened the way anyone expected, but the Golden Knights’ preparation for the 2019-20 season is starting a bit early. Stanley Cup contenders are built in the offseason, and with an already star-studded lineup in place to take the ice in October, there are still plenty of housekeeping duties for McPhee and company to attend to as they look to make a third run at the postseason in as many years.
Impending unrestricted free agents
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (34) — One of the vocal leaders in Vegas’ locker room, it’s very possible that the Frenchman may have played his last game as a Golden Knight. With Erik Haula set to be fully healthy for the start of the 2019-20 season and Cody Eakin proving his worth with a 22-goal campaign, the Knights appear to have a logjam at the center position. Though Bellemare’s work on the penalty kill has been admirable over the last two years, it’s nothing that can’t be replaced by another defensively sound forward currently under contract for next season. Bellemare would like to sign a contract with more term, but that may not be in the cards for a team dealing with a cap crunch.
Brandon Pirri (28) — What a roller coaster of a season it was for Pirri. After finally earning an extended opportunity playing with the Knights, the journeyman scored eight goals and 13 points in his first 11 NHL games of the season. From there, though, he got very cold, picking up a grand total of just five points in his final 20 games of the season. Pirri wants to play in the NHL, but if there’s one thing the Golden Knights don’t lack, it’s depth. Don’t be surprised to see him wearing a different team’s sweater next season.
Ryan Carpenter (28) — Carpenter may end up being the only unrestricted free agent to return next season. His game isn’t flashy and he was even scratched for the entirety of Vegas’ series against the San Jose Sharks. Still, Knights head coach Gerard Gallant singled out Carpenter on locker cleanout day and admitted that he’s a player he “thinks a lot of.” With Carpenter unlikely to break the bank, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him back in Vegas on another cheap contract next season as a fill-in on the bottom line.
Deryk Engelland (37) — Deciding whether or not to bring back the Golden Knights’ unofficial team captain is one of the biggest decisions on George McPhee’s to-do list this summer. After putting together the best statistical season of his NHL career in 2017-18, Engelland regressed significantly in Year 2. Though he played a large role on the penalty kill, the aging blueliner struggled mightily at 5-on-5, and his deficiencies wound up having a negative impact on his teammates as well (more on that here). Engelland will deservedly go down as a hero in Las Vegas, but his time as a player may very well be close to over, despite his desire to return for another season.
Impending restricted free agents
William Karlsson (26) — This is the big one. Despite suffering an inevitable regression after an astonishing 43-goal breakout campaign in Vegas’ inaugural season, William Karlsson was still one of the more important players on the Golden Knights’ roster in 2018-19. He can play in any situation — even strength, power play or penalty kill — and make a significant impact. Karlsson is once again eligible for salary arbitration, but don’t be surprised if he and the Knights wind up coming to an agreement beforehand. It’s hard to imagine him being anywhere other than Vegas next season.
Tomas Nosek (26) — After impressing with four goals and six points in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, many were expecting big things from Nosek this season. Unfortunately, he was unable to take the next step and become a requisite member of Vegas’ nightly lineup. Nosek did end up setting new career highs in goals (8), assists (9) and points (17), but will that be enough to earn him much of a raise? Perhaps, but that is far from definite.
Nikita Gusev (26) — Gusev is here for a reason. Now that his entry-level contract is out of the equation, it’s only a matter of time before the Knights reach a real agreement with the talented Russian winger. Gusev will be in Vegas next season, and he’ll be a ton of fun to watch.
Jimmy Schuldt (23) — Schuldt’s situation is similar to Gusev’s. His entry-level contract is burned, and considering he hand-picked Vegas as his destination out of college, it’s hard to imagine him not signing another contract to remain with the Knights. His role for next season, though, remains uncertain.
Malcolm Subban (25) — This is a situation deserving of a lot more discussion this summer. Subban certainly didn’t set the world on fire this season, but he still proved to be a more-than-capable backup for Marc-Andre Fleury. With Fleury set to turn 35 in November, having a competent backup becomes paramount. Subban may be the most polarizing player on the Knights’ roster, but it goes without saying that Vegas could do much, much worse than P.K.’s younger brother.
Roster needs for 2019-20
Despite the early exit from the postseason, the Golden Knights are undoubtedly one of the deeper teams in the NHL — this is especially true for their experienced group of forwards. Barring a trade that sends a returning player elsewhere, the Golden Knights’ opening night forward lineup could look a little something like this.
Potential 2019-20 forward lines
Defensively, though, questions remain. Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore lead the way as Vegas’ two best defensemen, and Brayden McNabb serves as a reliable compliment capable of playing top-pair minutes. Colin Miller is another proven piece on the Knights’ back end, but after being a healthy scratch multiple times (including Game 1 of Vegas’ series against the Sharks), it wouldn’t be much of a shock if he wound up being moved at some point this offseason. Jon Merrill impressed in the second half of the season, but he, too, was a healthy scratch for a good portion of the 2018-19 campaign.
If Engelland does end up returning, he could be a nice fit in a sheltered role on the bottom pairing, but he is no longer suited to play 20-plus minutes a night (which I wrote about here). That being the case, the Golden Knights should make it a priority to acquire a top-four defenseman this offseason, whether it be via trade or free agency.
This year’s crop of free agent defensemen isn’t great — excluding two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson, of course. But as nice as it would be for Vegas to sign a player of Karlsson’s caliber, that simply isn’t a realistic possibility given their cap situation. Already close to the cap ceiling with a number of restricted free agents (namely William Karlsson) that need to be taken care of, Vegas will need to target cheaper options. Unfortunately, many of those cheaper options don’t fit what the Knights would ideally like to add to their blue line. This is why a trade may be the better course of action for George McPhee.
As McPhee has proven since the day he joined the Golden Knights, he is not afraid to make a move that can improve his team’s chances of winning in the present. With a number of draft selections at his disposal, perhaps McPhee could move a pick and a roster player (Miller or Eakin immediately come to mind) for a reliable top-four defender.
Even better yet, a trade or free agent signing may not even be necessary to improve the blue line. After all, it may only be a matter of time before Nicolas Hague makes the jump to the NHL. Hague, 20, just completed his first season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. And for a rookie defenseman in the AHL, his 13-goal, 32-point campaign can reasonably be considered a huge success.
Either way, with more stability on the blue line, the Golden Knights’ chances of making another deep playoff run would improve tenfold.
So, about those aforementioned draft picks — the Knights have quite a few of them. Despite making a pair of blockbuster trades for superstars Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, George McPhee still managed to do an excellent job of protecting the Golden Knights’ draft picks. Barring any trades between now and late June, the Knights will make nine selections in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft — five of those selections will come in the draft’s first three rounds.
The Golden Knights’ draft selections are as follows:
Round 1 — Golden Knights
Round 2 — Golden Knights
Round 3 — Golden Knights, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets
Round 4 — Golden Knights
Round 5 — Golden Knights, Minnesota Wild, Montreal Canadiens
Of course, it won’t be surprising if McPhee does end up trading (at least) one of these selections prior to the draft, whether it be for a proven NHLer or even for the chance to draft a can’t-miss prospect — perhaps for sensational U.S.-born goalie Spencer Knight? His name certainly fits the bill.
At the end of the day, the Golden Knights are in a very good spot. With a wealth of proven NHL players in the fold, Vegas is very much equipped to contend once again next season. With improved defensive play and the addition of a serviceable free agent this summer, the Knights could make another run at a Stanley Cup.
Of course, that’s a long time from now. In the meantime, the top priority is figuring out which impending free agents have carved out a longer tenure in Sin City. And considering what we’ve learned since locker cleanout day, it doesn’t seem all that difficult to decipher who will and will not be coming back next season.