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Stay or go? Golden Knights face dilemmas heading into free agency

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Vegas has cap issues. They also have players on the open market that they should consider bringing back.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t help but think that the Vegas Golden Knights have sold their collective souls to the devil in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup relatively soon. If not Beelzebub, at least to the dreaded hell that is salary cap purgatory.

The short of it is the Golden Knights have a busy summer ahead of them.

Vegas has eight free agents hitting the market and not a lot of wiggle room to bring them all back. Per CapFriendly, the Golden Knights have a projected cap hit of $83,124,999 tied up to 19 contracts.

For those keeping score at home, the projected cap next year is $83 million. It won’t take you long to do the math.

Vegas is in a pickle. Decisions need to be made. Hearts will be broken. There will be pissed off people on both sides. That’s what makes this all fun. Fire up The Clash on the record player and let’s play a round of “Should he stay or should he go?”

William Karlsson

Wild Bill was invited to this dance a year ago, and negotiations went well into August before last season’s top goal scorer settled on a one-year, $5.25 million contract to avoid arbitration.

This time, Karlsson is two years into establishing his worth as a top-six center and has earned a long-term deal ... whether it be from the Golden Knights or elsewhere.

The key to negotiations this summer for Karlsson, as well as any other free agent Vegas wants to retain, comes down to how much salary it can shed between now and whenever the time comes to start talks. The good news for George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon is they have a starting point on negotiations thanks to Brock Nelson’s six-year, $36 million contract signed on May 23 to stay with the New York Islanders.

The bad news is George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon have to come up with ways to get, at least, $6 million under the cap. Even then, the case can be made that Karlsson is worth more than Nelson. Karlsson, following his 78-point campaign last season, had 56 points this season. Nelson earned $6 million AAV with 53 points this season.

Karlsson’s two-way game is just as valuable. He and Mark Stone were the only teammates this season to accumulate 20 goals, 50 blocked shots and 70 takeaways. Find you a combination that can propel your top six like that, and you see why Karlsson is deserving of a long-term deal.

Can the Golden Knights be prepared to commit, at least, $40 million for their top six over the next number of seasons? That’s the core they would run with through the window of Marc-Andre Fleury. Is that the right call? Why not? You can’t have enough two-way guys on a Cup contending team.

Vegas needs to do what it can to bring Karlsson back and make him a mainstay for the long haul.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

How do you value a 34-year-old, fourth-line center that made $1.45 million AAV for the past two years?

Another question: How do you value said center when one of his linemates is making nearly $3 million?

Bellemare isn’t a point-getter, but he’s scored nearly more points (31) in the past two seasons with Vegas than he did in his first three with the Philadelphia Flyers (34). He’s definitely benefited being on this club.

The pro for Bellemare is he doesn’t play his age. There hasn’t been a time where he’s stepped on the ice and someone goes, “man, he’s playing like a 34-year-old.” He knows his role and plays it well. He’s also a valuable penalty killer, something Vegas could’ve used against San Jose in Game 7 had he not hurt his leg in Game 6.

Bellemare is one of the favorites in the locker room and has been dubbed by Ryan Reaves as the heart and soul of the fourth line. It’ll be tricky to pinpoint what he’s worth, but he should be brought back.

Brandon Pirri

The hero of December is set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. Once upon a time, the goal-scoring savant was a godsend in the Golden Knights lineup. He went from scoring 13 points in his first 11 games to only five in the final 20, however.

Credit to Pirri for staying ready whenever Gerard Gallant needed him. Gallant threw him into the fire in Game 7 against San Jose, when he hadn’t played since April 6 (17 days) and played relatively well in hopes of providing an offensive spark on that third line.

But Pirri, for as much of a success story as he was, didn’t do enough to warrant a main roster spot next season. If Vegas wants to bring him back, you’d have to think it’s for a depth role or to stash him in AHL Chicago again, where he was a force for the Western Conference champions. No one, however, would slight the 28-year-old forward for pursuing deals with other clubs that could provide him a bottom-six spot.

I think we’ve seen Pirri’s last game with the Golden Knights.

Ryan Carpenter

Another instance where it’s tough to pinpoint what a player is worth. Carpenter does a lot of the small things right; he gets to the right spots on the ice, plays a solid defensive game and has even shown a sense for playing well in front of the net.

If the Golden Knights need to improve in one area this summer, however, it’s more offensive firepower on the bottom six. Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch should’ve been enough to provide a bottom-six scoring punch late in the season, but it’s tough to do that when one-third of the ice is occupied by a player who is not an offensive-first player. That’s why Pirri drew in for Game 7 over Carpenter. That’s why the thought of Nikita Gusev playing on that line at some point of the playoffs was a reasonable idea.

There’s a spot for Carpenter in a bottom six somewhere in this league. His 18 points were OK, but his 30 takeaways were pretty good. I don’t think Carpenter will be back in Vegas next year, but he could be a backup plan should the Knights be unable to re-sign Bellemare.

Tomas Nosek

So much potential. So much promise, especially after his performance late in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2018. In the end, Nosek was a disappointment.

After Vegas decided not to bring back James Neal and David Perron last summer, Nosek was someone expected to fight for a top-nine role. He scored five points in the final seven playoff games in Year 1. Unfortunately, Nosek couldn’t find that consistency in Year 2 and at times was a liability at 5-on-5.

Nosek is a restricted free agent once again this summer. If Vegas wants to bring him back, it’ll be easier to make that happen. But like Carpenter and Pirri, it’s a numbers game for the Golden Knights. They need more punch in the bottom six, and it’s not likely Nosek can provide that. It doesn’t seem likely that Nosek will be back.

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Nikita Gusev

Just for the legality, yes, bring him back. Moving on.

Deryk Engelland

We’ve talked at length on this site in recent months about the Las Vegas native and his future on this club.

There’s no denying what Engelland has meant to this city the past two years. It goes without saying and diving into great detail. But while Engelland thinks he still feels good to play into his late 30s, the harsh reality is it shouldn’t be with Vegas.

It’s time for the Golden Knights to see what they have in Jimmy Schuldt (who is also a restricted free agent this summer) Zach Whitecloud, Nic Hague, Jake Bischoff, etc. In order to get that vision, Engelland is the odd man out. There are conflicting reports regarding contract talks between the two sides, but the best fit for Engelland should he return to Vegas is being a seventh defenseman. That’s probably not what he’s looking for.

This one would probably hurt the most for Golden Knights fans from a personal standpoint, but Engelland is also a victim of the numbers game. Vegas can’t keep Whitecloud, Hague and Bischoff in the AHL forever. Someone has to be the one let go, and that would have to be the 37-year-old Engelland.

Malcolm Subban

And here’s, quite possibly, the biggest question mark that isn’t named William Karlsson for Vegas this summer.

We can spend hours talking about the lack of playing time given to Subban earlier in the season, how he should’ve relieved Fleury in many of those back-to-backs, how he needed more experience instead of riding the bench as he stared into what seemed like an endless void when the cameras caught him.

Subban’s first five starts were abysmal (0-5-0, .873 save percentage, 19 goals allowed). Depending on what hill you decide to die on if the defense left him out to dry or not, a 3.83 GAA is all-around bad.

In his following nine starts, Subban was outstanding (7-2-0, .920 save percentage, 2.54 GAA). He even won three of the first four starts he saw after Fleury went down with his injury that forced him to miss the final month of the regular season.

Then in his final six starts, he was 1-3-2 with an .892 save percentage. Vegas was already locked in to a playoff spot by this point and didn’t have much to play for other than seeding, but Subban had an opportunity to reel in a few more wins to help his cause. That did not happen.

Goalie coach Dave Prior loves Subban. The organization as a whole thinks highly of him. At most, he’s earned one more year to show if he’s proven to be a capable backup. He’s a restricted free agent, so discussions won’t be difficult. A one-year deal and some competition with Oscar Dansk in preseason should be in the cards. Subban will be back, but if given the opportunities, he needs to put up better numbers (and probably not play the Calgary Flames whatsoever).