All Brandon Pirri wants is an opportunity.
He’s been clamoring for that since the Vegas Golden Knights signed him more than two years ago. He’s been a scoring savant in the American Hockey League. He’s been sent down, called up, and even sent down and called up on the same day (depending on who you believe).
He’s paid his dues, but his NHL timeclock is running out. The Golden Knights are trying to get the most out of Pirri, the 28-year-old goal scorer who signed a two-year, $1.55 million deal (AAV of $775,000) on Monday to remain with the team, and the coach, Gerard Gallant, that is giving him such a chance.
“There was other options, but I think for me, it was about opportunity,” Pirri told Dave Schoen of the Review-Journal on Monday. “In my situation where I last year and the year before I was in the American League, so I kind of have to prove myself all over again it feels like.”
Gallant and Pirri go back to their days with the Panthers. He scored 40 goals in 122 games. The 22 he scored in 2015 is the most he’s ever scored in a season. He’s capable of such a run. He proved that in 2019.
For 26 days, Pirri had to prove himself just to stay on the Golden Knights’ roster. Pirri had 18 points (12 goals, six assists) in 31 regular season games, but 13 points (eight goals, five assists) came in his first 11 games. The Golden Knights went 7-2-2 in that stretch.
Pirri tailed off in the final 21 games. He was mostly a healthy scratch. He was in the press box for six games of the first-round playoff series against San Jose, then thrust into the lineup for Game 7 in the slim hope of the Golden Knights not blowing a 3-1 series lead, in which they did.
That Game 7, in what might have been a final audition for Pirri, was good. He had five shots and six hits in 17:15 playing on the third line with Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch. He didn’t score, but he made an impact offensively. It’s something that Ryan Carpenter, who signed a three-year deal with Chicago on Monday, couldn’t do. It was something Tomas Nosek struggled to do. Pirri gave Vegas a chance.
With Erik Haula now in Carolina, third-line forward is up for grabs. The clubhouse favorite was, and maybe somehow still is, restricted free agent winger Nikita Gusev. There is uncertainty to that now. President of hockey operations George McPhee said Monday that there is definitely interest in the former KHL MVP and teams have called.
With training camp two months away, Pirri will get another shot.
“It’s pretty clear we have an opening in our bottom six,” McPhee said. “We’re in a place now where we’re hoping players within your organization can fill those holes. We think we’ve developed a pipeline that’s going to give us a rookie or two, or another player we’ve developed, an opportunity to fill those holes. It’s ideally what you want.”
The third line is going to be a crucial battle come training camp. That line’s objective is to get the most out of Tuch after a 52-point campaign last season. Barring any other cap-moving trades — McPhee said Monday he doesn’t see any more trades happening — Eakin is going to play out his contract year coming off an NHL-career-high 41 points.
Who can best maximize Tuch’s potential on that line?
There’s Pirri, the veteran presence. Cody Glass is still a likely candidate to make the Vegas roster next season. Eakin would move to wing, should that be the case. He played some wing during his Dallas tenure, but Gerard Gallant likely prefers him to stay at center.
One player that may fight for that spot is Reid Duke, the first Golden Knights player ever. He’s entering a contract year. There’s an argument that he could benefit from another year in Chicago after scoring 16 points in 44 games with the Wolves. His development curve would benefit greatly from the AHL, but you never know with these things.
Vegas also has Curtis McKenzie and Valentin Zykov. Both can play the left side. I know you’re laughing at this point, but maybe contract-year Zykov is what the world needs to function.
Then there’s Gusev, of course, who could completely eliminate this whole conundrum if the two sides agree to something relatively soon.
So while the Golden Knights don’t plan on doing anything else at the moment, barring the eventual signing of defenseman Deryk Engelland, there’s going to be intrigue on these roster battles for the next month or so.
Pirri’s return is going to make that a tad more intriguing than it should be, but it’ll be something to keep an eye on.