Let’s get this out of the way, because there are going to be some misconstrued thoughts on how I view the Vegas Golden Knights’ upcoming season should this play out if this continues.
The Golden Knights are more than capable of making a third consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs if Nikita Gusev is not on the Vegas roster before puck drops Oct. 2.
Betting against the Golden Knights is not something anyone on this site, or likely all Vegas fans, will do. Expecting a complete collapse with all that has been done in the last 24-30 months is foolish.
But we have yet to reach the time where the masses can deem the Golden Knights have failed an offseason. The roster was assembled in Year 1. Vegas signed Paul Stastny on July 1 and then traded for Max Pacioretty a couple of months later prior to Year 2. Throw in the Mark Stone trade and his contract extension soon after, and you can view the entire front as a whole a success.
But in Year 3, with the understanding of where the Golden Knights are in terms of the salary cap and with the rights to arguably the best player outside of the NHL in their grasp, and the fact that he is still unsigned as of mid-July, the Golden Knights are approaching the status of a failed offseason if Gusev does not don a Vegas sweater come opening night.
From the moment Stone signed his eight-year, $76 million extension March 8, the Golden Knights were on the clock. The impending restricted free agency of William Karlsson was going to complicate things. Vegas was fortunate to not only get a deal done with Karlsson early (June 24) but did so with an eight-year deal at an affordable $5.9 million average annual value.
But the Golden Knights’ plans became dicey April 14. In the middle of Vegas’ first-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks, the Golden Knights signed Gusev to an entry-level contract, making him a restricted free agent this offseason. President of hockey operations George McPhee said Gusev, fresh off of playing in the KHL Playoffs and being named MVP a year earlier, was not prepared to commit him to a playoff appearance.
“Primarily to get him done and get him over here,” McPhee said that day when asked if the priority was to have Gusev for the playoffs. “You don’t know what transpires in the playoffs. We have some real good depth. Never had a problem having too many good players around.”
That last line has indicated there is a problem; the problem being that trade rumors involving Gusev have made their way to the forefront of a rather lackluster offseason; one that could suddenly burst into fireworks should Gusev be traded at any point this summer. The Athletic is reporting the Golden Knights and Gusev are as far as $2 million apart in negotiations. Gusev is currently looking for $4 million per year on a two-year deal, and that has always been the asking point for him, according to a source.
It’s not as if getting Gusev to the Golden Knights was an easy track. Gusev gave up bonuses and a good sum of money in order to get out of his SKA contract.
“We think he’s a really good player. We’d like to work something out here,” McPhee said July 1. “If that doesn’t work out, we’ll look at options. But there’s definitely interest in him. We’ve had people call us on him, and we’ll see what develops. I can’t tell you today what will develop, but we’ll work on it.
“He’s been very, very good on the international stage. He wants to play in the NHL. He worked hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”
The plan to get Gusev signed looked to be on track with the trades of forward Erik Haula to Carolina and defenseman Colin Miller to Buffalo, freeing the over-the-top cap space the Golden Knights burned up in signing Karlsson. The Golden Knights are sitting $3.5 million over the cap after signing goalie Malcolm Subban to his one-year, $850,000 contract on Tuesday. As has been discussed profusely with the thought of vigorous vomiting, David Clarkson is Vegas’ best friend. Once he goes on long-term IR, his $5.25 million will be a thing of the past. The Golden Knights would be compliant with the cap should the season start today.
There would also need to be a Deryk Engelland contract figured out somewhere in the midst of all that.
Here’s what it comes down to: Do the Golden Knights think this is a Vadim Shipachyov situation? The answer should be no, but unless Gusev looks like he’s about to collapse on the NHL ice come training camp, there’s no reason to believe Gusev will turn out like his good friend and believe he has to go through the casino to get to a water park.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” McPhee said at the time he announced Shipachyov’s retirement. “Sometimes the player you see in Europe isn’t the player you see here, and that’s the risk you take when you sign someone. You hope it works out, but it doesn’t always work out.”
Gusev is not being asked to be the club’s top scoring option out of the gates. It’s a reasonable amount of money he’s looking for understanding he’s going to get third-line minutes on a line that desperately needs scoring. Gusev won’t be the reason why the Golden Knights will, or will not, win the Stanley Cup in 2020, but he definitely swings the needle the right direction.
The Golden Knights knew how this offseason was going to go. Nothing has come as a shock. But given how Vegas has operated and has gone through the motions, no noise can be considered bad. It won’t be earth-shattering, but not having Gusev in 2020 will constitute a failed offseason for the first time.
For Year 3, that’s not too shabby.