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Who’s in? Who’s out? Biggest lineup questions facing Golden Knights

It took some time, but the roster now has some clarity.

Vegas Golden Knights v San Jose Sharks - Game Seven Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

Now that the everloving soap opera “Days of our Gusev” has aired the series finale, the Vegas Golden Knights’ lineup has never looked clearer.

Which doesn’t say a lot because there are still some glaring questions that we’ll be asking ourselves between now and training camp.

There is some clarity for the first time since the new year began, however, and it all centered around the decision of the Golden Knights trading restricted free agent forward Nikita Gusev to the New Jersey Devils for a couple of draft picks. Vegas now has nine picks in the first three rounds in the next two seasons.

This was a part of the plan, apparently.

“We are a team that, I believe, is a contender,” said incoming president of hockey operations George McPhee via conference call on Monday. “It’s a very good team. We’ve been very aggressive in signing our players to deals that make sense for the team now and certainly in the future. We now have lots of draft picks as currency, and we have spent to the cap to make it a good team.”

The Golden Knights have 22 players on the roster with a shade over $1 million in cap space, per CapFriendly. One player is still to be signed, but a deal for RFA defenseman Jimmy Schuldt should be coming down the pipeline soon.

Here are some things to think about between now and when the Golden Knights return to actual practices in a couple months.

Who suits up at third-line wing?

Let’s get it out of the way. There will be some competition for who plays alongside, likely, Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch. Vegas is not short on options.

Brandon Pirri signed a two-year deal on July 1 to return to the Golden Knights. His whole mantra is about opportunity. With Gusev moving on, Pirri is the favorite to land that job come opening night on Oct. 2. As well as Tomas Nosek signing July 1 to stay with Vegas, his versatility to play wing or center will prove valuable. Nosek will have a spot regardless.

For as much of a dream as it would’ve been to see Gusev make plays for Eakin and Tuch, chemistry mattered most to McPhee when figuring out how to make this roster work. Whether or not you agree with it is an entirely different matter.

“What was really important to us is we’re a contending team,” McPhee said. “We’ve been a real good team and we expect to be an even better team this season. What we didn’t want to do is tear the team apart to accommodate one player. We like the chemistry on our team and as I said we moved players that we could move without affecting the team. We believe we have replacements in house to fill those holes.

“So, no we weren’t interested in moving other players. We like our players, we like our team, we like the chemistry and we didn’t want to extract players from the team that could ultimately hurt us.”

The Golden Knights haven’t gotten enough production from their third line in the past two seasons despite consecutive Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. McPhee’s ideology is familiarity and continuity will be enough.

If history repeats itself, let’s circle back to this at the trade deadline.

Russia v Canada - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

Did Cody Glass just make the roster?

Right now, no, because if the Golden Knights have their way, they’d like to see the former No. 6 overall pick get some action on the aforementioned third-line wing spot.

If the Portland Winterhawks ever need a statue, Glass will likely be it. He had 265 points in three full seasons during his time in juniors, then followed that with 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 22 games this past season for the Chicago Wolves en route to a Calder Cup Final appearance.

Glass can certainly score goals. It’s his passing that makes him such a commodity. This is your monthly reminder that Eakin was really good in all facets last season, but he did surpass an NHL career-high with 41 points. Is that enough to be a center on a line that needs scoring? Can Glass do enough at the next level in his off position? If he wants to achieve his top goal this summer, that might be what he has to do.

“I felt like I did a really good job in the AHL throughout the playoff run,” Glass said. “I think that gave me a good opportunity heading into training camp. I just have to keep working hard. Nothing is ever given to you.”

The dream scenario for the Golden Knights might be a Glass-Eakin-Tuch trio with both Codys interchanging between wing and center. If anything, I am here for the endless talk of Cody passing to Cody, who passes it back to Cody and passes it back to Cody at the high slot, only to leave Alex alone for the goal.

Who has the daunting task of replacing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare?

Vegas forward Ryan Reaves called Bellemare the “heart and soul” of the fourth line. Now that he’s in Colorado, who can replicate that sort of label? Especially one given by the Golden Knights’ enforcer?

This battle is going to be an intriguing one. As previously noted, Nosek seems to be the favorite right now. He’s a fourth-line stalwart who plays a steady game without trying to do too much. That’s a typical Vegas fourth-line forward.

One outcome that’s been brought to my attention over the past couple of days is moving Eakin to the fourth line. In theory, that makes sense. Eakin becomes Vegas’ most defensive-minded forward with the departure of Bellemare. He’s already a very good penalty killer. It makes sense, but to an extent. If the Golden Knights feel Eakin can replicate last season’s success — becoming a 20-goal scorer for the first time and a 40-point scorer — then he shouldn’t be on the fourth line. Vegas will get the maximum return in Eakin should he have two scorers flanking him. Reaves and William Carrier aren’t that.

The other candidate could be Nicolas Roy, the prospect center Vegas acquired in the Erik Haula trade with Carolina. The 6-foot-4 forward scored 15 points in 19 games, en route to the Charlotte Checkers winning the Calder Cup. If that’s a sign of things to come at the professional level, then there’s a darkhorse in the wings.

Is Deryk Engelland a starter?

The line in the sand has been drawn.

When it comes to evaluating Engelland and his role on the Golden Knights entering Year 3, you’re on one of two sides, and depending on which side of battle you stand, you’re bound to be eviscerated. Either Engelland can still play at a solid level, or he has no business even being on the roster and he’s holding up a potential spot for a young blue-liner waiting in the wings.

Engelland has played the best hockey of his NHL career since coming to Vegas via expansion draft two years ago. His 23 points in 2018 were a career-high, warranting a well-deserved one-year extension in January 2018. The 20:17 average time on ice was the most he ever played by a country mile. There was no question he earned that extension.

Last season, Engelland regressed. Call it age, call it lack of skill, but a 12-point season when asked to play top-four minutes did not help his case.

But the Las Vegas resident, who turns 38 this year, does not sound like someone ready to give it up.

“It’s another year to continue my career,” Engelland said. “I’ve still got some time left. Whatever it is, I just take it one day at a time. We’ll see how I feel next year and go from there.”

Get familiar with Schuldt, Nicolas Hague, Zach Whitecloud and even Jake Bischoff. They will be vying for a roster spot. It could very well be two if Engelland’s regression doesn’t mean an opening day spot.

That’s a concept McPhee is embracing for this summer.

“This will be the first year where we really have some of our entry level players pushing for jobs,” he said, “and if you want to be a good team in this league, you have to have young players coming in every year to fill holes for players who have gone elsewhere via free agency or players who have sort of aged out.”

We’re less than two months from getting these answers. Everybody go crazy.