When it comes to NHL clubs that successfully achieved their goals for the 2019 offseason, one can feasibly point to three teams as the “big winners” of the summer. The New York Rangers added superstar winger Artemi Panarin in free agency, signed defenseman Jacob Trouba to a long-term contract and selected 18-year-old Finnish dynamo Kaapo Kakko in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Colorado Avalanche? They not only traded for former Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri, but also drafted stud defenseman Bowen Byram and added a number of useful bottom-six players such as Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (remember him?) to an already impressive core.
And then, of course, there’s the New Jersey Devils. Not only did New Jersey luck out by winning the draft lottery and selecting American hockey prodigy Jack Hughes with the first overall pick, but they also made a number of big additions, including defenseman P.K. Subban (who they basically stole from the Nashville Predators via trade) and former All-Star MVP forward Wayne Simmonds.
And let’s not forget about former KHL MVP Nikita Gusev, who the Devils acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights for a pair of draft picks. Assuming Gusev pans out for the Devils (which appears likely), his arrival may prove to be the cherry on top for what was an overwhelmingly triumphant offseason for New Jersey.
The Golden Knights, on the other hand, didn’t have an offseason quite as strong as the Devils’. On the contrary, Vegas’ summer could be classified as an obvious misstep, if not an abysmal failure — and the departure of Gusev isn’t the only reason why (though it certainly didn’t make things any better).
Vegas entered the offseason under less than ideal circumstances. With minimal cap space to work with and star center William Karlsson set to become a restricted free agent, president of hockey operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon had little room for error. And with the NHL’s salary cap being lower than the projected $83 million, McPhee and McCrimmon’s goal of building off the Knights’ successful 2018-19 campaign became far more difficult.
However, not much building took place this summer. Rather, Vegas’ offseason was characterized more by deconstruction.
In order to fix the cap complications, players needed to be moved, and forward Erik Haula, defenseman Colin Miller and, of course, Nikita Gusev, who was seeking a contract worth more than $4 million annually, were the casualties.
Being so tight against the cap, Vegas was unable to get much in return for the trio of players that were dealt this offseason. Haula netted a conditional fifth-round draft selection in 2021 and 22-year-old AHLer Nicolas Roy from the Carolina Hurricanes. For Miller, the Knights received a second-round draft selection in 2021 and a 2022 fifth-round selection from the Buffalo Sabres. From New Jersey, Vegas acquired a third-round selection in 2020 and a second-round selection in 2021.
The common trend? Each of these trades resulted in Vegas shipping away proven NHL players — or, in the case of Gusev, a potential impact scoring winger — in return for draft picks (lottery tickets) and a prospect in Roy, who appears destined to play in the AHL for the foreseeable future.
Vegas achieved great success in the expansion draft by taking advantage of teams vulnerable to losing key players. This offseason, the Knights were the vulnerable club. And other teams did not shy away from exploiting them.
As things currently stand, here’s how the Golden Knights’ offseason shapes up:
- Erik Haula
- Colin Miller
- Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
- Ryan Carpenter
- Nikita Gusev
- Nicolas Roy
- Jaycob Megna
- Brett Lernout
- Patrick Brown
- Tyrell Goulbourne
- Garret Sparks
With training camp set to be in full swing exactly one month from today, the Golden Knights’ blue line depth remains a legitimate concern and the bottom six appears to be just average. And with just over $1 million in cap space (thanks partially to the trade that sent David Clarkson’s contract to Toronto), it doesn’t appear much immediate help is on the way.
If there’s a silver lining to the Golden Knights’ substandard 2019 offseason, though, it’s that there is a light at the end of the “cap hell” tunnel. Next offseason, Cody Eakin, Ryan Reaves, Tomas Nosek, Curtis McKenzie, Nick Holden, Jon Merrill and Deryk Engelland will all become unrestricted free agents, which could free up $12,650,000 of cap space, per CapFriendly. The only candidate likely to return out of that group of players figures to be Merrill (and maybe Nosek).
As The Athletic’s Jesse Granger points out, it’s better to deal with a cap crunch now rather than later. Year in and year out, the NHL’s salary cap increases, thus causing individual players’ average annual values to increase in the process. With a large portion of their key players now under contract for the long haul — William Karlsson, Mark Stone, Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault, to name a few — the Golden Knights won’t be impacted by the inevitable inflation that is to occur over the next few years to the extent that other teams will.
A miniature youth movement is also set to begin in Vegas over the next couple seasons. Forward Cody Glass and defensemen Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud are all knocking on the door, and with them will come inexpensive entry-level contracts that will help alleviate the Knights’ cap troubles. Vegas’ farm system, despite only having three years of draft history to its name, is in a decent spot, and the addition of Peyton Krebs in June’s draft only makes the future more encouraging.