Once in salary cap purgatory, Golden Knights setting up for relief next season

This is building up to be more of an intriguing offseason than we thought.

When the Vegas Golden Knights signed defenseman Zach Whitecloud to a two-year extension on Sunday, it became clear from general manager Kelly McCrimmon that the Vegas defense is on pace to be set heading into next season.

Add Nick Holden’s two-year extension and Alec Martinez staying for one more year, and the Golden Knights likely have their starting six ready to go. In all likelihood, one or both of Jon Merrill and Deryk Engelland will not be returning to Vegas.

The Golden Knights are setting themselves up for a feasible offseason, should the NHL get there in a timely manner. This talk is premature considering the matter of some team winning the Stanley Cup at some point, and the Golden Knights have put themselves in the conversation to do just that.

Per CapFriendly, the Golden Knights have 14 contracts taking up $72.625 million heading into 2020-21 (not factoring Alex Tuch on long-term IR). With the blue line established, the attention turns to the forwards. Chandler Stephenson and Nicolas Roy, both restricted free agents, will be Vegas’ top priorities. Deadline acquisition Nick Cousins is also an RFA.

Ryan Reaves and Tomas Nosek are the lone unrestricted free agents.

Uncertainties lie ahead with this NHL season, which has been on pause since March 12. Some of that ambivalence has to do with the salary cap, expected to rise between $84 million - $88 million next season. This isn’t to say that the NHL’s suspension won’t affect that, but there’s no guarantee that such a raise would happen after losing revenue for at least two months.

But let’s say that the cap does rise to the minimum of $84 million — the Golden Knights could reasonably re-sign their top priority guys and still have wiggle room to work with; a concept that seemed ridiculous after Vegas offloaded Erik Haula and Colin Miller last June.

At 23 years old, Roy has gone from trade throw-in to a middle-six contributor. The Golden Knights could extend a qualifying offer to Roy, which would be $735,000. The Golden Knights would like to sign Roy to his first multi-year deal, which they could do and still hold his rights for another season before entering unrestricted free agency. At least $1 million per year would be a great starting point.

Stephenson is an interesting case. He’s been the biggest trade steal in the league this season, totaling 22 points in 41 games with Vegas since being traded from the Washington Capitals on Dec. 2. He’s certainly worth a pay raise — currently making $1.05 million this season, and that would be his QO amount — but would it be on a long-term basis? He turns 27 next April, which would put him into UFA territory next summer. Vegas could get away with a one-year, prove-it deal between $1.5 million - $2 million before re-upping one more time.

Cousins shouldn’t be asking for anything outlandish over his $1 million QO. Nosek might be seeking something in the $1 million range like he signed for last summer, and Reaves won’t break the bank after making $2.775 million the past two seasons.

Meanwhile, Cody Glass hasn’t been mentioned until now. Health pending, he’ll be in line for a middle six spot. Jack Dugan is another name to consider if he signs his entry-level deal soon. There’s also 20-year-old Lucas Elvenes, who was fourth among rookies in the American League with 48 points for the Chicago Wolves. He’s been far ahead of the curve and should challenge for a roster spot, as well.

There might not be enough room for Nosek and Reaves to return and that could make Vegas’ cap situation that much more appealing. Would that be enough to sign Robin Lehner to a long-term deal? Maybe a pie-in-the-sky run at Alex Pietrangelo? Nothing is confirmed, but I have a strong sense Vegas will take calls for trades involving certain under-performing young players and veterans on expiring deals. That would open the floodgates to something preposterous.

This is shaping up to be a rather interesting offseason for the Golden Knights — one that could be even more tantalizing if the salary cap plays in their favor.