AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Saturday, June 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season will go down as one of the best stories in sports history, but will this franchise be a one-hit wonder, a dynasty, or somewhere in between?
Perhaps the craziest thing about this season was that when General Manager George McPhee drafted this squad, he wasn’t trying to win in the first year. McPhee passed up on more talented players multiple times during the expansion draft, taking younger prospects or draft picks instead building for the future.
It turns out, the players he ended up with were good enough to rewrite expansion record books, capture a Pacific Division title and win the Western Conference. This team was built to win down the road — with an embarrassment of riches in future prospects — so starting with a foundation that is far more talented than anyone expected, the Golden Knights have a chance to be dominant.
Starting at the top, the Golden Knights’ top line — which was the most productive line in the NHL with 47 goals and only 23 against — is young and only improving. Jonathan Marchessault, 27, and Reilly Smith, 26, are both locked into bargain contracts through the next three years (five years for Marchessault).
William Karlsson, 25, finished third in the NHL with 43 goals and is a restricted free agent this offseason. He has stated he wants to remain in Las Vegas, so a deal could be done soon.
“It’s awesome, honestly, knowing that me, Karlsson and Smith are going to be here for awhile,” Marchessault said. “You don’t necessarily find an amazing connection like that, so it’s something we need to take advantage of.”
Vegas has three young forwards who can all skate extremely well, are a nightmare for opposing teams with their hellish forecheck, and score some of the prettiest goals in all of the NHL. It’s not a bad situation to have.
“It’s nice to find those linemates that you work really well with,” Karlsson said. “We made it almost all the way, and we’re going to try to be better next year. I like the roster we have, and the young prospects coming up too, so I think the future is bright.”
Young talent currently on the roster
Two blossoming prospects that McPhee took chances on in the expansion draft were forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Shea Theodore. The two 22-year-olds had limited experience in the NHL but were both highly sought-after prospects, and this year they showed why.
Tuch finished seventh on the team with 15 goals and eighth on the team with 37 points. Both he and Theodore were integral parts of the power play unit and showed they have the skills to be building blocks for the team going forward.
“I am really excited for our core group of guys to continue to move on and play here,” Tuch said.
A great sign for the Golden Knights' future is the two rookies raised their level of play even further in the postseason, each pitching in 10 points in the 20 playoff games.
There were plenty of moments where they looked like rookies, with costly turnovers and defensive lapses, but the pure skating talent they demonstrated this season showed they both have the potential to be elite players.
Secret weapon waiting in Russia
Back in the expansion draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning were desperate to move on from Jason Garrison’s contract in order to relieve some of their salary cap issues.
The Golden Knights took on Garrison’s $4.6 million annual value in exchange for Nikita Gusev.
The 25-year-old Russian was recently named MVP of Russia’s top league — the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) — after a spectacular 22 goals and 62 points in 54 games this season.
Gusev does have another year remaining on his contract in the KHL, so it may be awhile before he comes to Las Vegas. Having said that, the rules aren’t clear on transferring between the KHL and NHL, and McPhee could possibly find a way to bring him over sooner.
“We like him a lot,’ McPhee said. “We’d like to have him over here as soon as we can. He’s got another year in his deal and then we’ll see what we can do. He’s a talented guy and we’ll do what we can to get him here. We’ve talked to him and we’ll continue to talk to him.”
Salary cap heaven
Starting with a clean slate has allowed McPhee to put the Golden Knights in an incredibly good situation financially.
Vegas is expected to have approximately $26.5 million in cap space next year, and nearly $44 million the following season. This allows the Golden Knights to work out long-term extensions with players they develop — like they did by signing Marchessault to a six-year deal this season — or go after high-priced free agents.
The Golden Knights drafted three players in the first round and two in the second round last summer, and the prospects have looked spectacular in juniors since.
Top-pick Cody Glass led his Portland Winterhawks with 102 points (37 points and 65 assists), Nick Suzuki racked up 100 points (42 goals and 58 assists) for the Owen Sound Attack, and Erik Brannstrom nearly made Sweden’s World Championship squad as an 18-year-old.
These picks likely won’t be ready to contribute to the Golden Knights in the upcoming season, but McPhee has quickly built up quite the stock of incoming talent.