Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Fans who feared the Vegas Golden Knights might shed their “Golden Misfits” side after one season can rest a little easier following recent developments. A flurry of early-season moves indicates the franchise is invested in retaining at least remnants of that inaugural-year identity well into the next decade.
Sure, Golden Knights’ players of the future might not bond over the shared feeling of being left unprotected in the 2017 expansion draft, but they’re likely to be part of a similar roster construction. Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee has opened the franchise’s second season by signing three of the team’s most promising young players—Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch and Nate Schmidt—to long-term extensions that stretch at least into the 2024-25 season.
The deals show McPhee is buying into the idea of loading his team with high-quality players up and down the roster, instead of perhaps going the more traditional route and building around a superstar centerpiece. “Sometimes, you’re better off with five players that make $5 million than having one guy that makes $25 [million],” McPhee says.
Theodore triggered the agreement avalanche, ending a training-camp holdout by signing a seven-year deal. Many assumed the Golden Knights were behind the stalemate, insisting on a short contract, and that Theodore’s camp sought more long-term security. Turns out, it was exactly the opposite—and a sign of things to come. McPhee went on to sign Tuch (back after missing the start of the season with a lower-body injury) and Schmidt (currently serving a 20-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs) to virtually identical agreements.
The financials are slightly different, but all three deals have static annual payouts. Theodore earns $5.2 million for each of the next seven years, Schmidt gets $5.95 million for each of the next six and Tuch is set to make $4.75 million for seven straight when his extension kicks in next season.
McPhee’s idea is relatively simple: Overpay for the players now in hopes that their contracts are team-friendly bargains by the time they’re close to expiring. “The whole exercise was about trying to ensure some cost certainty in the future and more flexibility in the future,” McPhee says. “We had cap space we can use now that we wanted to utilize. It can be a perishable commodity: If you don’t use it, it sort of goes away at the end of the year. So why not use it now and get it done, so that we have more predictable contracts in the future and allow for better planning?”
The strategy has shocked a segment of the VGK fanbase, which saw the Golden Knights’ ample salary cap space as a major asset that could enable them to court any free agent or trade target. The new contracts have tightened the books, as Vegas now has just short of $72.2 million allocated for next season out of a current cap of $79.5 million, according to capfriendly.com.
But after Schmidt’s signing, McPhee stressed that the Golden Knights’ cap situation wouldn’t preclude the team from any offseason possibilities, explaining that there are always pathways that allow for maneuvering. He prefers building from within, however, and wants to protect against getting the team into desperate spots. “Sometimes chasing free agents all the time can be a sucker’s game, and you don’t want to be in that position,” he says.
Looking further down the line, nothing McPhee has done looks prohibitive. Already allocating $46.27 million to the 2021-22 season and $9.95 million to the 2024-25 season, for instance, might look substantial, but it’s not out of line looking at the rest of the league.
Only two of the Golden Knights’ seven Pacific Division rivals, in fact, have less money tied up for the 2024-25 season. Vegas is above the divisional average of $36.84 for 2021-22, but none of those teams has locked in part of a core that led to a Stanley Cup run. And for those who argue the signing spree is an overreaction to a one-year sample, McPhee would respectfully disagree. He says he learned throughout his 17-year tenure as general manager of the Washington Capitals that extra caution must accompany longer deals.
He’s exercised all of it with the Golden Knights. “You have to get the right numbers,” McPhee says. “Really have trust to your instincts, trust the experience, trust the scouting reports from your pro staff, trust the analytics data and make a good decision. We rely on all those resources.”
He’s also confident the salary cap will continue to rise, which would increase the value of the freshly inked contracts. Since the current collective bargaining agreement was put into place in 2012, the cap has risen every season, at an average of $3.88 million. If it continues to grow at a comparable rate—and there’s no reason to believe it won’t, especially with Seattle expected to land an expansion franchise—the Golden Knights will still have chances to haul in an established superstar. They could also develop one from within.
For every can’t-miss prospect like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, there are late-blooming revelations like Nikita Kucherov and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who take over the NHL. McPhee has seen it so often, he refuses to put ceilings on his players, and wouldn’t be surprised if the future face of the franchise is already in the organization.
If not, the Golden Knights won’t sweat it. They won a Western Conference championship last season with a number of great players, though no transcendent ones, and are comfortable with the same arrangement going forward. “I think we’re all equal; we’re Golden Misfits,” Tuch said after signing his deal. “I guess people are letting that phase out, but we’re not.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.