Saturday, April 27, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights’ offseason may not have the same fireworks as last year’s but there are still decisions to be made.
Last year the team reshaped its roster, losing James Neal and David Perron and adding Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. While the big names don’t figure to be involved this year, there are nine free agents to account for and plenty of trade options.
Here are a few of their more pressing issues:
William Karlsson’s contract
The biggest offseason priority is working out a contract for the team’s top center. William Karlsson and General Manager George McPhee have both stated their desire for a long-term deal to be worked out between the two sides, but that is easier said than done.
Karlsson is a restricted free agent, meaning the team owns his rights for one more year before he is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. The sides could work out a one-year deal like they did last summer, or go to arbitration where a neutral party would decide the 26-year-old’s salary on a one-year deal.
As a restricted free agent, Karlsson could also sign an offer sheet with another team, at which point the Golden Knights would have the opportunity to match it and sign him to that contract. Offer sheets are rare in the NHL — the last player to sign one was Ryan O’Reilly in 2013, and the last player to change teams because of one was Dustin Penner in 2007 — so this outcome is unlikely.
Working out Karlsson’s value will be the main point of contention. He signed a one-year, $5.25 million contract after last season’s 43-goal, 78-point breakout. He slipped this year to 24 goals and 56 points, which could make negotiations sticky. Vegas has shown a willingness to spend big, as five players are signed to contracts of at least Karlsson’s $5.25 million next season, but with that comes a lack of cap space. Someone will have to move in order to pay Karlsson.
There’s little doubt that Karlsson and the Golden Knights will work out a contract, which means the team will have to find the cap space somewhere. Vegas currently has $82.375 million committed to next year’s roster, which fits under the expected cap of $83 million next season.
But that doesn’t give the Golden Knights a lot of wiggle room. That number only factors in 17 players, and even if they fill the six spots on their 23-man roster with league-minimum contracts, they will still come in $3.575 million over the cap. Restricted free agents Nikita Gusev, Jimmy Schuldt, Tomas Nosek, Malcolm Subban and of course Karlsson won’t make the league minimum, putting them in an even bigger hole.
The team will recoup $5.25 million once the season begins by moving David Clarkson’s contract to the long-term injured reserve, or perhaps trade the remaining dead money. Depending on how much the restricted free agents make, that doesn’t entirely solve the team’s issue, not even counting if they want to bring back restricted free agents Deryk Engelland, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brandon Pirri and Ryan Carpenter.
Trading would be the easiest solution. Cody Eakin ($3.85 million), Ryan Reaves ($2.775 million), Nick Holden ($2.2 million) and Jon Merrill ($1.375 million) all have sizable cap hits and are entering the last year of their contracts. Colin Miller ($3.875 million) and Brayden McNabb ($2.5 million) could be possibilities as well, but each have three years remaining on their respective deals.
There is also the buyout option if a trade can’t be made. Buying out a player with more than one year left on his deal is a tricky proposition, but if they were to buy out their 2020 free agents, they could get some significant savings, though it would also extend their cap hits to the 2020-21 season.
For example, if Vegas buys out Reaves’ $2.775 million cap hit/salary, he would count only $925,000 against the cap in 2019, but would also count the same in 2020. It’s savings now, with interest due later.
Making a trade could help solve more issue than one. The Golden Knights have six defensemen under contract for next season, not including Schuldt’s restricted free agency and Engelland’s unrestricted free agency.
It seems unlikely that Vegas signed Schuldt without the expectation of working out a longer deal, so he would make seven.
Engelland said Thursday he wants to play next season and hopes it is in Vegas. He will play next season at 37 years old, though he was a stalwart on the penalty kill this year, as well as having a strong leadership voice in the dressing room. If he’s back, that’s eight.
Then there is the AHL defensemen. Nic Hague is knocking at the door of the NHL and is considered one of the team’s premier prospects. Zach Whitecloud played one game with the Golden Knights last year and Jake Bischoff has spent time with the big club, though he has yet to appear in a game.
That’s 11 defensemen who could realistically fit on an NHL roster. Maybe the Golden Knights decide not to re-sign Engelland or trade Miller, but Vegas has a good problem in having too many players on the blue line.
Unless something bizarre happens with Karlsson, the top six forwards figure to remain the same. Karlsson will center Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and Paul Stastny will center Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. Things get interesting after that.
Under contract, the Golden Knights have Alex Tuch, Eakin, Reaves, William Carrier, Valentin Zykov and the returning Erik Haula, as well as restricted free agents Nosek and Gusev. Below the NHL level is uber-prospect Cody Glass, and other intriguing minor leaguers. Then there is Bellemare, Ryan Carpenter and Brandon Pirri, who are restricted free agents.
So the Golden Knights have options. It starts with whether they re-sign Bellemare and goes from there. If he comes back, Vegas could trot out the same fourth line as last year with Bellemare between Carrier and Reaves. If not, Nosek or even Glass could grab those minutes.
Next is deciding if Eakin comes back. His $3.85 million cap hit could make him a trade option, and if that happens, either Haula or Glass could play center with Tuch on the right, with Gusev or Nosek on the left. If Eakin comes back, Tuch still figures to play third-line right wing, with a rotating cast of characters playing left wing.
Subban figures to have the lead on this job, as he has for the last two years. But he is a restricted free agent, meaning he could cost more than some of the Golden Knights’ other options and every dollar could count.
Subban played well in 21 games last year with a 2.93 goals-against average and .902 save percentage. He showed his potential when he started nine games in a row from March 17-April 1, and may feel that he deserves much more than the $650,000 he made this season.
The likeliest scenario is that Subban returns, but if the Golden Knights are looking to save money, they have Oscar Dansk on an entry-level deal for next season, as well as Maxime Lagace, who is a free agent but only played one game this year and 17 in his career.
There’s also the possibility Vegas looks outside the organization. Marc-Andre Fleury missed time this year with an injury, the second year in a row he has done so. The Golden Knights may look at their goalie who will turn 35 in November and decide an experienced backup could be needed, and look outside the organization.