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December 5, 2021

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Analysis:

Trading Pacioretty would leave Golden Knights with scoring void

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Steve Marcus

Vegas Golden Knights left wing Max Pacioretty (67) celebrates after scoring past Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Edmonton Oilers at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

Some surprising news surfaced this week, after an already strange offseason for the Golden Knights.

TSN reported Tuesday that the Golden Knights have “doubled down” on their efforts to trade leading scorer Max Pacioretty.

Pacioretty is the Golden Knights’ best goal scorer, perhaps the only player on the team who fits the traditional role of sniper. He scored 22 goals in his first season in Vegas, then surged to 32 goals in a shortened 2019-20, looking like the player he was in Montreal. On a points-per-game basis, last year was the best of Pacioretty’s 12-year career.

So why would Vegas look to move him? As it always does, it comes down to money. Pacioretty has three years remaining at a $7 million cap hit. When the deal was signed two years ago, there was an upward projection of the salary cap, but with the cap remaining flat at $81.5 million for the foreseeable future, $7 million will eat up a bigger percentage of the cap for the next three years than Vegas had envisioned.

Vegas is currently over the salary cap by just under a $1 million, according to CapFriendly. Such a small debt wouldn’t require such a drastic move and could be paid in other ways, so it’s logical to think that the Golden Knights trading Pacioretty would be the first step in a larger plan.

What could that plan entail? TSN reported it would allow them to look at the free-agent market, where players like former 36-goal scorer Mike Hoffman and former Golden Knight Erik Haula are still available.

Would such a move make sense? Should the Golden Knights try to trade Pacioretty? Let’s look at some of the options if they did.

Mike Hoffman

A player similar to Pacioretty makes the most sense to replace him. The former Panther is a goal-scoring machine, netting 169 in the last six years, including 36 two years ago and 29 in a shortened year last season. He’s almost exactly a year younger than Pacioretty but scores at a similar clip.

The knock on Hoffman is that he scores and does little else. Evolving-Hockey’s model had his value at a hair under replacement level last season, as even his goal-scoring doesn’t help make up for deficiencies in other parts of his game. In fact, more than a third (21 of 59) of his points came on the power play, which drug down his even-strength value considerably.

But a pure goal-scorer is kind of what the Golden Knights need. They are arguably the best team in the league in controlling possession, but that hasn’t translated to goals the way they would have hoped. Adding a sniper like Hoffman sounds like a match made in heaven. His cap hit was just under $5.2 million last season, and could likely be had for close to that or even less this offseason.

And yet, if the Golden Knights were going to get a new Pacioretty, why not just keep the old one? He would be cheaper, yes, but Pacioretty drives offense and plays defense at a higher level than Hoffman, even if their goal-scoring is similar. Evolving-Hockey tabbed Pacioretty to be worth 16.9 goals above replacement last season. The site tabbed Hoffman to be worth minus-0.3.

Adding Hoffman to a team with Pacioretty makes more sense than replacing the latter with the former. But a player with more positional flexibility could be a better fit.

Erik Haula

Could Haula be the first Golden Misfit to leave and then come back to the NHL roster?

It was in Vegas in 2017-18 when Haula played the best hockey of his career, putting up personal-bests in goals (29), assists (26), points (55) and average time on ice (17:22). He could fill Pacioretty’s spot on the left wing, but could also play center if the Golden Knights wanted to move Cody Glass or Chandler Stephenson to the wing.

Haula was hurt early in the 2018-19 season and didn’t play for the Golden Knights again. Despite optimism he could return in the playoffs, Vegas didn’t advance far enough to find out, and traded him to Carolina for Nicolas Roy and a draft pick in the offseason. Carolina then dealt him to Florida at the trade deadline.

Haula made just $2.75 million last season against the cap and doesn’t figure to cost much more than that, now in his second month as a free agent. He also wouldn’t move the needle much, barring a return to his 2017-18 peak. If the Golden Knights moved Pacioretty to sign Haula, it would presumably come with another signing as well.

Anthony Duclair

What about a combination of Haula and Duclair, who combined figure to cost less than Pacioretty? Duclair made just $1.65 million against the cap last season and was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Senators, making him an unrestricted free agent.

Duclair is coming off his best season, a 23-goal, 40-point effort and can play either wing. He profiles nicely as a middle-six forward who can provide some punch on the power play. He’s only 25 and would provide an already-fast team with even more speed.

But it again comes down to opportunity cost. If the Golden Knights traded Pacioretty, would replacing him with some combination of free-agent forwards make them better? Pacioretty was tremendous last season, and Vegas is an older team built to win now, not trade one of its better players to worry about the cap.

No, if they were going to move Pacioretty it would make sense to aim big.

Mathew Barzal

This would make the hockey world explode. Barzal won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year in 2017-18 with 85 points. He’s put up 62 and 60 points the last two years and at just 23 years old, looks like the future of the Islanders once he signs his next contract.

But he hasn’t signed yet. And he is a restricted free agent, meaning in theory, he’s up for grabs. As a restricted free agent, if Vegas offered him a contract, it would be in the form of an offer sheet that the Islanders would have the opportunity to match. If they matched, he would remain in New York. If they didn’t, he would go to Vegas, but the Golden Knights would send draft-pick compensation to the Islanders.

How much that compensation would be depends on the average annual value of the contract. That’s where Vegas runs into an issue. The Golden Knights don’t have a third-round pick, having traded it to Detroit in 2018 for Tomas Tatar.

That matters because offer sheets that come in with a value of between $4.36 million and $10.9 million require a third-round pick, so the Golden Knights are ineligible for offer sheets between those values. And Barzal isn’t signing for less than $4.36 million.

What’s the cost of an offer sheet of more than $10.9 million? Oh, just the team’s next four first-round picks.

Needless to say, Vegas sending four first-round picks to the Islanders and signing a player to an almost-$11 million contract is bananas for a team already in cap trouble. As fun as it would be, Vegas would have better luck on the trade market if they’re willing to deal four first-rounders.

Trades

So let’s look at that trade market, and the value of a 32-year-old, 32-goal scorer. And it’s not great. Remember the Golden Knights already this offseason traded Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt, two good NHL players, for a third-round pick and a minor-league defenseman. The value Vegas obtained was cap relief. The Golden Knights are over the cap right now, but not by enough to justify unloading Pacioretty in a salary dump.

Vegas would need to find a team that has plenty of cap space, has a forward of comparable value it was willing to give up, and be competitive enough where acquiring Pacioretty makes sense. There just aren’t that many teams out there. Vegas is one of 10 teams needing to shed cap space, not add.

Maybe the Nashville Predators could be a dance partner? Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg are interesting names. The New York Rangers are fairly stacked at left wing, but perhaps Pavel Buchnevich or Ryan Strome could be had at the right price?

Maybe a trade materializes with one of those teams or another, but it’s going to be a tightrope dance to find a team willing to take on a $7 million cap hit, but also provide enough value in return to a win-now team to make moving Pacioretty worth it.

In the end, it’s probably in Vegas’ best short-term interest to keep Pacioretty and get under the cap in other ways. The Golden Knights trading their best goal-scorer when their problem in the postseason was scoring goals don’t run parallel. If he’s gone, he’ll be hard to replace.

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