Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2021

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ANALYSIS:

Which Vegas Golden Knights players will return?

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Steve Marcus

Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (7) and right wing Keegan Kolesar (55) celebrate after defeating the Colorado Avalanche in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series at T-Mobile Arena Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Remaking a roster in the offseason usually comes with some surprises — regardless of the sport and team.

Upgrading the lineup while staying within the salary cap will always be always a challenge. And it often comes with decisions that aren’t easy to make, like the Golden Knights last offseason parting with fan favorite Nate Schmidt to clear space for free agent Alex Pietrangelo.

What about this year? Vegas has three free agents and the free-wheeling Golden Knights have never failed to shake up the roster through offseason trades.

We’ve divided the 29 players who played for the Golden Knights last year into tiers. The list doesn’t necessarily rank players on the likelihood they’ll be here or not, but lumps them into categories with degrees of surprise you should feel if they’re not, from Mark Stone down to Oscar Dansk.

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Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone (61) gets up from the ice after a fall in the second period during Game 5 in an NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey semifinal at T-Mobile Arena Tuesday, June 22, 2021.

Coming back no matter what

Don’t think too hard about these players. They’ll be Golden Knights next season.

Mark Stone: He’s the captain, he’s signed for six more years with a no-movement clause and just had the best regular season of his career. Don’t fool yourself into thinking a poor postseason has changed the organization’s thinking of him. He’ll be a Golden Knight next season, and for many more after that.

Alex Pietrangelo: Much of the same that applies to Stone also does to Pietrangelo. He signed a massive contract less than a year ago, has six years with a no-movement clause attached, and despite some early struggles adjusting to a new system turned in a solid regular season. Then he was spectacular in the playoffs. Like Stone, even if the Golden Knights could move him, there would be zero interest in doing so.

Almost certainly coming back. Unless ...

We’ll devote this section to the possibility of a trade for Sabres star center Jack Eichel, to whom Vegas has been connected in various rumors. Vegas has never been shy about making the splashy move, and Eichel will be the best player available this offseason. He might be the only player who would make the Golden Knights entertain offers for the below players.

Shea Theodore: Only a center in Buffalo would cause Vegas to entertain an offer for 25-year-old dynamic defenseman, and even then it’s iffy. A high-scoring center fits the Golden Knights’ need but is it worth moving a player who finished sixth in the Norris Trophy voting two years in a row? Theodore was terrific again in the regular season and while his playoff wasn’t as electric as his 2020 bubble run, he’s still one of the best defensemen in the NHL and signed for $5.2 million for four more years. If Buffalo insists on Theodore, it might be a deal-breaker.

William Karlsson: Maybe the Sabres want a center back in return. Karlsson would make the most sense as a return piece, and Eichel would provide a boost up the middle for Vegas, but it also doesn’t address the issue of center depth. Trading out your best center for another one is an incremental upgrade, and Eichel is nearly twice the cost of Karlsson’s $5.9 million cap hit. The Sabres would want Karlsson, but the Golden Knights shouldn’t rush to trade him.

Alex Tuch: Here’s where things get interesting. The Golden Knights have an embarrassment of right-wing talent between Stone, Reilly Smith and Tuch, and dealing from a position of strength makes some sense. Tuch is 25, has five years left on his deal at a $4.75 million cap hit and is a luxury on the right wing for Vegas. He’s also from upstate New York and would immediately become a core piece of the Sabres’ rebuild. He makes enough money to help clear cap room should Vegas trade him, but not enough that his contract would be a hindrance on anyone acquiring him. Tuch is the most realistic centerpiece of an Eichel trade.

Peyton Krebs: The 20-year-old center is the closest thing the Golden Knights have to an untouchable prospect. But a top prospect is almost always included in deals for players of Eichel’s caliber and Krebs might be the biggest sticking point on getting a deal done. He looked good in his four-game cup of coffee at the end of the year, and a fractured jaw kept Vegas from having to decide whether to use a year of his entry-level contract to get him into playoff action. If he’s not in Buffalo, he’ll likely start the year with the Golden Knights with every chance of becoming an NHL regular.

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Vegas Golden Knights' Nicolas Roy scores against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price during overtime of Game 4 in an NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey semifinal in Montreal, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)

Feel safe buying their jersey

Things move fast in the NHL and any player can be traded. Still, it would be a surprise if these players aren’t with the organization on opening night.

Jonathan Marchessault: The vocal heart of the Golden Knights, Marchessault has been reliably excellent for four seasons. You could maybe talk yourself into moving him as part of a deal for an elite scorer on the wing (Patrik Laine perhaps?), but there’s not much justification for moving Marchessault, who is signed at $5 million for three more years.

Max Pacioretty: If the Golden Knights’ issue in the series against Montreal was forwards scoring, why trade the best-scoring forward on the team? He is Vegas’ best finisher by a significant margin and has two years remaining with a reasonable $7 million cap hit. Maybe the Golden Knights feel that cap space can be allocated elsewhere — they did explore trades last offseason, but would have been worse off in the scoring department if they move the veteran sniper.

Robin Lehner: Coming into the season he looked like the present and future of the Golden Knights in net, but a concussion and a Vezina Trophy-winning campaign from Marc-Andre Fleury may have changed the calculus. Still, if Vegas has to choose one, it would likely be Lehner, who is seven years younger than Fleury and signed for four seasons. Lehner was in net for the Golden Knights’ most important game of the season, Game 6 in Montreal, and still looks like the preferred goalie going forward. Whether it’s this coming season or the one after remains to be seen, but trading him feels unlikely.

Chandler Stephenson: The Golden Knights bet last offseason that Stephenson’s 2019-20 wasn’t a fluke and signed him long-term, and were rewarded with a top-line center at a $2.75 million cap hit for three more years. Even if Vegas acquires Eichel or another top forward, Stephenson has enormous value regardless of where he plays.

Nicolas Roy: The 24-year-old became a bottom-six regular for the Golden Knights late in the 2019-20 campaign has parlayed that into strong postseasons two years running. He has one year left on his deal at the league minimum before becoming a restricted free agent next summer, at which point he’ll earn a raise, but right now is dollar-for-dollar one of Vegas’ most valuable contracts.

Brayden McNabb: The veteran defenseman has consistently outperformed his $2.5 million cap hit and provides value that can’t be found elsewhere at that price. He has one year remaining on his deal, and is a candidate for an extension next summer.

William Carrier: The extension he signed last year has three years remaining on it, and Vegas is happy with the production (six goals, 15 points) he provided from the fourth line. He has a nice blend of size and speed to have a lineup spot secured for years.

Ryan Reaves: The Golden Knights love the physicality the veteran bruiser brings to the ice (NHL-best 23 hits per game) and lament his absence when he’s gone, but he was still healthy-scratched four times in the postseason. They signed him to a two-year extension last summer for which he still has one year remaining at a $1.75 million cap hit, so he’s unlikely to move.

Keegan Kolesar: After a rough go at his first extended look in the NHL, Kolesar settled into a fourth-line role. He makes below the league minimum next season and provides a physical presence with some scoring pop. He made some nice passing plays in the postseason that is sure to have Vegas excited about his sophomore season.

Dylan Coghlan: It was an odd season for the rookie, who played at forward almost as much as defense because of odd cap machinations. There wasn’t a lineup spot for him in the playoffs, but Coach Pete DeBoer has spoken highly of him throughout the season.

Logan Thompson: Plucked from the ECHL before last season, Thompson was the best goalie in the AHL last season and has made himself the Golden Knights’ netminder of the future. There’s no reason to move the 24-year-old who is a restricted free agent.

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Reilly Smith

Under contract, but ...

The following players are under contract for next season, but aren’t necessarily locks to return. There’s a case to be made for moving any of them, whether it be for cap room or because they’re prospects who could be included in bigger deals. Keep an eye on these players this offseason.

Reilly Smith: It was a rough season for Smith, who on a per-game basis in the shortened season put up the worst season by points production since arriving in Vegas. He’s 30 and has one year remaining on his deal with a $5 million cap hit. With the emergence of Tuch as a top-six talent, the Golden Knights could move Smith to make room for Tuch, but also to clear cap space to facilitate other moves. It would mean breaking up the Misfit Line, but it’s a possibility. Vegas did trade Schmidt last year, so emotion rarely plays into these decisions.

Marc-Andre Fleury: Very little can move forward in the Golden Knights’ offseason until they decide the fate of their Vezina-winning goalie. It’d be unthinkable to trade a player like Fleury in most scenarios, but he’s 36, he’s on an expiring contract, and has the third-highest cap hit on the team at $7 million. He was also on the bench for the Golden Knights’ Game 6 elimination with Lehner getting the nod. DeBoer said it was nice having two goalies considering the nature of last season’s schedule, but conceded 2021-22 will be more back to normal. And normal doesn’t include $12 million devoted to goalies. Remember the Golden Knights tried to move him last offseason, and he’s much more attractive to other teams this year with the expiring deal and the Vezina under his belt.

Cody Glass: It’s unclear just how much the Golden Knights still believe in their first-ever draft pick. They’ve been only supportive in public comments, but he was also demoted to the AHL this year, only played in one postseason game and wasn’t with the team in the final two playoff rounds. His trade value is at its lowest point of his career, but he would be a nice addition as part of a larger deal or in a change-of-scenery type trade. Krebs appears to have passed Glass on the depth chart among young centers and with his contract expiring after next season, this offseason could be the time to move Glass if Vegas decides to go that route.

Zach Whitecloud: He’s become a stalwart on the back end after his first full season and has the experience of two deep playoff runs. He makes below the league minimum next season as part of an older contract, but his play and cap hit ($725,000) would make him a desired asset by other teams in a trade. Vegas has depth on the blue line and while it would prefer to hold on to him (and likely will), other teams will ask about the still-improving 24-year-old in trade discussions.

Nicolas Hague: All the same things that were said about Whitecloud are true of his defensive partner. He’s a tad lower on the depth chart after some postseason healthy scratches, but he’s still looked at as the future on the blue line. He’s 22, still on his entry-level deal and had five goals and 17 points in his first year of full-time NHL duty. Defenseman of his size (6-foot-6, 215 pounds) aren’t available everywhere, which is why both Vegas and other teams would want him.

Nick Holden: The veteran was the victim of the salary cap last year, playing sporadically throughout the regular season before exploding offensively in the postseason. He has one more year at a $1.7 million cap hit, and could be moved to clear some space for Vegas’ younger defensemen.

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Vegas Golden Knights' Alec Martinez (23) scores on Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) as Canadiens' Ben Chiarot (8) looks on during the third period in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Thursday, June 24, 2021 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)

The free agents

The final seven players are all unrestricted free agents as of July 28 and are free to sign with any team. Vegas will have some degree of interest in almost all of them, particularly the three NHL regulars.

Alec Martinez: This will be the biggest free-agency question. He was invaluable in the playoffs, even while playing through a broken foot, to follow up perhaps the best regular season of his career. The Golden Knights would love to have him back, and if the money works he will be. But he’s justified in asking for a substantial raise from the $4 million he made last season, so that will be a storyline to follow up through the opening free agency on July 28.

Tomas Nosek: The 28-year-old had the most productive season of his career in 2020-21 and showed some flexibility to play on his usual spot on the fourth line but also as high as the top line in the playoffs. He made $1.25 million last year on his third consecutive one-year deal, and could return if his asking price is similar. If he wants much more though, he may have to get it somewhere else.

Mattias Janmark: The trade-deadline acquisition is the regular from the postseason least likely to return next season. He said as much during his season exit interview, saying he knows what the situation is. Janmark signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with Chicago last offseason and will look to capitalize on a strong season and playoff with Vegas. Even if he asks for the same amount of money, the Golden Knights are tight against the cap and with young players ready for a bigger role, it’s likely he ends up becoming a trade-deadline rental.

Oscar Dansk: The 27-year-old goalie has already signed a contract in Russia after four years and six NHL games with the Golden Knights.

Patrick Brown: He started the year as the captain of the Silver Knights but finished in the NHL, playing 12 of the 19 postseason games. The 29-year-old has taken on the role of a veteran journeyman, but the Golden Knights wouldn’t mind having him back as both a mentor to the Henderson players and a depth piece in Vegas.

Dylan Sikura: He’s a terrific AHL player, and will have no issue finding a job somewhere, whether it’s with Vegas or not. He played in six games last season with the Golden Knights.

Tomas Jurco: He was a nice depth piece at times but played just six games. At 28, Vegas won’t be heartbroken if he looks for options elsewhere.