With the passing of Monday’s NHL trade deadline, Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee sent a clear message to his team that he believes in them.
McPhee made three trades leading up to the deadline, one of which sent a stockpile of draft picks to Detroit, but traded only one player from the roster (Brendan Leipsic, who has been a healthy scratch in each of the last three games).
“I wasn’t at all interested in trading any of our players,” McPhee said. “This team deserves to be together and we kept them together for a reason. We are trying to win right now.”
He believes in the roster as it is currently constructed, and why shouldn’t he?
The Golden Knights have the second-best record in the NHL and are 8-3-1 against the other top five teams in the league, including a season sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They’ve stretched their lead in the Pacific Division to 11 points, meaning the majority (if not all) of the Western Conference playoffs will have to go through Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights are league-best 24-5-2.
“Based on the way they’ve played we didn’t want to dismantle (the team),” McPhee said. “We didn’t want to take anyone out.”
McPhee’s biggest move was acquiring 27-year-old forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a first-, second- and third-round pick. It’s a steep price to pay for a player who will likely slot into the third line in Vegas, but Tatar was exactly the type of addition McPhee thought the team needed.
“We went into the deadline with one thing circled on our board, and that was adding one more top-nine forward, and we accomplished that today,” McPhee said. “He’s quick, he’s competitive and he can score.”
Tatar had 16 goals and 12 assists in 62 games with Detroit this season. His 110 goals over the last five seasons lead the Red Wings during that span. At 27 he’s in his athletic prime, and the Golden Knights have him locked into a contract through the 2020-21 season at $5.3 million per year.
“We didn't want to trade draft picks for someone that isn’t going to be here during the summer,” McPhee said. “Where he plays in the lineup is up to the coaching staff. He can play up and down the lineup.”
The logical landing spot for Tatar would be on the third line alongside Alex Tuch and either Cody Eakin or Ryan Carpenter. Vegas’ top-two lines have remained constant this season with only a couple of exceptions due to injuries, but Gallant has shuffled the third line in search of production.
With Tuch and Tatar on the wings, the Golden Knights could have one of the fastest and most-potent third units in the NHL.
“We had a surplus of picks and a lot of space and we used those during these deals,” McPhee said.
The downside to the deal is that McPhee is left with only one draft pick in the first three rounds for the upcoming draft, which has been touted as one of the deepest in years. However, with three first-round picks and two second-round picks in the 2017 draft, McPhee believes the team has plenty of prospects and didn’t think twice about trading the three picks for Tatar.
“It was easy,” McPhee said. “When we acquired all those picks we said we’ll either use them to draft players or acquire players. This is one example of how we can do that.”
If Tatar doesn’t pan out, McPhee will regret giving up so much future capital, especially so soon in an expansion franchise’s history, but the move shows his faith in this squad to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The only player the Golden Knights did lose leading up to the deadline was Leipsic, who struggled to score this season with only two goals on 68 shots. McPhee sent Leipsic to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for defensive prospect Philip Holm.
“We wanted to give Leipsic an opportunity with another NHL team,” McPhee said. “We hope it goes well for him.”
Holm, a 26-year-old defenseman who made his NHL debut Friday against the Golden Knights, went straight to Vegas’ American Hockey League affiliate Chicago Wolves.
“He’s an offensive defenseman with some upside,” McPhee said. “We like the upside. He’s played well in different places, and we’ll see what he can do for us.”
In a third trade, McPhee added some strength and physicality to the Golden Knights roster for the playoff push. The Golden Knights acquired bruising forward Ryan Reaves and a fourth-round pick from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for prospect Tobias Lindberg and cap considerations in a three-way trade with the Ottawa Senators.
Reaves scored only four goals with the Penguins this season but has playoff experience in six seasons with the St. Louis Blues and will allow more skilled players for Vegas to play more freely.
“I just make the other teams’ defensemen feel uneasy when they go back to get pucks,” Reaves said. “I think when I’m in the game and playing physical, sometimes they think twice about going into the corners. It opens up ice for other guys on the team.”
The additions may not be monumental, but to McPhee the most important thing was keeping the current roster together. James Neal, David Perron and Luca Sbisa will all be unrestricted free agents at season’s end, but McPhee believes it’s worth the risk to see if they can win this year.
“We didn’t take anything out of our lineup,” McPhee stressed. “We kept everyone. We believe we’re a good team and I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping we can continue to be a good team for the rest of the season.”