The Golden Knights have signed the best free agent on the market, and in doing so have solidified their defensive core as one of the league’s best.
Vegas signed defenseman Alex Pietrangelo on Monday to a seven-year deal worth $8.8 million annually against the salary cap. The former Blues captain is one of the top defensemen in the league, and along with Shea Theodore, helps the Golden Knights create arguably the best one-two punch on the blue line in the league.
"We had what we believed was a very rare opportunity to add a defenseman, a very elite player like Alex to our team," general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. "To Alex and his wife, Jayne, I'd like to welcome to the Golden Knights organization."
Pietrangelo, who will turn 31 next season, has been linked to the Golden Knights for months and the possibility of signing him grew in recent days, starting with St. Louis allowing him to hit the market. Free agency opened on Friday. Pietrangelo was not available for comment on Monday and is expected to address the media on Tuesday.
In a corresponding move for salary relief, the Golden Knights traded defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Canucks in exchange for a 2022 third-round pick.
Schmidt had five years left on his deal at a $5.95 million cap hit. Pietrangelo will in essence replace Schmidt as the team’s top-pair option on the right side. Schmidt, an original Golden Knight acquired at the expansion draft, had 31 points in 59 games with Vegas this season.
"This game, this business, the job that I have often requires really hard decisions on good people. I've never worked with a finer man in my career than Nate," McCrimmon said. "There is only one scenario, one situation, where we would have considered a trade involving Nate Schmidt and that was exactly the situation that presented ourselves with the opportunity to add Alex to our team."
Many assumed the Blues would not allow their captain, the first player in team history to lift the Stanley Cup when they won in 2019, to leave the organization. But Friday night’s signing of Torey Krug to be his apparent replacement effectively closed the door on a return. The Toronto Maple Leafs, another suitor for the services of the King City, Ontario, native, signed T.J. Brodie on Friday to fill out their blue line.
As the pieces fell into place, Pietrangelo visited Las Vegas over the weekend, making the kind of free-agent visit only the true superstars of the league make. He left without a contract, but that didn’t last long, as news of his signing broke Monday evening.
And he is one of the true superstars of the league. He finished fourth in the voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, his third-career top-five finish. He finished two spots ahead of Theodore, and the Golden Knights will join Carolina as the only teams with two top-10 finishers on next year’s roster.
Pietrangelo registered a career-best 16 goals last season, and kept up his decade-long streak of averaging at least 0.5 points per game, coming in with 52 in 70 appearances. Evolving-Hockey tabbed him for 18.2 goals above replacement, third-best among league defensemen.
The signing is the biggest splash the Golden Knights have made in free agency in their four offseasons as an organization, trumping the three-year deal given to Paul Stastny in 2018. Stastny was traded on Friday, a cap-clearing move to make space for Pietrangelo, which was followed by the cap-clearing trade of Schmidt.
"We wouldn't have gone to these lengths for anyone but a player that we think can do as much for our team as Alex can," McCrimmon said.
The Golden Knights, though, have never been shy about big moves to bring in big names. They nabbed Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal at the expansion draft, and followed it up the following offseason by signing Stastny and trading for Max Pacioretty. That season Vegas also acquired Mark Stone in a trade, then dealt for Robin Lehner at this past trade deadline.
None of those players played defense. In Pietrangelo, the Golden Knights secure the bona fide No. 1 defenseman they have not yet had, though Theodore’s emergence last season, and particularly in the playoffs, challenges that assertion. Now Vegas has two defensemen who are either elite or right or right on the border, depending on your definition.
Regardless, Pietrangelo helps beef up the blue line of a team that reached the Western Conference Final this year for the second time in three seasons. Vegas clearly had no intentions of waiting around for improvements to come naturally, and continued the aggressive philosophy of acquiring star players that has guided the franchise since its inception.