At 7:58 p.m. Monday, when Denis Gurianov’s shot went in the net to end the Golden Knights’ season a few games shy of the Stanley Cup Final, the offseason began.
It will be shorter than normal, with just three weeks before the draft and free agency, and plenty of questions about how next season will look and feel as the league manages play during the pandemic. We still don’t know when or in what form next season will take place.
Here is some of the business that needs to be attended to.
There are two hard dates on the NHL calendar. The NHL Entry Draft is Oct. 6-7 and free agency opens at 9 a.m. Oct. 9. And, of course, there is no confirmed date for the start of next season.
The Golden Knights will make the 29th selection in the first round of the draft, the latest first-round pick they have ever had.
Vegas has made four first-round picks in its history: Cody Glass (No. 6), Nick Suzuki (No. 13) and Erik Brannstrom (No. 15) in 2017, and Peyton Krebs (No. 17) last year.
Vegas did not make a splash on the first day free agency last season, making smaller deals to retain Tomas Nosek and Brandon Pirri. In 2018, they signed Paul Stastny to a three-year deal worth $6.5 million annually against the cap, along with Nick Holden and a Ryan Reaves extension.
The biggest question every offseason is how much space does a team have against the salary cap. For the first time since the cap was instituted more than a decade ago, it will not rise this year, meaning the Golden Knights and every other team have $81.5 million to play with.
Vegas has 18 players signed for next season with just under $5 million in space, according to CapFriendly. That does not include restricted free agents Chandler Stephenson and Nick Cousins, or unrestricted free agents Robin Lehner, Nosek, Deryk Engelland and Jon Merrill.
New contracts for Stephenson and Cousins will eat up a good chunk of that space (they made about a $1 million each last season) and a new contract for Lehner would necessitate moving space.
The Golden Knights could move Marc-Andre Fleury to make space for Lehner (more on that in a moment) but otherwise don’t have any obvious trade chips.
Stastny’s $6.5 million contract would clear plenty of space, but Vegas doesn’t have an obvious No. 2 center behind William Karlsson. If the Golden Knights wanted to shake things up in a drastic way, they’d have no shortage of takers for Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault or Nate Schmidt, but Vegas would need to be blown away to even entertain the offer.
Unless the Golden Knights go off the board, cap space will be at a premium. That brings us to what will happen in goal.
The goalie question
The one thing on everyone’s mind is who will be in net on opening night next season. Fleury has been the face of the franchise since it launched, but with just four starts in 20 playoff games, Lehner assumed the role of starter. But his expiring contract makes things interesting.
Multiple outlets have reported the Golden Knights and Lehner have agreed in principle to a five-year extension worth $5 million annually against the cap, though he has yet to sign it. Lehner has denied the reports.
If the reports are true, it almost surely means the end of Fleury’s tenure in Vegas. He has two years remaining at a $7 million cap hit, and spending $12 million on two goalies for the next two seasons seems unlikely.
That leaves Vegas with two options: trade Fleury or buy him out. Fleury has a modified no-trade clause in his contract that allows him to submit a list of 10 teams to which he cannot be traded. That list was due to the Golden Knights Tuesday.
Fleury would not be able to block a trade if the Golden Knights agree to a deal with any of the other 20 teams.
The return in a Fleury trade will be fascinating to see unfold. Fleury is 35 and is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. Couple in his high cap hit for two more years, and on paper his contract is not a desirable asset. There’s a chance the Golden Knights will have to retain salary — they can keep up to $3.5 million on their books — or throw in a sweetener in the form of draft picks to whichever team is acquiring.
Fleury is universally beloved in the hockey world and has the pedigree of a postseason performer. A team that could use a veteran goalie to supplant an up-and-coming core — Carolina maybe? Calgary? — would be willing to acquire him.
The other option is more straightforward. If the Golden knights cannot find a trade partner for Fleury, they can buy him out.
In most cases including this one, a buyout allows a team to recoup a third of the contract’s money in exchange for immediate relief, but long-term penalty. If Vegas bought him out, it would receive cap relief in the two years left on his contract, but pay a penalty in the two years after it expired.
Here are the numbers, courtesy of CapFriendly:
2020-21: $2,583,333 cap hit (savings of $4,416,667)
2021-22: $3,083,333 cap hit (savings of $3,916,667)
2022-23: $2,083,333 cap hit (penalty of $2,083,333)
2023-24: $2,083,333 cap hit (penalty of $2,083,333)
Total: $9,833,332 cap hit (savings of $4,166,667)
The Golden Knights play a fast, run-and-gun type offense that helped them become one of the best puck-possession teams in the league. It would be silly to overhaul a system that helped them reach the Western Conference Final, but some tweaks may be necessary.
Coach Peter DeBoer said Monday that the Stars dominated in the dirty areas of the ice, scoring the greasy goals from close in front of the net. Vegas doesn’t have many players in their top-nine forward group who fit that billing, and acquiring one could be in the cards.
“They won the net-fronts in both ends,” DeBoer said. “They were better around their own net against our forwards and they were better at our net making it tough on our defensemen. We’ve got to learn some things from this, about what works in the playoffs and how you score in the playoffs.”
So who could the Golden Knights target?
They would want a big body, preferably a center, who can slide into their third line, and even the second when needed. A player like Carl Soderberg fits the billing, coming off a 17-goal season with the Coyotes last year. His best days may be behind him, but Wayne Simmonds is famous for his net-front ability on the power play. Someone like Patrick Maroon could probably be had on the cheap too.
All those players are unrestricted free agents and figure to fit into the Golden Knights’ budget.
Defense won’t change
All six of the Golden Knights’ regular defensemen in the playoffs are under contract for next season, so unless someone is moved, expect the same rotation. Shea Theodore morphed into a star this postseason and is signed for $5.2 million for five more years. He’s not going anywhere. Holden just signed a two-year extension. Brayden McNabb makes only $2.5 million against the cap. Zach Whitecloud is making close to league-minimum. Those four are almost certainly coming back.
Schmidt and Alec Martinez probably will, although a case could be made if needed to move them to free up cap space. Schmidt makes $5.95 million against the cap for five more seasons, and is the emotional and vocal spirit of the dressing room. He’s part of the leadership group and Vegas would have to be blown away to deal him. Martinez arrived at the trade deadline and part of Vegas’ reason for acquiring him was the term on his contract. He has one season left at a $4 million cap hit and considering the way he meshed with Theodore, feel confident he will be back.
Those are the starting six, which leaves some wiggle room for depth. Merrill and Engelland are both unrestricted free agents and unlikely to return, particularly with young players like Nicolas Hague and Dylan Coghlan waiting in the wings. Maybe Vegas signs a veteran player for depth, but it’s unlikely Vegas makes a splash on the blue line.
No matter what happens this offseason, the Golden Knights are in good shape. They’ve won the Pacific Division in two of the past three seasons with trips to the conference final to go along with them. Vegas isn’t going to enter any sort of rebuild, meaning next year’s team will competitive.
In fact it could look a lot like the team whose season ended this week. There will be some tweaks and changes like any offseason, but rest assured the team the Golden Knights put on the ice will be a good one.