It’s been nearly six months since the Golden Knights traded defenseman Nate Schmidt to Vancouver. Not counting when the sport shut down last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s the longest Vegas has ever gone without swinging a deal.
The NHL’s trade deadline is noon Monday, and in the past the Golden Knights have never been afraid to pull the trigger on a big move.
This year isn’t like other years, though.
The financial realities of a flat cap coupled with Vegas’ long-term contracts handed out over the past few years mean that even if the Golden Knights wanted to make a trade, it’s easier said than done.
“Our approach this year is different than the other three trade deadlines that we’ve had based on our salary cap,” general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “We knew when we shaped our roster in the offseason that we wouldn’t be in a position to make many, if any, moves during the season.
“I don’t feel any sense of urgency to add to that, and in the same breath don’t feel that we want to take away from our existing team either. So if that’s your approach, that means you’re headed for a pretty quiet deadline and that’s what I expect to be the case."
If Vegas stands pat, it would buck a three-year trend.
In 2018 the Golden Knights acquired forwards Tomas Tatar and Ryan Reaves in separate deals, and in 2019 Vegas made the biggest move of the deadline in acquiring now-captain Mark Stone from Ottawa. Last year was the busiest, as the Golden Knights acquired goalie Robin Lehner, defenseman Alec Martinez and forward Nick Cousins in the week leading to the deadline.
The Golden Knights are still playing all of those players except Cousins (they retained $500,000 when they sent Tatar to Montreal) and were so cap-crunched last offseason they had to deal Schmidt and center Paul Stastny for futures, and let Cousins walk as a free agent. All that was a precursor to signing defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a massive contract, but it comes at the added cost of future flexibility.
Even worse, Vegas couldn’t afford to replace players when they were injured or suspended, and played the April 1 game against the Wild with just 16 skaters — two fewer than usual.
There are, of course, ways around the cap crunch. Vegas could include money in a deal — someone like Nick Holden, who has a $1.7 million cap hit and has been relegated mainly to backup duty this season — or it could get creative.
Just last year, the Golden Knights fit Lehner’s $5 million cap hit in under the budget by involving a third team. On paper, Chicago sent Lehner to Toronto while retaining the maximum 50% of his cap hit, which allowed Toronto to retain 44% of his cap hit in a deal with Vegas. That brought Lehner to the Golden Knights with a manageable $1.4 million cap hit.
There is also the question if the Golden Knights even need to make an acquisition. They enter play Wednesday in second place in the West Division, four points behind Colorado for first and four points up on Minnesota for third. There is a 14-point gap between them and fifth-place San Jose, so missing the playoffs isn’t a concern.
There’s also the matter of where an acquired player would fit. The top-six is set with forwards Stone, Max Pacioretty, Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. The defense looks solid anchored by Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Martinez, and Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury form one of the league’s better goaltending tandems.
“I really like our group (but) I don’t think there’s a coach on the face of the earth that doesn’t feel that they could be better or there could be an addition personnel-wise that would make them better,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “At the same point if we go into the playoffs with this group, I’m comfortable that we’ll be able to compete with anybody.”
But there are still areas for improvement, even if it would just be for depth. The third line has been a revolving door of players all season, and Cody Glass’ recent demotion to Henderson and subsequent call-up suggest Vegas wasn’t comfortable with him centering the third line in the playoffs. Tomas Nosek has been hot over the past few weeks, but that's unlikely to last considering his career arc.
Defense has looked a bit problematic at times against Colorado, a possible playoff opponent, but Vegas didn’t have Pietrangelo in the most recent series.
Either way, it’s highly unlikely the Golden Knights are big-game hunting for a Taylor Hall or a Mattias Ekholm. Perhaps a bargain option like a Mikael Granlund or a Ryan Dzingel makes a modicum of sense, but they would still need to make the money work, as well as consider the opportunity cost of dealing futures.
The Golden Knights are saying publicly they don’t expect a deal and there’s no reason to think they don’t believe the same things internally. But a lot can change between now and Monday.
Even if “no trade” is a heavy favorite in a theoretical prop bet, a deadline deal isn’t impossible. And considering this team’s history, it would just be a mild surprise and not a shocker.