As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look toward the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
Today wraps up the month-long Offseason Primer series. The fourth and final segment of Offseason Primers sticks to the Western Conference, featuring the Pacific Division. Today, the Vegas Golden Knights offseason will go under the microscope.
Vegas Golden Knights Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
Under both George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon as general managers, the Golden Knights have established themselves as Stanley Cup contenders in record time. As the Knights begin to face their first true cap crunch, it’ll be up to McCrimmon to make sure they continue their reign at the top of the Western Conference.
They’ve spent some time already locking up players to extensions but veterans like Tomas Nosek, Jon Merrill, Deryk Engelland, Robin Lehner, Curtis McKenzie, Valentin Zykov, Jaycob Megna, and Garret Sparks are all pending unrestricted free agents. Chandler Stephenson, Nick Cousins, Reid Duke, Gage Quinney, Keegan Kolesar, Jimmy Schuldt, and Brett Lernout are their pending restricted free agents.
Salary Cap Outlook
Vegas will need to make some tough personnel decisions after their season is over. Per the team’s CapFriendly page, the Golden Knights have only $6.38 million in available cap space for the 2020–21 season. It will be challenging for them, to say the least, to maintain the level of depth they’ve iced in past seasons.
Likely Major Departures
As well as he’s played, it’s hard to envision a world where Lehner is able to work out a deal with the Golden Knights. Vegas would certainly need to trade a roster player in order to make room for a long-term contract for Lehner. Considering their offensive and defensive depth is their defining factor and greatest strength, it’s hard to imagine they’ll make a deal to accommodate Lehner when Marc-Andre Fleury is still a viable option in the crease.
Lehner, no matter what, is still an elite goaltender. He’ll get paid as such on the open market this fall. Unfortunately, however, it’s unlikely to be with the Nevada squad.
While a capable defenceman, Merrill has been used sparingly during his three seasons with the Golden Knights. He’s never played more than 57 games in a year in a Vegas uniform, finding himself as a healthy scratch multiple times due to Vegas’ excessive depth on defence. Now supplanted in the lineup by the emergence of Zach Whitecloud, Merrill will want to pursue a bigger role in free agency.
He’s a classic defensive defenceman who will likely garner a few million bucks a year on the open market and will definitely generate interest.
The first real leader on this Golden Knights team, it seems that Engelland’s time in the league has come to an end. Playing only 49 games this year and being a healthy scratch multiple times, the 38-year-old veteran of 11 NHL seasons will probably hang up the skates this offseason.
After being one of the inaugural Golden Knights and their honorary captain during their ridiculous 2018 playoff run, Engelland’s mark on this city and this team has forever been made. His service in Vegas during the twilight of his career was incredibly impactful.
A stellar fourth-line player for the Vegas squad, Nosek’s likely priced himself out. Nosek’s a reliable centre with a responsible two-way game, and Vegas has many options who could fill his role internally. Nosek’s deserved a payday for the past few years; he should be able to get it on the open market. Vegas just doesn’t have the salary room for him anymore.
Likely Major Re-Signings
Cousins has been an impeccable depth player for the Knights since coming over from the Montreal Canadiens. Posting three points in seven games and then four more points in the postseason so far, Cousins has proven a valuable commodity on the Golden Knights’ third line. Perpetually an underrated talent, Cousins can be relied upon for more than 20 points a season. Forming a unit with Alex Tuch and others, he helps make Vegas’ offence one of the scariest in the league.
Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) pegs a Cousins extension at $3.04 million per season for four years. It leaves the Knights with $3.34 million in cap space.
A true breakout talent this season, Stephenson tallied 22 points in 41 games with the Knights. He can play on any line and at any forward position — making him a truly enviable talent. His value and benefit are too great for Vegas to let him walk this summer, and he’ll surely be re-signed.
Evolving-Hockey’s projection is for three years – earning him $2.43 million a year. It drops Vegas’ cap space to only $910,000 in cap space.
Potential Free Agent Additions
While Vegas won’t be players on the free-agent market, they should still be a force to be reckoned with next season. Their limited cap space makes it impossible to add talent via free agency this fall. However, players like Cody Glass and Peyton Krebs may be ready to take on NHL roles full-time, helping Vegas cut their losses.