The Vegas Golden Knights upended every facet of the status quo in their first NHL campaign. Now it’s time to follow it up.
They had a little bit of everything in their first go-round — a depth player becoming a 40-goal titan, an aging star in net posting the best season of his career, and all manner of other castoffs collectively rising to piece together a season so absurd we may never see one similar. But with the Knights’ Cinderella story offering up a twist in its final pages by bowing out of the post-season via four straight losses to the newly crowned Washington Capitals, Vegas’ eyes are now turned to the future.
So, what’s next?
If the most difficult task general manager George McPhee had to take on was building a contender in year one, a close second would be following up whatever it is we just saw with a similarly thrilling year No. 2.
They have the tools needed to build an equally intriguing second season, with a hefty amount of cap space and, now, some undeniable appeal. With that in mind, here’s a look at what McPhee needs to accomplish before his club’s sophomore year:
SOLVE THE WILLIAM KARLSSON CONUNDRUM
The most intriguing puzzle McPhee has to solve is what to do with William Karlsson. The 25-year-old’s rapid ascent is well-documented — after posting 18 goals through his 183 pre-Vegas appearances, he more than doubled that total in Knights colours, finishing with 43 goals and 78 points overall. And he did it for the bargain-bin sum of $1 million in a full 82-game season.
Vegas’ cap space (roughly $26.5 million, per CapFriendly) and the fact that Karlsson is an RFA rather than a UFA make this negotiation easier. But it’s still a tricky one. Does Vegas treat Karlsson like a bona fide 40-goal-scorer after the breakout year, and pay him as such?
Perhaps the more important question is, how much does McPhee view Karlsson’s previous performance as rooted in limited opportunity vs. limited performance?
If he’s taken as what he was in 2017-18, he might be pushing towards something like Vladimir Tarasenko‘s $7.5 million cap hit.
However, McPhee inked Karlsson’s linemate Jonathan Marchessault to a six-year deal in January paying him $5 million per year, on par with the other third of the team’s top line, Reilly Smith. It’s fair to assume they’d like Karlsson’s deal to line up in the range of those two. The question is whether they can make that happen or whether Karlsson, who’s on the cusp of his first significant payday, looks to angle towards a better deal.
THE VETERAN WINGERS: DECIDE WHO’S STAYING AND WHO’S GOING
While the risk of losing Karlsson is mitigated by his RFA status, veteran wingers James Neal and David Perron are far less of a sure thing. Both become UFAs on July 1, granting them the chance to sign with any club they so choose — and suitors are sure to come knocking after the performances they put forth in 2017-18.
McPhee has a few different issues to navigate here. The central one is whether the team wants Neal and Perron back in the fold at all — the 30-year-olds are two of the older members of Vegas’ forward corps, and likely won’t come cheap on their next deals. That said, they both wore letters on a Knights team that desperately needed leaders early on, and losing the pair would mean a significant shakeup for the top-six chemistry of a Vegas squad that clearly played well together.
It’ll be a delicate situation, as McPhee and Co. have to sort out, firstly, whether they want both back, secondly, whether they’d prefer to keep just one of the two (if so, which one), and thirdly, what number makes sense to make that happen without cutting into one of the team’s greatest advantages at the moment — their glut of cap space.
Both Neal and Perron have expressed interest in staying in Vegas next season and beyond. But it might not be that simple.
“Not everyone will be back,” McPhee told NHL.com’s Danny Webster on Friday. “We’ve all learned lessons over the years. You examine what happens in the salary cap world. You have to be smart about what you do and the contracts you’re handing out.”
GIVE ‘THE FLOWER’ WHAT HE’S DUE
Before Karlsson, Neal, Perron and all the rest, there was Marc-Andre Fleury; the first undisputed star the Golden Knights could call their own. The veteran netminder dutifully served as the face of the franchise until the team around him established an identity and started to spread the spotlight.
Fleury also did his part on the ice, putting up the best save percentage of his career — .927 through 46 games, which held true during the grind of 20 post-season games as well.
Regardless of the championship experience he adds, and all the off-ice influence he brings to the organization, Fleury proved beyond a shadow of a doubt this season that he remains the club’s best possible option in the cage, shelving the need to look elsewhere for a future No. 1.
He has one more year on his current deal, paying him $5.75 million annually, and then hits unrestricted free agency. Sorting out a proper term and cap hit for the three-time champion will be the focal point of working out an extension, but the 33-year-old proved he’s still got plenty to give at the highest level.
Fleury: "A couple years ago I was getting told I was too old to play. I still love it, still have a lot of fun.
Certainly Vegas has given me this opportunity to do what I love and I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. Hopefully I can finish my career here." pic.twitter.com/vI6N1d4xay
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 8, 2018
FISH FOR THE BEST IN THE FREE-AGENCY POOL
Year two in Vegas will be all about pushing up against the greatly raised expectations for success and the persisting wait for the breakout names to regress. Adding in some bona fide elite talent on July 1 will help with that effort, whether that be up front with a John Tavares or James van Riemsdyk, or on the blue line with an addition like John Carlson.
McPhee’s dabble in the free-agency market will come down to more than just deep pockets, though — they’ve also become an organization that players genuinely want to suit up for.
“They’ve got a ton of cap room, a boatload of flexibility and players from all over the league asking their agents about going there,” Elliotte Friedman wrote in his most recent 31 Thoughts column. “It’s a destination. Gerard Gallant’s reputation for being a players’ coach is growing, too, with Reilly Smith saying he’s never had someone ‘with a shorter memory.'”
There are more than a few interesting names floating in the free-agency pool (how about adding some intrigue with an Ilya Kovalchuk signing?) and Vegas has the tools needed to be in on the majority of them.
Or they could re-visit a different kind of game-changing move that already nearly came to be.
“The Golden Knights came close to acquiring Erik Karlsson at the deadline. After seeing how the Capitals locked down the neutral zone and point men in the final, you can see how they might revisit something like this,” Friedman wrote Sunday. “Word is one of the biggest hang-ups at the end was Cody Glass, drafted sixth overall last June. Vegas didn’t want to include him.”
Does the manner in which Vegas saw their Cup dreams dashed prompt them to change their mind on the Cody Glass front? Whether or not it does depends on the more fundamental question that’s underlying every situation on this list: Where does McPhee see Vegas ending up in 2019?
The original plan was to think long-term and weather a storm for the first few years. That said, an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final surely changed that approach. By how much, and to what effect, are the two factors that will determine what happens next.