12 UFAs Vegas should target in exclusive negotiating window

Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette gives some but not enough information about who he plans on starting in net for Game 3, and discusses the unique environment of playing at home.

Half a billion dollars buys certain privileges.

When all 30 NHL teams release their expansion draft-protected lists on June 18 at 10 a.m. ET, the Vegas Golden Knights will have an exclusive and unprecedented 72-hour window to meet and negotiate with impending free agents (unrestricted and restricted) who are still technically under contract until June 30 with their existing employers.

“Money’s not a problem,” general manager George McPhee said in a recent Q&A session with season-ticket holders. “Our owner, Bill Foley, is not afraid to spend to get the right player, and it’s our job to identify who those players are.”

If a free agent does sign with the Golden Knights between June 18 and 20, he will count as McPhee’s one selection from that player’s team.

“Things are going to be very busy,” McPhee said. “But we don’t want to miss these opportunities to get another look at players who may be able to help us.”

Not only will this Vegas-only negotiating window provide Sportsnet.ca with a pristine and bottomless well of rumour fodder, it lays out a unique landscape for deal-swinging.

There will be free agents McPhee will want to get the jump on 10 days before the other front offices get in their ear. More interesting: There will be UFAs whose current GMs know they’ll be unable to re-sign, so they will encourage McPhee (with picks and/or prospects) to sign them in hopes that Vegas avoids drafting a more permanent piece off their roster.

McPhee envisions the core of the Knights being built from the entry draft and says offers for extra draft picks are already on the table.

“I bet you they’re 90 per cent sure right now who’s going to be protected,” said Doug MacLean, formerly the GM of expansion Columbus and now a Sportsnet analyst. “They’ve got a very comprehensive list of UFAs—some will be signed, but they’ve got a very good idea who will be available.

“It’s all about fitting both into their payroll structure.”

We examined the rosters and UFA lists to come up with a few players McPhee should at least explore signing during what is sure to be a sleepless 72 hours of wining and dining and number-crunching and hair-pulling.

Sounds a lot like a trip to Vegas.

Patrick Eaves
We know McPhee will swipe something sweet from the Anaheim Ducks. More than any other area, we know the Knights will be in desperate need of goal scorers. We also know Ducks GM Bob Murray will do his damnedest to limit the expansion-draft damage to his contending roster.

Eaves was a fantastic rental addition in Anaheim, but as an unrestricted free agent coming off a 32-goal campaign, his new contract may prove too pricey for one of the NHL’s most cap-strapped franchises.

So, in order to push McPhee away from his Rickard Rakells and Sami Vatanens, what if Murray tosses in, say, a second-round draft pick (the Ducks have two in 2017) plus another future asset and encourage Vegas to speak with Eaves?

Radim Vrbata
With the Arizona Coyotes so young, they barely have enough players to even qualify the minimum for the expansion draft. On the surface, defenceman Luke Schenn appears to be the easiest pickup for McPhee here, but he’ll have plenty of opportunities to grab blue-liners of Schenn’s calibre elsewhere.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, Vegas needs goals. Vrbata put up 20 last year. He loves the desert. Now, the veteran winger and Arizona are interested in recommitting with each other — but it hasn’t happened yet.

If he’s still unsigned in a few weeks, it’s worth McPhee meeting with Vrbata. Worst case, he drafts Schenn or forward Jamie McGinn instead.

Drew Stafford
While the Boston Bruins would much rather McPhee take Matt Beleskey’s contract off their hands, Vegas should target right wing Drew Stafford — a guy who can play up and down the lineup and one of the more underrated trade deadline rentals this season. The 31-year-old has four 20-goal seasons to his name and could have another one if given top-six minutes.

If Stafford wants to go to July 1, what about UFA depth centre Dominic Moore? He’s not only one of the league’s better penalty killers and faceoff men, but he’s a seen-it-all veteran who could help instil the right dressing room culture.

Dmitry Kulikov
The chances of Kulikov—one of the most intriguing UFA defenceman of the 2017 class—re-signing in Buffalo range from slim to none after a disastrous 2016-17.

While new Sabres GM Jason Botterill might wish to steer McPhee towards a hefty contract like the ones clinging to Zach Bogosian or Matt Moulson, McPhee would be better off going younger, and half his roster is already Russian.

Kulikov is just 26, and the consensus is his best seasons lie ahead of him. Attractive expansion draft options are limited from Buffalo, so Kulikov looks like the best long-term bet.

The catch: Recognizing his status as one of the best under-30 UFA D-men this summer, Kulikov may wish to create a bidding war on July 1.

Jay McClement
Similar to the Arizona situation, all of the enticing members of the Hurricanes will either be protected or are too young to be draft-eligible. McClement, 34, is an underrated role player and affable veteran who can provide centre depth and kill penalties with the best of ’em. You know what you’re getting.

If Vegas doesn’t scoop him up for a reasonable rate, someone will.

Thomas Vanek
We have Vanek—a power-play threat who finished the season on Florida’s third line—leaving the Panthers and becoming an NHL gun for hire, again. Neither Detroit nor Vanek ruled out a return to the Red Wings, and Detroit GM Ken Holland’s recent assertion that he wants to hop right back in the playoffs has us wondering if the Wings could be more active in the free-agent market than expected. A move to Vegas, however, would ensure Vanek the top-six and power-play ice time he desires and give coach Gerald Gallant a dose of firepower.

(Stray thought: How high was Gallant on pending UFA Jaromir Jagr during their time in Florida? Does he suggest McPhee speak with Jagr? Could sell a few more tickets in a city where past-their-prime stars are more than welcome.)

Martin Hanzal
The Minnesota Wild came to regret paying a high rental price for Hanzal at the trade deadline. Like Anaheim, the Wild look to lose one of their good young forwards (Erik Haula?) or defencemen (Jonas Brodin? Mathew Dumba?) in the expansion draft.

But what if McPhee meets with 30-year-old Hanzal, arguably the best youngish centreman set to hit the open market, and strikes a deal? We know Hanzal isn’t returning to Minny, so maybe Wild GM Chuck Fletcher toss in some future considerations to keep his core in tact.

Mike Condon
The Ottawa Senators backup goaltender’s prolonged run in relief of Craig Anderson was critical to the club’s regular-season success, but Sens GM Pierre Dorion made it loud and clear that Anderson will be the one protected in the expansion draft.

Given the right circumstance, Condon, 27, could be the next No. 2 to follow the Cam Talbot path to regular starter. It’s telling that he hasn’t re-upped with Ottawa yet. If Dorion believes he’s at risk of losing, say, top-pair defenceman Marc Methot, to Vegas, perhaps he’s compelled to add a draft pick in the deal.

Patrick Marleau
More than most, the San Jose Sharks appear set to lose a quality player to the Golden Knights.

“You are going to lose somebody. The direction that we’re going to go … we’re very fortunate to have key, core players at the proper ages like [Martin] Jones and [Marc-Edouard] Vlasic and [Brent] Burns, [Logan] Couture, [Joe] Pavelski, [Tomas] Hertl, etcetera, that we know we’ll have a good team going forward,” GM Doug Wilson told The Mercury News.

“We’ll get through the expansion draft losing one player. We’re positioned as well as any team around.”

In Marleau and Joe Thornton, San Jose possesses two of the summer’s most intriguing UFAs: old dudes who still make an impact. Does Wilson burn a protection slot on one or both of them? Does he establish a handshake agreement to re-sign them (both Marleau and Thornton are on record saying they want to remain in teal) but not until after the draft so as to protect more of his roster?

Intriguing stuff. It’s worth McPhee calling to see if Marleau and/or Thornton is up for a Vegas pitch. Worst case, he shrugs and drafts a solid roster player like Paul Martin, Mikkel Boedker, Joel Ward or Jannik Hansen. Wilson can’t protect ’em all.

Matt Hunwick
Hear me out. While there are more promising options off the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ roster long-term up front—an intriguing wing prospect like Kerby Rychel, Josh Leivo or Brendan Leipsic could be scooped—Lou Lamoriello is one of the craftiest in the biz.

He could urge McPhee to sign one of his impending UFAs, like Hunwick or Brian Boyle, while sweetening the pot with a draft pick. The Leafs have a fourth-rounder to spare this season and an extra second in 2018.

Toronto appears to have prepared itself for Hunwick’s departure by adding two left-shot defencemen to their system this spring.

Ryan Miller
While some believe it’s a forgone conclusion that Marc-Andre Fleury becomes Vegas’s No. 1 goalie, here’s an alternate route. McPhee ignores Pittsburgh’s goaltenders and instead takes a run Brian Doumolin (RFA) or Trevor Daley (UFA) from the Penguins.

For a safe goalie bet, he turns his attention to Vancouver because the Canucks don’t offer much at the other positions. Miller and Vancouver haven’t shut the door on an extension.

Consider the defences they’ve been playing behind, then ask yourself: How much better is Fleury than Miller?

Miller is four years older, which is a concern, but he’s yet to undergo a dramatic drop-off in performance and it’s well-known the American would prefer to remain in the West.

Kevin Shattenkirk
One must assume that Capitals GM Brian MacLellan would prefer Vegas steer clear of RFAs Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer. With a relatively flat cap, Washington’s re-signing of Shattenkirk is a long shot, especially since MacLellan must first take care of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and (he’s hoping) Schmidt and T.J. Oshie.

Like any smart man in search of money, Shattenkirk has publicly said the idea of joining Vegas intrigues him—and it’s a place where he could assume the No. 1 defenceman role he covets.

Could McPhee sign Shattenkirk and swipe a draft pick for promising to leave Schmidt and Grubauer alone?

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