The Vegas Golden Knights and its passionate fan base have been on quite the roller-coaster ride ever since officially joining the NHL prior to 2017-18.
There was that improbable trip to the Stanley Cup Final in their memorable inaugural season, a terribly unfortunate albeit dramatic playoff exit their sophomore year, followed by two additional trips to the Cup semifinals.
A wild initial four years was followed by a step back this past season.
Vegas missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and will start next season with its third head coach in as many years. The roster has also seen consistent turnover from the jump with a plethora of notable transactions made by George McPhee, the team’s first general manager.
McPhee took advantage of various expansion draft rules to improve the year-one roster and deepen the franchise’s draft and prospect pools. This is how the team acquired the likes of Shea Theodore, Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch before the team even organized its first practice.
It was also a time when Vegas could take on contracts of inactive players like David Clarkson ($5.25M) and Mikhail Grabovski ($5M) thanks to an abundance of cap space – a far cry from how the team has been operating lately.
McPhee moved into the role of president of hockey ops full-time in September 2019 and that’s when Kelly McCrimmon was named GM. Managing the salary cap has been priority No. 1 for McCrimmon pretty much from Day 1.
The unpredictable movement, or lack thereof, of the salary cap floor and ceiling the past few seasons has made his job all the more difficult. The league’s cap ceiling had increased year-over-year from the 2013-14 campaign until the 2019-20 season was cut short due to COVID-19.
“I think you’ll notice if you look around the National Hockey League over the last month, almost every trade that has taken place has had salary cap implications,” McCrimmon pointed out to reporters at a press conference last week.
For example, Vegas has unloaded more than $12.6 million in cap space so far this off-season, however to do so they gave up two players that scored 39 goals and 80 points in 117 total man games in 2021-22 yet didn’t receive any viable assets in return.
With that in mind, here’s a chronological look at all the notable salary-dump deals McCrimmon has made over the past 2 1/2 years.
Feb. 21, 2020: Cody Eakin ($3.85M)
Despite being a contender in the Western Conference at the time, the team needed to mind the cap at the trade deadline after McCrimmon’s first two trades as GM brought on forward Chandler Stephenson and defenceman Alec Martinez whose $4 million AAV made Eakin expendable. Eakin was sent to the Winnipeg Jets in return for a conditional 2021 fourth-round draft pick that could’ve turned into a third. Since the Jets didn’t technically make the playoffs – they were eliminated in the qualifying round during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season – and since Eakin didn’t re-sign there the pick remained a fourth rounder. Vegas later flipped the pick they received from Winnipeg to Detroit to move up 12 spots in the 2021 draft to select Czech centre Jakub Brabenec.
Oct. 9, 2020: Paul Stastny ($6.5M)
Stastny was among the first notable free agent signings in Vegas history, inking a three-year, $19.5-million contract in 2018. After posting 30 goals, 50 assists in 121 regular-season games across two seasons with Vegas (adding 17 points in 25 total playoff games), the centre was dealt to Winnipeg ahead of the 2020-21 regular season in exchange for defenceman Carl Dahlstrom and a 2022 fourth-round pick. Dahlstrom never suited up for the Golden Knights but did play 17 games with the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights. McCrimmon sent the pick they got from Winnipeg to the Rangers the following July in exchange for forward Brett Howden.
Oct. 12, 2020: Nate Schmidt ($5.95M)
A few days after shedding Stastny’s $6.5 million off their cap they removed another nearly $6 million by shipping Schmidt to Vancouver in exchange for a 2022 third-round selection. The pick they got from Vancouver was packaged with Nick Holden in the summer of 2021 to acquire Evgeni Dadonov from the Ottawa Senators.
The Stastny and Schmidt moves occurred several months after the team’s second trip to the Western Conference Final in three years and were the final cap-clearing moves the team made for the 2020-21 campaign.
Vegas advanced to the Stanley Cup semifinals for the third time in four years in 2021 but needed to revert to cap-crunch mode after being eliminated by the Canadiens and falling two wins shy of reaching the Cup Final.
July 27, 2021: Marc-Andre Fleury ($7M)
Vegas was faced with a difficult decision to move on from the reigning Vezina Trophy-winning netminder with Fleury’s $7 million AAV hindering what the front office could do to prepare for 2021-22. The Golden Knights also had Robin Lehner under contract so the final year of Fleury’s contract was sent to the Blackhawks for Mikael Hakkarainen, a depth defenceman who played this past season in Europe.
Not only did Fleury post career-best numbers in a Vegas uniform, but he also quickly became a favourite both in the locker room and community.
July 29, 2021: Ryan Reaves ($1.75M)
Two days after sending Fleury to Chicago the team sent power forward Ryan Reaves, the NHL’s unofficial heavyweight champion, to the New York Rangers for a third-round pick in 2022. Reaves, originally acquired from Pittsburgh in early 2018, was set to begin the final year of a two-year, $3.5 million contract he signed with Vegas in 2020 but McCrimmon at the time explained this was more of a mutual parting than a pure salary dump. Vegas packaged the third from New York plus a fifth and sent them to Toronto during July’s draft to move up from pick No. 95 to No. 79 where they selected Jordan Gustafson.
“I had good relationships with (Reaves and Fleury),” McCrimmon said in the summer of 2021. “I have a lot of respect for both players. At the same time, our job is to do the best things we can for our organization.”
Ironically, the 2021-22 season was the first in the organization’s brief history the Golden Knights failed to qualify for the post-season.
The team’s lone in-season trade the past year was when they added Jack Eichel’s $10-million AAV in November in a blockbuster swap with the Sabres that saw Alex Tuch go back the other way.
The league announced in March the salary cap would only increase by $1 million up to $82.5 million for 2022-23 and that meant McCrimmon had more book-balancing to do this off-season.
June 16, 2022: Evgenii Dadonov ($5M)
The Golden Knights attempted to send Dadonov to the Ducks at March’s trade deadline, however that transaction was voided after the NHL ruled Dadonov's limited no-trade clause “had not been complied with.” The Russian winger finished third on the team in goals this past season with 20 and fifth with 43 points in 78 games. Vegas instead made a deal with Montreal in June and acquired Shea Weber’s contract, which they can move to long-term injured reserve (LTIR) to create space since Weber missed the entire 2021-22 campaign with lingering lower-body injuries many believe will result in him never playing another NHL game.
July 13, 2022: Max Pacioretty ($7M)
McCrimmon’s latest cap-clearing move was his biggest to date in terms of dollars and cents. He sent star forward Max Pacioretty plus depth defenceman Dylan Coghlan ($762,500 AAV) to Carolina for future considerations on the first day of free agency.
This trade was primarily made to aid in the re-signing of Reilly Smith at $5 million per year and free up space for new deals for Vegas’s restricted free agents, notably Nicolas Roy, Keegan Kolesar and Nic Hague.
Not getting anything back besides cap space for a six-time 30-goal scorer like Pacioretty would be a tough pill for any GM to swallow – especially considering the team gave up Nick Suzuki as part of the package to acquire Pacioretty ahead of 2018-19 when McPhee still held the GM position.
“It’s a real challenging aspect for teams across the league, and that’s how we chose to manage it,” McCrimmon said at a press conference. “If you look at our roster, we needed to create some flexibility to sign some young players that have become big parts of our hockey club.”
When all was said and done, here’s what Vegas currently has to show for trading Fleury, Pacioretty, Stastny, Dadonov, Eakin, Schmidt, Reaves and Coghlan: Brett Howden, Jakub Brabenec, Jordan Gustafson, Shea Weber’s LTIR contract and, most significantly, just shy of $38 million in salary cap savings used to help facilitate other transactions.
The trio of Jack Eichel, Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo alone account for $28.3 million in annual cap space. Now add William Karlsson ($5.9M AAV) and Zach Whitecloud ($2.75M AAV) to the mix, both of whom are signed through at least 2027, and that’s $36.95 million in cap space committed through 2026 for those five players.
The team already has more than $71 million committed to 2023-24’s cap and that’s not factoring in what the pending RFAs are projected to make on their next deals.
Suffice it to say, McCrimmon will need to remain disciplined and diligent when it comes to cap management, and if history has shown us anything it’s that trading Pacioretty might not be McCrimmon’s final impact move of the off-season.