One of the things we’ve seen for a long time now, basically ever since the expansion draft was announced, is fans and media alike speculating, “Oh wouldn’t it be so nice if the Golden Knights took [insert problem contract here] off [insert team that made a bad signing]’s hands?”
This was always pie-in-the-sky BS.
The idea, one supposes, was that Vegas needs to make the cap floor, which next season figures to be in the area of $45-46 million. “They gotta make the cap floor somehow!” people say. Making the cap floor when it’s that low, and you need a 23-man roster really isn’t hard at all. If your average player’s AAV is just $2 million, you’re there. The average NHLer’s salary overall right now? Some back-of-the-napkin math says it’s something like $2.9 million (though that will probably go up very slightly this summer).
There is, therefore, no real reason for Vegas to go bad-contract shopping. Not with anyone. Especially because they’ll take on, say, Marc-Andre Fleury’s money ($5.75 million) and add that to their existing player in Vadim Shipayov, who’s set to make $4.5 million next season. Damn, they’re more than 20 percent of the way to the cap floor already!
So why would Vegas help the Capitals by saying, “We’ll take Brooks Orpik off your hands,” instead of letting them fret over losing someone who’s actually good? (And look, Washington is managing this weirdly already; look at that Tyler Graovac trade so they could protect both Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. God, who even notices those guys are gone?)
The Caps are just an example, but you can clearly apply the logic to any team you like that has a bad deal on the books: Boston, Detroit, Chicago. Go nuts.
And in fact, the Chicago example is interesting. Word on the street is that in exchange for only taking Trevor van Riemsdyk, and to help Stan Bowman avoid his usual cap crunch, Vegas is also going to get Marcus Krueger. Krueger is a player they value — I’d argue “overvalue,” but fair enough — and Chicago’s in a cap crunch, so they help out Bowman by taking one of his more expendable defensemen and get a decent bottom-six forward out of the deal. Solid work, and that’s another $3.9 million in salary to add to the pile.
That’s without taking into account a few of the other rumored deals George McPhee has in place, like he does with Anaheim, and perhaps Ottawa. Actually, the Sens are a funny example too, because Bobby Ryan was absolutely right (for once) when he dismissed the idea that Vegas would take on his contract. If you’re McPhee, why are you taking on that player at $7.25 million for the next five years unless Ottawa throws in, like, a useful young prospect and a pick?
The NHL is in total chaos right now because of the expansion draft and McPhee would be derelict in his duties if he weren’t calling every other GM and saying, “Nice roster you got there. Would be a shame if something bad were to happen to it.” Because even if your intentions aren’t to take Useful Fifth Forward X from Good Team Y, for any reason, the job is to create the appearance that you are.
The smart strategy, from where I sit, is to load the roster with decent-ish 30-plus guys and young-ish, upside-ish early-20s guys. Make sure the veterans are signed for no more than three years. The money effectively doesn’t matter if they’re signed that short-term. You have something like $76 million to spend. And those younger players often aren’t going to exceed the league-average salary in the first place.
I know we’re all supposed to pretend like this team has a chance to be competitive. The best expansion team ever and all that. But realistically, if you’re looking at a team of mostly No. 5 forwards, maybe a few No. 4s, and mostly No. 4 defensemen with maybe a few No. 3s, backed up by a couple of No. 1b goaltenders, that strikes me as pretty rotten.
We know that as you get deeper down the lineup, the number of events per 60 tends to slow down. So even if they put together a first line that looks more like a decent second line, the ability of that second line to keep up with most teams’ first lines — even in a depleted Western Conference — is going to cause problems in terms of attempt, shot, scoring-chance and goal generation and prevention.
So part of the question is: “Does Vegas think it will be playoff-competitive?”
It shouldn’t, and certainly all the messaging coming out of the desert these days is that they will look to push for that 92-point threshold. But that might just be because you can’t tell a brand new base of season ticket holders, “Well we know we’re gonna live in the basement for three years.”
Then the other part of the question is: “Should a push to be competitive preclude the team from leaning on everyone else to wring as many high draft picks and higher-end prospects as they can?” The answer there is “obviously not.”
It’s fairly certain that this team will neither actively tank — why else help Chicago by taking Krueger and not, say, a first-round pick in the mid-teens — nor actually position itself as a legitimate playoff competitor. Mainly because it can’t do either.
Now is the time for McPhee to start twirling his mustache as villainously as possible. If teams are panic-trading Mikhail Sergachev (and okay sure, it’s the Canadiens and they’ll panic-trade anyone) you have to act like you have nothing but ill intent for whichever players they don’t protect.
Take the rumored deal with Columbus that would see Vegas take on David Clarkson’s deal. That’s dead cap money and an extra contract, so one it doesn’t matter much to Vegas since they’ll just LTIR it and get the insurance money back anyway. Clearly the Blue Jackets were eager to be rid of that, and McPhee says, “Oh jeez Jarmo, sure I’ll take that off your hands, for a price.”
But if he doesn’t at least have a first-round pick and a good prospect or young roster player coming with it, well, that’s a huge missed opportunity. The good news for McPhee is, everyone knows it and has to act accordingly. And that’s bad news for everyone else.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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