As the NHL season has come to an end and the Vegas Golden Knights failed to capitalize on their chance at a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals due to not being able to get by the 59 point Cinderella story Montreal Canadiens in the semi finals it’s time to take a look at what the off-season looks like for the team.
First we recognize that the Golden Knights are sitting with 6 million dollars in cap space. They have 6 picks in the upcoming amateur draft. They also have 3 unrestricted free agents – winger Mattias Janmark, center Tomas Nosek and defenseman Alec Martinez. Nosek has been a solid bottom six forward since coming aboard in the original expansion draft in 2017. Janmark was acquired in a trade from Chicago at the deadline this season for 3 draft picks and slotted onto the 3rd line effectively. Martinez is the most important and impactful player of the three UFA’s and as a top 4 defenseman his worth is such that every attempt should be made to retain him.
Not to underestimate the contributions of Nosek and Janmark but replacing a 4th line center and 3rd line winger isn’t as much a priority as is trying to keep Martinez in the fold. The issue is the dollar amount. With only 6 million in cap space and the going rate for a player like Martinez in the 5 million plus AAV you can see that in order to free up cap space a few noteworthy contracts will have to be moved. Vegas has to address it’s most glaring need. The center ice position doesn’t match up with other contending teams depth and skill at the position.
William Karlsson is the teams number one center at the moment. Chandler Stephenson and Nic Roy are behind him. Stephenson played well between captain Mark Stone and sniper Max Pacioretty but he’s more suited to be in the 3rd line slot on a Cup contending team. In order to solidify the top 6 depth the Golden Knights need to come up with another option to center one of the top two lines.
There has been calls for the Golden Knights to go all in and try to acquire Buffalo star Jack Eichel but his cap hit (10 million AAV long term) and current health situation should be enough to deter the team from heading down that road and paying the price of what it would take for Buffalo to do a deal.
I believe there are two viable free agent options with upside. Nashville center Michael Granlund and recently bought out Florida center Alex Wennberg. Granlund (29) and Wennberg (27) are capable of stepping in and teaming up with Stone and Pacioretty to form a dangerous combination. Both have playmaking capabilities but can also score. I don’t believe either of these players will command a contract that will break the bank. Something in the 5 million AAV range should be in the ballpark for Granlund and Wennberg may come in cheaper due to his buyout package.
This leads to the question of how the Golden Knights free up the needed cap space. The obvious answer is to move one of their goaltenders. Marc Andre Fleury is arguably the most popular player in the teams short history but his contract (1 year remaining at 7 million) is moveable to a contending team looking for a starter. His modified No Trade Clause shouldn’t be an issue. Robin Lehner is capable of being the teams starting goaltender and his AAV of 5 million is good value.
Another trade candidate is winger Reilly Smith. His contract also has only 1 season left with a value of 5 million. He’s a competent winger capable of putting up 25 plus goals. Unfortunately the team is in a position where it has to surrender some strong pieces in order to free up the cap space to improve the position that is more valuable, up the middle. Vegas has to do whatever it takes to strengthen the area to be able to better match up with the top teams in the league.
Top prospect Cody Glass should get an opportunity to get into the lineup more consistently this upcoming season and continue to grow into the role of a top 2 center. Depth up the middle is important. Vegas window of opportunity is open to contend for the next several years but that window won’t stay open forever. Re-signing Martinez and adding a competent center like Granlund or Wennberg as well as the continued development of Glass and young Peyton Krebs should be enough to keep Vegas in contention.
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