The Vegas Golden Knights have made their expansion selections, and now they prepare for what will surely prove to be a busy offseason.
While they still have a few things to work out between now and October, a quick look at the Vegas depth chart leads one to believe that the Golden Knights won’t be the worst team in the league next season. Although devoid of high-end talent (unless you count Marc-Andre Fleury as such), they do have solid depth throughout the lineup. Their third and fourth lines, for instance, have the potential to stack up well against the other 30 NHL teams’ bottom six.
While GM George McPhee targeted defense in the draft with the hopes of flipping some for assets, it hasn’t gone as well as he’d hoped. Sure, he’s thus far been able to find deals for David Schlemko and Marc Methot, but the collective return of Dylan Ferguson, a 2nd round pick and a 5th round pick is probably a little less than what he had in mind.
McPhee still has nine NHL defensemen under contract, not including RFAs Griffin Reinhart and Nate Schmidt. He’ll surely be moving a few more before the season starts, but one thing that is curious is that of the 11 defensemen, 10 of them are left-handed shots.
Up front, McPhee and co. are a little light on natural right wingers, so I expect them to sign at least one right winger this summer.
Today I took a long look at the Vegas depth chart and took my best guess atwhat the starting lineup might look like come October 6 when they face the Stars in Dallas. Here’s what I came up with—let me know how wrong I am!
22 LW 1: James Neal
By selecting James Neal from the Nashville Predators, the Golden Knights were all but declaring the sniper as their top-line left-winger to start the year. Neal stands a very good chance of becoming the first 20-goal scorer in the franchise’s history, as he’s reached the milestone every season so far in his career, including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
By the time the season rolls around, Neal will have turned 30, thus making him one of the oldest forwards on the team. He’ll be expected to shoulder not only the offensive load in Vegas, but also to step into a leadership role. It’ll be interesting to see if he meshes well in Vegas, because if he doesn’t he’ll be a prime trade chip come the 2018 trade deadline, as he’s on an expiring contract.
21 C 1: Vadim Shipachyov
I’ve never seen Vadim Shipachyov play a shift, but the fact that the Vegas Golden Knights signed the Russian to a rich two-year, $9M pact means they’re expecting a lot from the 30-year-old. Shipachyov does have nine years of KHL experience under his belt, and the offense is most definitely present—he scored 76 points in 50 games last season, placing third overall in the KHL and first in points-per-game.
Granted, KHL success doesn’t necessarily convert to NHL success. Sure, you can strike gold and nab an Artemi Panarin, but this is also a league where Nigel Dawes often finds himself in the top 10 in league scoring, so take it all with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I like this gamble by the Golden Knights, and the fact that he got 50 assists in 50 games last year probably has Neal licking his lips at the thought of skating alongside Shipachyov.
20 RW 1: Jaromir Jagr
The ageless wonder will be playing another year in the NHL, which is absolutely crazy to think. The guy was already nearly a decade into his NHL career when some of his teammates on Florida last season were born. While Jagr has spent the past two full seasons in Sunrise, he might move on from them and head to Sin City to perhaps (maybe?) finish his career in Las Vegas.
While somewhat of a longshot, it could feasibly happen. Based on the fact that he signed with Florida for each of the past two seasons, I don't think he's putting much of a premium on winning at this point of his journey. No, Jagr will just be seeking out a comfortable situation for himself, and Vegas is most certainly able to provide that. Jagr's also notoriously a hard worker, so McPhee would welcome that attitude in the dressing of his relatively young roster.
19 LW 2 : David Perron
Onto the second line now, we kick it off with veteran winger David Perron. Although he’s been fairly offensively inconsistent throughout his NHL career, Perron has shown signs that he can be relied upon to produce on a second line. There was his 28-goal, 57 point season he had in Edmonton in 2013-14, and he’s reached the 20-goal plateau two other times before that.
That said, which David Perron will the Golden Knights get? For every strong season the Sherbrooke, Quebec native has had, he’s had an equally disappointing one. He’s also had a bit of a history battling concussion issues, so that’s another thing to keep an eye on in 2017-18. Nonetheless, Perron was a good bet for McPhee, as he adds a feisty veteran who can score points at a second-line pace (378 points in 652 career games so far).
18 C 2: Jonathan Marchessault
The best-kept secret of the 2016 offseason was Jonathan Marchessault. He signed with the Florida Panthers as a free agent on July 1 last year, and the Panthers were rewarded with what was the least expensive (non-ELC) 30-goal season last year. There is one more season left on the deal Marchessault signed that pays him a measly $700,000.
Reasonable fans probably don’t expect another 30-goal campaign from the centerman, but even if he drops down to 20 this is a heck of a deal for the Golden Knights. It’s tough to say if 2016-17 was just a one-off for Marchessault or a legitimate breakout season, but the shot metrics are on his side. He had a positive Corsi rating, and fired nearly 200 shots on net last season.
17 RW 2: Reilly Smith
Rounding out the second line we have another Panthers outcast in Reilly Smith. Florida sent the winger to Vegas in exchange for a 2018 fourth round pick in what was cited as a salary dump from Florida’s perspective. The contract (five years @ $5M AAV) Smith is about to start hasn’t actually kicked in yet, as it was signed last offseason when Smith still had a year left on his previous deal.
Much like Perron (his counterpart on the second line in my hypothetical lineup), Smith has been somewhat inconsistent offensively thus far in his young career. His season point totals have see-sawed over the past four years, going from 51 to 40 to 50 to 37. Those first and third year-long totals are great for a second line winger, but the second and fourth year totals are getting pretty close to third-line production levels. Which Smith will the Golden Knights get?
16 LW 3: Erik Haula
The Minnesota Wild are deep throughout the roster, so they were obviously going to lose a good player to the Golden Knights in expansion. They ended up losing pending RFA Erik Haula, and they’ve already signed the winger to a three-year extension at the price of $2.75M per year. On my Vegas depth chart, I have him lining up on the left side of the third line.
Judging by his ice time and level of production, that’s about where he slotted into Minnesota’s lineup, so it’s a spot Haula would be comfortable with. A guy like Haula can play on any team’s third line and probably have at least some level of success, which speaks volumes of the depth Vegas already has up front. Despite lacking high-end talent, this group of forwards won’t get beat every night.
15 C 3: William Karlsson
A handful of players in Columbus had breakout seasons in 2016-17, and one of the quieter breakout performances was from 24-year-old Swede William Karlsson. The centerman notched 25 points in 81 games playing what was largely a fourth line role, but in my hypothetical opening day lineup for Vegas he centers a third line that is made up of skilled players.
What can the Golden Knights expect from Karlsson? It’s tough to say if Karlsson is still growing as a player or if he’s ready to plateau, but the good news for Vegas is that it is fine either way. The guy I have slotted into the fourth line C position has proven capable of taking on third line duties in the past, so if Karlsson stagnates you simply swap them.
14 RW 3: Mikhail Grabovski
Mikhail Grabovski is heading into the final year of a contract that pays him $5M per season, which means he’s tied with James Neal as the highest paid forward who will skate with Vegas next year, unless they sign a UFA (*cough-Radulov-cough*) before then. Grabovski has lost a step to be sure, but he’s still a responsible veteran who can easily handle third line duty for the Golden Knights.
He’ll be the mentor of this third line, as at 33 years old he’s much older than linemates Karlsson and Haula. I could see this being a pretty sneaky line, and all three of these players have proven to be solid defensively. Old schoolers will say that this is a crappy third line because there isn’t enough “grit” or “sandpaper,” but I prefer my third lines to be able to contribute on the scoresheet somewhat regularly.
13 LW 4: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
When you think of quintessential NHL fourth liners, you think of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (well, at least you do since Paul Bissonnette got spit out the bottom of the league). Bellemare has been with the Flyers since 2014-15, which is when the winger decided to make the move to the NHL from Europe. He’s one of just 11 French-born players to play hockey in the world’s best league, and has already played the fourth most games.
His offense is pretty low, even for a fourth line player, but not all 12 of your skaters have to produce offense, and Bellemare played a key role on Philly’s penalty kill last season, with more SH TOI/game than any other Flyers forward. I expect the Golden Knights to use Bellemare in a similar role.
12 C 4: Cody Eakin
The Vegas Golden Knights were able to nab veteran center Cody Eakin from the Dallas Stars, and I have him starting off as the club’s fourth-line pivot. Eakin had a rough 2016-17 from an offensive standpoint, registering just three goals and 12 points in 60 games. Prior to last season, though, Eakin had three consecutive years of point totals ranging from 35 to 40.
Whether or not he can bounce back remains to be seen, but at just 26-years-old there should be a lot left in the tank for Eakin. Slotting him in as the fourth line center means that the Golden Knights don’t necessarily need to count on a bounce back though; if Eakin stagnates, this is where he stays. If he bounces back (last season’s 3.7 Sh% leads one to believe he might), then up the batting order he goes.
11 RW 4: Reid Duke
I did consider gifting this spot to Cody Glass, the 18-year-old the Golden Knights picked up 6th overall at the Entry Draft in late June; however, I like to err on the side of caution and let guys develop at their own pace. Glass is also a centerman, so starting him out on the wing would be a questionable choice and could stunt his growth at such a young age.
Ergo, I decided to go not with the VGK’s first ever draft pick, but rather with their first ever signing in Reid Duke for the fourth line RW slot. Duke is a WHL veteran, having recently completed his seventh (!!!) season in that league. He’ll be turning pro come 2017-18, and I think he’ll have a good chance at cracking the opening night roster.
10 Extra Forwards: Teemu Pulkkinen/Oscar Lindberg
Yes, both Teemu Pulkkinen and Oscar Lindberg (currently RFAs) have the experience to find themselves in the VGK opening night lineup, but Duke is McPhee’s guy here and I’d imagine he’d be more inclined to give him a chance over Pulkkinen or Lindberg. Both Pulkkinen and Lindberg are already 25 and have yet to establish themselves as full-time NHL players.
Neither player will be waiver exempt, so I could see Vegas starting with them in the press box opening night. Ho9wever, when injuries hit (or a depth played comes out of the gate slow), these guys can easily slide into bottom six duty and the Golden Knights wouldn’t suffer much, if at all. Pulkkinen has been a golden prospect for a while, and he’s particularly a player who may eventually get the hang of the NHL.
9 LD 1: Jason Garrison
While the Golden Knights loaded up on D at their expansion draft, they really weren’t able to snag a true top-pairing defender, and that’s probably the most glaring weakness on this roster. Veteran Jason Garrison, who has already become one of the faces of the franchise, will likely play the left side on the Golden Knights’ top unit on Oct. 6.
There’s no question that Garrison is much better suited to a second-pairing role, but Vegas doesn’t currently have the luxury of shifting him down to his proper spot. What’s interesting is that, despite the abundance of NHL defensemen on the roster, the Golden Knights don’t have a single D-man under contract for 2018-19. This defense corps could look a lot different in one year’s time than it does today.
8 RD 1: Colin Miller
Colin Miller was an important selection for Vegas simply based on the fact that he’s a right-shot. Of the 11 defensemen currently on the Golden Knights’ roster, Miller is indeed the sole right-handed shooter, which basically makes him the de-facto top-pairing RHD for Vegas. That’s not to say other players on this roster would be more deserving, because Miller has shown quite well so far in his young career.
After the protection lists were released by the NHL prior to the draft, I had a few conversations with Bruins fans I'm acquainted with. They were actually quite displeased, because they seemed to think that GM Don Sweeney chose to protect the wrong Miller (Kevan instead of Colin). I don’t watch Boston religiously, but that’s tough to argue with; they have almost identical stats, but Colin is five years younger than Kevan.
7 LD 2: Alexei Emelin
Update: Alexei Emelin has been traded to the Nashville Predators for a 3rd round pick in 2018
I suspect Vegas is trying to move Alexei Emelin, but I also suspect that the market for him is a lot cooler than they had anticipated it would have been. Emelin had a trough campaign last season, which does not help his 2017 offseason trade value. Unless Vegas is willing to sell low on Emelin (I’m not saying they aren’t, by the way), he’ll be a Golden Knight on Oct. 6.
Emelin was tracking well to become a solid second-pairing defender in the NHL, but his play has regressed since a solid 2014-15 campaign, and quite honestly he hasn’t shown that he’s ready to take that next step just yet. At 31 years old you wonder if he’s already started his natural regression, but either way he’s not a huge burden to Vegas, as his contract expires in 2018.
6 RD 2: Brayden McNabb
Brayden McNabb is perhaps a slightly underrated defenseman, which will happen when you play behind Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez in L.A. The Kings would have probably liked to protect McNabb, but that simply wasn’t in the cards and the Vegas Golden Knights capitalized by snatching up Mcnabb.
While it’s possible his D partner Emelin is playing above his head in this situation, I’d say that McNabb should find himself comfortable in this role. The only X-factor that remains to be seen is if McNabb has the ability to play on his off-side as well as he does on his right-side. McNabb spent most of his time in L.A. on the left side, so perhaps Emelin will be patrolling the right if McNabb struggles with the adjustment.
5 LD 3: Shea Theodore
While I have no doubt that Shea Theodore is already the best defenseman on this team, I still have him starting out on the third pairing. Look, this defense corps lacks high-end talent, and I foresee the Golden Knights giving up a fair bit of goals in its first season in the league. Shea Theodore will have just turned 22 once the season is underway, and the talented prospect is still learning the NHL game.
A bottom pairing, protected role is the best way for a young defender to ease into things in the NHL, and I expect McPhee and head coach Gerard Gallant know this. One way to likely stunt Theodore’s development would be to play him over his heads too soon, and if he starts on the top-pair in Vegas that’s exactly what the Golden Knights would be doing to him.
4 RD 3: Nate Schmidt
The Washington Capitals are another team with an incredibly deep roster, and they lost an improving 25-year-old defenseman in Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights. Schmidt played a third-pairing role on a very strong Capitals blue line last season, and he did so rather admirably, playing about 15.5 minutes a night and finishing with a stellar plus-22 rating.
With Schmidt paired with Theodore, I’d say that this is a pretty decent third pair for Vegas. Perhaps this is their best pairing, but I’d still advice against throwing these guys to the wolves in season one. It’s likely that two or three of the top-four are going to be dealt for picks and prospects at the deadline, at which point then I’d say it’s safe to slide Schmidt/Theodore into a more substantial role.
3 7th D: Deryk Engelland
If there ever was a poster boy for the seventh defenseman role, it would be Deryk Engelland. The 35-year-old recently signed a one-year pact with the Golden Knights, shortly after being selected by the expansion club off the Calgary Flames’ roster. Engelland was in and out of the Calgary lineup last season, often with a clean bill of health, and I’d expect something similar for him in Vegas in 2017-18.
Engelland is the only Golden Knight who is under a 35+ contract, meaning that he can’t be bought out (a non-issue because of the one-year pact) and that there are bonuses built in, so it’s possible he costs the Golden Knights $2M against the cap, total. Interestingly enough, Engelland has lived in Vegas during the offseason for 12 years now, as that’s where he met his wife and started his family. He was probably ecstatic to have been picked by the Golden Knights, and perhaps even requested it.
2 Starter: Marc-Andre Fleury
Marc-Andre Fleury currently represents the highest cap hit on the roster, and for good reason. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion, fresh off his most recent win just weeks ago. If it were a good idea for any team to name their goalie captain (it’s not), Fleury would be named captain of the Golden Knights tomorrow.
With only Calvin Pickard and J.F Berube in the crease behind him, Fleury will look to start somewhere in the ballpark of 55-60 games next season. The French-Canadian netminder was notoriously popular among his teammates, and he held his head high during the last two seasons as Matt Murray slowly stole his job in what must have been an extremely difficult scenario. He’s the first face of the Golden Knights.
1 Backup: Calvin Pickard
Despite his abysmal record last season with the impotent Colorado Avalanche, Calvin Pickard was a decent choice for Vegas. Yeah, he didn’t win much after having to step into the starter's role last season thanks to a Semyon Varlamov injury, but he also had very little help. The Avalanche only managed to score 166 goals last season, which was last in the league by 16 markers.
While his .904 save percentage is well below league average for last season, let’s remember that he was facing an unusually high number of “grade A” chances. He was also thrust into the starter’s role without warning, starting 48 games last season. With a reduced role and likely a better team in front of him than he had in Denver (sorry, Colorado fans), he will be a sufficient backup for the expansion club.