As more details of the 2017 Expansion Draft are released, we are able to speculate more accurately as to what the team might look like when it all shakes out. It was announced last month that Las Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee will have the ability to talk to pending UFAs as well as unprotected RFAs in the 48 hours leading up to their selection deadline.
You can tell Gary Bettman and co. don’t want this expansion team to be a dud, as the rules this time around are much more punishing to the 30 other NHL teams than they were back in the last round of expansion drafts (1998 to 2000). The expansion teams didn’t have the right to talk to free agents (officially) beforehand as Vegas is now, and the existing NHL teams were able to protect more players.
We can’t guarantee who will be wearing a Las Vegas Golden Knights jersey come June, but we can take some guesses at which pending free agents they’ll be eyeing up over the course of the next six months or so. Today’s article features a list of players who quite possibly could end up in Las Vegas for the start of the 2016-17 season:
15 Steve Mason
Obviously, the Las Vegas franchise will need a goaltender, and the chances of getting a legitimate starter in the expansion draft are fairly low. After all, why would a team protect their backup over their starter anyway? Flyers goalie Steve Mason is a pending UFA, and the way Philly tends to cycle through goalies it seems doubtful he’ll be a Flyer again next season.
Mason could be a good bet for the Golden Knights, as he’s shown to be capable of starting duties in the past, albeit intermittently. He’s pretty comfortable in a 1A/1B role, and realistically that’s a system Vegas will likely employ in its first season in the NHL. Mason could be an affordable option as well, as I don’t see many other teams in the league competing too hard for his services.
14 Michael Stone
I’ll admit that it would be a small disaster for the Coyotes if they lost Michael Stone at this point, but the young rearguard is a pending UFA and Arizona has shown in the past that they
don’t like to can't afford to pay players. As such, I could see Las Vegas taking a run at Stone in their 48 hour free agency window prior to the official selection of their team.
Stone got off to a slow start in 2016-17, having sustained an injury in training camp. He’s just now getting up to speed, and head coach Dave Tippett is starting to use him more frequently. If it were up to Tippett I’m sure Stone would remain a Coyote, but as we mentioned, it’s possible the purse strings tighten and Arizona is forced to let Stone walk, creating an opportunity for Vegas.
13 Jonathan Bernier
There are ultimately three goaltenders who appear on this list, and the second to appear is Jonathan Bernier. Of course the Las Vegas Golden Knights won’t be signing all three of these goalies, but I’d say there’s a good chance they sign at least one. Bernier would be a solid bet, as he’s a potentially inexpensive option who can hold down a 1B role quite capably.
The 28-year-old veteran of over 220 games is battling the younger John Gibson for playing time this season. Gibson has somewhat struggled out of the gate this year, and head coach Randy Carlyle has been turning to Bernier more often than he probably initially planned. Nonetheless, Gibson is the goalie of the future in Anaheim so Bernier could very possibly be a Golden Knight next season.
12 Karl Alzner
Karl Alzner is one of the best pending UFAs out there. The veteran Capital is playing in his ninth NHL season already at 28 years old, and he’s pretty much in the prime of his career. Washington has some decisions to make here in the next year or so, as they have a handful of players coming off contracts who've earned raises.
When you crunch the numbers, it’s pretty clear that the Capitals aren’t going to retain their entire crop of players on expiring contracts while also remaining cap compliant. Alzner will get a raise on his current $2.8 million cap hit, and if he signs with Vegas he would get the opportunity to man the top unit there. It could be an ideal situation for both parties.
11 Dwight King
Whether you agree with this line of thinking or not, general managers tend to highly value players who have been part of a winning squad in the past. Dwight King played a depth role on the two championship L.A. Kings teams in 2012 and 2014. King is 27 years old and is on a contract that comes with a $1.9 million cap hit.
King won’t garner a huge raise on that hit, but it’s still unlikely that L.A. retains his services beyond 2016-17. They have too many cap concerns on the horizon, and they have some assets already in the system that could play King’s role at about half of the expected salary. King could look to get a slightly larger role on the expansion Golden Knights, so it makes sense from his end as well.
10 Alexander Radulov
Alexander Radulov doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who would want to start from scratch on an expansion team, but if Vegas sees him as worth the $5.75 million he’s getting paid this season, he could be in a Golden Knights jersey next year. Money talks, and Vegas will have some room to play with that could attract some of these UFAs.
Radulov is having a stellar year to be sure, clipping along at just under a point-per-game pace. It’s unlikely he’ll sustain it for the duration of the year, but Montreal will need to clear cap space to re-sign Alex Galchenyuk, so signing Radulov again might not be in the cards for them. Radulov is a legitimate first line talent and that's hard to come by for expansion teams.
9 Ben Bishop
The writing is on the wall for Ben Bishop in Tampa, as he’s currently sharing time with the much younger Andrei Vasilevskiy and only one of them is under contract for next season… it’s not Bishop. Bishop is currently 30 years old and, and with the cap troubles heading Tampa’s way there is little doubt that Bishop will wear a different jersey in 2016-17.
The possibility remains that Bishop is traded before the deadline and extended by the team that acquires him, but I doubt GM Steve Yzerman is keen on the prospect of putting all that weight on Vasilevskiy’s shoulders for the time being. Also, if he gets rid of Bishop, that crease goes from deep to thin pretty quick, which isn't an attractive scenario for a contender.
8 Drew Stafford
At 31 years old, Drew Stafford has one more mid-term contract in him that could come at a decent price point. He’s a journeyman winger who has put up reliable 2nd/3rd line numbers throughout his career, so needless to say he’d be an attractive option for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights. Stafford has put up 382 points in 677 games played.
If he signs in Vegas, there’s a good chance he’d be given the opportunity of being the first-line right winger for the Golden Knights. He’s not likely to get that opportunity in Winnipeg—or anywhere else, for that matter—ever again in his career. If I’m Drew Stafford and the Golden Knights came calling, I know that I’d be interested. Being an expansion team, Vegas can't be too picky with their top six.
7 T.J. Oshie
T.J. Oshie is an American hero because he’s pretty good in the shootout (LOL), so Las Vegas will obviously be interested in acquiring the services of the winger. In all seriousness, though, Oshie IS a good hockey player, and if Las Vegas is able to convince the 29-year-old to set up shop in the desert, he’d be one of the best players on the team.
If that’s something Oshie wants to experience, then I could definitely see him signing on to play in Las Vegas. One thing that the Golden Knights has going for it is the city in which it’s located; that’s not to say Oshie (or anyone else, mind you) would pick a playing destination based on the nightlife, but I’d definitely rather play in Las Vegas than, say, Columbus. No offense intended.
6 Mike Fisher
Yes, I know Mike Fisher is captain of the Predators, and he’s serving his first season in the role. Nonetheless, he is on an expiring contract and the Las Vegas Golden Knights will be looking for a leader to take the reins for their first few seasons, which will likely be difficult. Now, with Fisher in the twilight and still cup-less, he may not want anything to do with this. He's still searching for his first Stanley Cup.
On the other hand… his wife Carrie Underwood could probably do just as well in Vegas as she does in Nashville, and they would be a pretty high-profile couple to move to Vegas because of the hockey team. You can bet Las Vegas would be all over this idea, simply from a PR perspective. Whether or not Fisher would be interested could be what stops it from becoming reality, but the causal progression is there.
5 Cody Franson
If you take a look across the NHL, a key ingredient for most successful teams is offense from the blue line. Yes, the first priority for defenders is of course to defend, but if you don’t have guys chipping in from the back end that puts a lot of pressure on your forwards to score lots. Cody Franson has some offensive abilities, and he’s on an expiring contract in Buffalo this season.
Franson has proven he can help the puck into the net in the past, as he notched 29 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and scored 32 in just 55 games in 2014-15. Power-play quarterbacks are hard to come by, and Franson could have an opportunity to find himself on the Golden Knights’ top unit should he choose to sign in the desert.
4 Dmitry Kulikov
Another current Buffalo Sabres defenseman appears here on our list at number four. Dmitry Kulikov is now all of a sudden 26 years old, and it’s safe to say he hasn’t developed into the defenseman he was once projected to be. As such, some teams might underrate him simply based on the fact that he was expected to be more.
Nonetheless, Kulikov is still a solid NHL player. On top of that, some defensemen develop by sundial, so it’s possible that Kulikov has another step to take yet. Las Vegas will be signing a few sure things and a few wait-and-sees, and I think it’s fair to say Kulikov tows the line between those distinctions. It's not exactly the best summer for free agency so Vegas will have to settle.
3 Nick Bonino
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford looked pretty smart last season for his offseason acquisition of Nick Bonino. It’s not so much for what he accomplished during the regular season, as his 29 points in 63 games played were underwhelming, if anything. However, when the playoffs rolled around and Bonino posted 18 points on his way to a Stanley Cup Championship, it was all worth it and then some.
Like most good teams, the Pens won’t be able to retain all of their current talent beyond their present contracts thanks to the salary cap. Bonino could become a casualty of this, especially if he has a strong season followed by another very strong playoff. The Pens won’t be able to afford much of a raise for him, and right now he’s only a $1.9M cap hit so he’s earned a bump for sure.
2 Patrick Sharp
Las Vegas will need to have a good mix of veteran leadership and young players/prospects, and Patrick Sharp would be a great addition in the former category. Sharp is 34 years old and has surely lost a step, but when you’re that good at hockey you can stand to lose a step and still be one of the better players on an expansion team.
If Sharp can be convinced to sign in Vegas for, say, three years, then I could see him setting up shop in Sin City for the twilight of his career. Why not? He’s won Cups so it’s not like he still needs to check that box. He could be the franchise’s first captain if he goes to Vegas, and he’d be an ambassador for the team.
1 Kevin Shattenkirk
If Las Vegas is to throw a boatload of money at a player, that player will almost certainly be Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk is an elite offensive defenseman in the league, and he’s having another grand season, already pushing the 20 point mark just 25 games into the year. Shattenkirk will earn a fat contract, one that St. Louis simply can’t afford.
So, the only question that remains is: will Shattenkirk want to sign in Las Vegas? Surely McPhee and co. will be gunning hard for the rearguard, so it might just be up to Shattenkirk and his agent. Does the defenseman value winning over money? And if so, does he see Vegas as a possible winner at any point during a possible long term contract?
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