The Vegas Golden Knights’ roster is a guessing game right now, and will remain that way until the expansion draft on June 21.
As of today, it is pretty much impossible to predict which players will be available — especially in terms of skaters, both forwards and defencemen.
Granted it can be narrowed down through CapFriendly.com’s expansion draft tool — which allows armchair general managers to create their own protected lists and decide who to expose — but, in reality, those lists will differ greatly when the time comes due to the anticipated “redistribution of players.”
That is the phrase Golden Knights GM George McPhee has coined in referencing a trading frenzy among the 30 other teams, who will be shuffling the deck before the expansion draft in a last-minute attempt to avoid losing quality players to Vegas.
Mocks May Be Misleading
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) December 15, 2016
Take my recent mock draft, for example. I projected a handful of key losses that won’t likely come to fruition in Anaheim’s Jakob Silfverberg, Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund, Ottawa’s Curtis Lazar, Winnipeg’s Joel Armia, and Ryan Pulock of the Islanders. Tampa Bay’s Vladislav Namestnikov and Pittsburgh’s Derrick Pouliot probably fit that bill too, as players who appear likely to be exposed based on the current protection lists but could very well be off limits with a little wheeling and dealing between now and then.
Those seven players could, theoretically, comprise almost a third of the Golden Knights’ roster for next season — as my mock suggested — but Vegas fans best not hold their breath on any of them actually joining the fold.
Goaltenders a Different Story
However, when it comes to goalies, the Golden Knights’ options seem to be a bit clearer already, with every team limited to protecting only one netminder.
Looking around the league, most those decisions have presumably been made by now.
Let’s assume the following 14 goaltenders are all locks to be protected:
Montreal — Carey Price (No-Movement Clause)
Chicago — Corey Crawford (NMC)
N.Y. Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist (NMC)
Columbus — Sergei Bobrovsky (NMC)
Nashville — Pekka Rinne (NMC)
Edmonton — Cam Talbot (NMC)
Minnesota — Devan Dubnyk
Washington — Braden Holtby
Boston — Tuukka Rask
New Jersey — Cory Schneider
Anaheim — John Gibson
San Jose — Martin Jones
St. Louis — Jake Allen
Los Angeles — Jonathan Quick
And let’s assume these seven are near-locks as well:
Philadelphia — Steve Mason
Detroit — Petr Mrazek
Toronto — Frederik Andersen
Buffalo — Robin Lehner
Ottawa — Craig Anderson
Winnipeg — Connor Hellebuyck
Carolina — Cam Ward
If that holds true, it would only leave these nine teams with somewhat iffy situations:
Pittsburgh — Plans to protect Matt Murray but Marc-Andre Fleury has a no-move clause that will need to be waived to facilitate a trade or expose the veteran. Push comes to shove, the Penguins probably buy out Fleury in advance of the expansion draft, but it shouldn’t come to that.
Tampa Bay — Andrei Vasilevskiy is the goalie of the future here, while Ben Bishop is a pending unrestricted free agent who wouldn’t need to be protected. Seems like a no-brainer unless the Lightning extend Bishop in the meantime, but he’s probably priced himself out of Tampa.
Vancouver — Jacob Markstrom is likely the man, with Ryan Miller another pending UFA. But the Canucks keep starting Miller over Markstrom and have hinted at a possible extension, so maybe this isn’t a lock just yet.
Colorado — Semyon Valarmov is almost certainly the keeper, but the Avalanche are going to be rebuilding and Calvin Pickard could be a younger complement to that core going forward.
Florida — Roberto Luongo would be a lock in a lot of minds, but he’s not getting any younger and the Panthers did sign James Reimer to a lengthy contract this past summer. Luongo remains the starter for now, but stranger things have happened in Florida lately.
Arizona — Mike Smith is the starter but has a big contract that Vegas probably wouldn’t touch, so the Coyotes might protect Louis Domingue instead.
N.Y. Islanders — Jaroslav Halak is the veteran but seems to be falling out of favour in Brooklyn and could be purposely exposed as a result. Thomas Greiss is a pending UFA and doesn’t need to be protected, so the other option would be third-stringer Jean-Francois Berube. The Islanders must be high on Berube if they are keeping him on the roster and not wanting to risk losing him to a waiver claim. They might not want to risk losing Berube to the expansion draft either.
Dallas — Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are a coin flip that will likely be determined over the second half of the season.
Calgary — Chad Johnson and Brian Elliott are both pending UFAs, so the Flames may or may not extend one of them before the expansion draft.
Vegas will be scouting all sorts of goalies this season while also keeping close tabs on Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
If the Golden Knights are prioritizing goaltending as a key position, which I assume they will be, then a couple scenarios could play out.
Vegas could potentially convince Fleury to waive his no-movement clause and either draft him or trade for him in advance of the draft.
Vegas could target Bishop instead and sign him during its 48-hour negotiation window with free agents prior to the draft. In that case, Bishop would count as the Golden Knights’ pick from Tampa Bay.
Of course, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay could also find a way to trade Fleury and Bishop elsewhere to take Vegas out of the equation.
Failing that, there is a slight chance that another proven No. 1 netminder like Varlamov or Luongo could be exposed for the taking. Halak and Smith seem more likely under those circumstances. Those four, along with either of the Dallas goalies, are starter material.
Markstrom is another long-shot, but Miller could be signed in the negotiation window. At least one of Calgary’s goalies, if not both, will likely be available for contract talks too.
Combined, that’s a dozen options right there — and the best of the bunch — although most of them aren’t really being discussed with regards to the Golden Knights right now. Maybe they should be given more consideration.
Instead, most of the focus for Vegas goalies has been on this next grouping.
The three names that keep showing up in mocks — including my own — as potential Golden Knights’ starters are Reimer, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth. Pickard, Washington backup Philipp Grubauer and Domingue have received their share of attention too. The Rangers’ Antti Raanta is also playing his way into the conversation, while Boston’s Malcolm Subban seems to be the odds-on favourite among prospects.
The majority of mocks have two or three of those eight names forming the goaltending depth chart for the Golden Knights coming out of the expansion draft. That is entirely possible, but those aforementioned 12 shouldn’t be discounted. I wouldn’t rule out any of these 20 names just yet, and I would suspect they are all on the Golden Knights’ radar.
Delving deeper into the talent pool, there is another level of backups who might be of mild interest to Vegas. That list includes Berube, Michael Hutchinson (Winnipeg), Carter Hutton (St. Louis), Eddie Lack (Carolina), Aaron Dell (San Jose) and Jeff Zatkoff (Los Angeles).
The Golden Knights are only allowed to pick one player per team for a total of 30 players, so depending on those positional selections, it is possible, albeit improbable, that one or more of these goalies could be Vegas bound. It would be scraping the bottom of the barrel if that were to be the case.
Other UFA Options
As mentioned, there is also that negotiation window and the following goalies are slated to become free agents after this season: Greiss, Darcy Kuemper (Minnesota), Scott Darling (Chicago), Peter Budaj (Los Angeles), Jonathan Bernier (Anaheim), Anders Nilsson (Buffalo), Keith Kinkaid (New Jersey), Mike Condon (Ottawa), Al Montoya (Montreal), Jonas Gustavsson (Edmonton), Jhonas Enroth (Toronto), Dustin Tokarski (Anaheim), Justin Peters (Arizona), Reto Berra (Florida), Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg) and Karri Ramo.
Some of them are intriguing — the first seven or so — but would Vegas “waste” a pick on any of them when the Golden Knights could simply wait until July 1 to sign free agents on the open market?
It makes sense to pursue Bishop in that fashion, and perhaps Miller as a veteran starter, but these guys aren’t of that calibre. Vegas would probably prefer to pick a forward or a defenceman from these teams, then circle back when free agency begins if there is still a void between the pipes.
More Prospect Options
Besides Subban, who has had his struggles in both the NHL and AHL to date, there will be no shortage of prospect types available and Vegas will probably pick at least two goalies on two-way contracts.
Here are 15 others for the Golden Knights to contemplate: Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg from Columbus, Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks from Toronto, Phoenix Copley and Jordan Binnington from St. Louis, Anthony Stolarz (Philadelphia), Linus Ullmark (Buffalo), Jared Coreau (Detroit), Laurent Brossoit (Edmonton), Maxime Lagace (Dallas), Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), Scott Wedgewood (New Jersey), Kristers Gudlevskis (Tampa Bay) and Sam Brittain (Florida).
Lots to like there, and if the Golden Knights do like some of those free-agent options, they could go prospect-heavy on goalies in the expansion draft. More food for thought.
Possible Scenario 1
ANALYSIS: This is how it played out in my mock. Reimer and Pickard seemed like a decent platoon, with Pickard pushing Reimer for playing time and Reimer mentoring Pickard towards becoming a starter. Their styles and personalities would seem to complement each other too, while Subban continues to develop his elite potential with Vegas’ AHL affiliate.
James Reimer just signed a 5-year deal for Las Vegas, right?
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) July 1, 2016
Possible Scenario 2
ANALYSIS: McPhee drafted both Neuvirth and Grubauer during his Washington tenure and their old goalie coach is already working for Vegas, so that familiarity could result in a reunion. They would be a 1A and 1B tandem, with Ullmark knocking on the door too in forming an all-European trio.
— SinBin.vegas (@SinBinVegas) August 10, 2016
Possible Scenario 3
ANALYSIS: All-American trio here, and potentially a really good one. These first three scenarios would seem the most realistic or plausible for Vegas.
Will Jimmy Howard be the Vegas Golden Knights' starting goalie next year? (Full jersey swap & half-half) pic.twitter.com/a6jsOmCGP1
— Noah Vandal (@Vandal_Designs) December 1, 2016
Possible Scenario 4
ANALYSIS: French-Canadian trio, with Fleury the clear starter. This scenario might motivate Fleury to waive his no-move clause, although he’d probably prefer to be joining the Quebec Nordiques.
Fleury will be the Vegas Golden Knights goalie. BET.
— Roy (@roychil) December 1, 2016
Possible Scenario 5
ANALYSIS: Bishop would be the workhorse, but Hutton has performed well in limited opportunities behind Rinne in Nashville and now Allen in St. Louis. Coreau is close to making the NHL jump and he’s almost as big as Bishop, so they could eventually form a formidable tandem.
Possible Scenario 6
ANALYSIS: All-Finnish trio, with nice upside. Lehtonen is used to working with a fellow Finland native in Niemi, so Raanta could continue that trend, while Korpisalo would provide nice insurance with Lehtonen a bit injury prone.
Lehtonen definitely showcased himself for Vegas tonight.
— hockey stan account (@StrictlyRandy) November 18, 2016
Possible Scenario 7
ANALYSIS: Another all-American foursome. Miller and Kinkaid would both be free-agent signings, so Vegas could afford to pick both Stolarz and Copley in the expansion draft.
Can't think of a better fit for Ryan Miller next year than Las Vegas. Closer to Tinseltown for wife Noureen DeWulf, and Miller can start.
— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) November 23, 2016
Possible Scenario 8
ANALYSIS: Reuniting Luongo and Lack from their Vancouver days, with that friendship still going strong today. Berube could learn a thing or two from Luongo — both being French Canadians — and challenge Lack for the backup role.
— Dana Lane (@DanaLaneSports) July 2, 2016
Possible Scenario 9
ANALYSIS: No history here, but it looks like a quality tandem, or trio for that matter. Varlamov and Greiss are established NHLers, and Forsberg isn’t far off.
Your starting goalie tonight for the Vegas Golden Knights, from Samara, Russia…Semyon Varlamov!#Saving5MillionPlusAYear
— Evil Mark Rycroft (@EvilMarkRycroft) November 23, 2016
Possible Scenario 10
ANALYSIS: Ditto here, with Halak the starter but Hutchinson a capable backup and Wedgewood a longer-term prospect.
Possible Scenario 11
ANALYSIS: Elliott and Bernier are both veteran free agents who could battle for the starting job, while Brossoit and Lagace could be the guys battling for that gig in the not-too-distant future.
Well I guess you can name Bernier the new Las Vegas Goaltender #Nhl
— Jeff Kwok (@jkwok97) July 8, 2016
Possible Scenario 12
ANALYSIS: Smith and Kuemper could be an effective duo, while Binnington is a nice prospect for the future.
So can the Golden Knights take Kuemper from us please???
— Frank Schwartz (@FrankSchwantes) November 30, 2016
Well, what do you think? How would you rank those scenarios? Which is the most likely scenario for Vegas? Or which is the least likely? Who would you be targeting as goalies for the Golden Knights?
— The Hockey Writers (@TheHockeyWriter) December 19, 2016
For more debate on the Golden Knights’ goaltending possibilities and all things Vegas, listen to our latest Facing Off podcast. The Vegas talk starts just before the 53-minute mark of Episode 6 and spans nearly a half hour.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.