On Wednesday, my second favorite time of the hockey calendar (after the playoffs) gets underway. Free agency is when NHL general managers make big splashes, big trades, or play it a bit more conservative.
The Vegas Golden Knights bowed out of the third round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs after being dominated by the Montreal Canadiens. It wasn’t that the Canadiens were the better team, but that the Golden Knights underperformed. But the question is why? They iced one of the best offensive lineups in the league with Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch. On defense, they were even scarier, with Shea Theodore, Alex Pietrangelo, veteran Alec Martinez, and sensational rookies Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud. And, don’t get me started on the goaltending.
With all this talent, why did they bow out when the Stanley Cup was in the cards all season? As I mentioned above, some believe it was because of the underwhelming play of their stars, while others have suggested that the goaltending situation was confusing, which I also understand. However, what it really came down to was their lack of depth on the bottom lines.
The only players who came alive in the Montreal series were William Carrier, Nic Roy, and Alec Martinez. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played well, too, but I’m more focused on Vegas’ skaters. So, given their lack of depth when they needed it, who should the Golden Knights go after in free agency?
Blake Coleman – Center – 29 Years Old
In the last two seasons, the Texas native was arguably one of the best Lightning players on a stacked Tampa Bay squad. Coleman grew into the prototypical third-line “Energizer Bunny,” who brought a bundle of speed and intensity to the third line.
He is a Swiss Army knife; he’s able to score (beautiful goals at that), kill penalties, play defense, and he even lays the body better than anyone else in the playoffs. Coleman’s stat line in the 2021 Playoffs was a thing of beauty for a bottom-six forward, with three goals and eight assists in 23 games, as well as a plus-5 rating.
Throughout the series against Montreal, one key factor I noticed that was severely hindering the Golden Knights was the lack of energy from the bottom-line forwards. Although the top-two lines didn’t contribute as they should, the bottom-two lines were there to inject some energy into the games, and ultimately, they failed at doing that.
Vegas thought they had their third-line center of the future when they acquired Mattias Janmark at the trade deadline last season. Although he had his flashes of brilliance, Janmark did not contribute the way Golden Knights management thought he would. There’s no use crying over spilled milk, so the best thing Vegas can do to rectify their third-line center situation is to sign Coleman.
In the Montreal series, Vegas looked dejected and sluggish. Coleman might have been a difference-maker. He checks off all the boxes: he’s quick, he’s a playmaker, a scorer, can effectively lay the body, implements a team-first attitude, and can be positioned anywhere in the lineup. He even possesses lineup versatility, as he can easily be placed on the wing to beat opposing defensemen to the outside.
Even better, he comes with a cheap price tag and a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree. Coleman’s last contract was worth an average annual value of $1.8 million. Given his role and the flat salary cap for next season, I don’t see him being paid more than $2.75-$3 million AAV this off-season. Signing him makes sense from head to toe.
Travis Hamonic – Defense – 30 Years Old
With Vegas having just signed key playoff performer Alec Martinez to a deal worth around $15 million total, it seems they are slowly building up their defensive core for next season. The contract is well earned for the sturdy defenseman, who was a solid addition by the Golden Knights in February of 2020. Although the Golden Knights now have the defenseman locked up for another three years, it shouldn’t stop them from exploring other depth options on the free-agent market.
That is where Travis Hamonic comes into play. The 30-year-old Saint-Malo, Alberta native, is coming off a stint with the Vancouver Canucks, and although the team severely underperformed, Hamonic was one of the lone bright spots on the struggling squad from western Canada.
Over 38 games, the mobile, puck-moving defenseman registered three goals and seven assists, good for 10 points. As far as his plus/minus rating goes, Hamonic was only a minus-3, which is pretty excellent considering the Canucks were in the top 10 of teams with the highest goals allowed last season.
Hamonic would be a great and cheap addition to this Golden Knights squad. His last contract with the Canucks had an average annual value worth $1.25 million, and seeing as there will be a flat salary cap once again this season, Hamonic may just choose to come to a contender like Vegas for something around the $1 million range.
His vision, puck-moving abilities, and physicality would all be key assets to the Golden Knights’ bottom defensive pairings. Even if he doesn’t suit up for every game, he is still a great piece to have come playoff time when teams thrive through their depth.
Erik Haula – Center – 30 Years Old
Heading down memory lane, here is a former Golden Knight who may be what the team needs to exorcise their bottom-line demons. Erik Haula was a member of the inaugural squad in 2017-18. The center from Finland also enjoyed quite a season with 55 points in 76 games, his highest point total in his career so far.
He was traded 15 games into the 2018-19 season and has since bounced around a couple of teams. I’ve written at length about why signing Haula makes so much sense, but I’m hoping the third time’s the charm and that the hockey gods finally hear me.
This deal makes so much sense from a hockey and business perspective. Haula can easily slot into the Golden Knights’ third-line center role and be a contributing factor. His familiarity with the organization might reinvigorate his career and raise his game. Haula also comes at a cheap price, somewhere in the range of $1-$1.5 million AAV. The team can afford that, and he would provide the depth they need.
Other Notable Names
Vegas should also consider Corey Perry, who would bring leadership and grit to the team, Brandon Montour, who is a young and hungry defenseman looking to prove himself as he heads into the prime of his career. And finally, Alex Galchenyuk, who enjoyed an impressive stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.
Who do you think the Golden Knights should go after in free agency? With only so much cap space to work with, it should make for an interesting couple of weeks.
Michael Vidakis is a Montreal native who writes for the Vegas Golden Knights team here at The Hockey Writers. In his spare time, he enjoys the finer things in life such as Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, staring aimlessly outside windows and tangerines.