When the Vegas Golden Knights had their expansion draft, they were not expecting this much success early on. A number of players are still on the team three seasons later, and they have turned a number of their assets into core pieces.
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With their franchise players locked up long term, they have a few bottom-six skaters that are restricted and unrestricted free agents this summer. While these guys won’t get the big bucks, they still deserved to get paid. We’ll go over who is a free agent and if they should stay or go. Up first are the forwards.
Ever since Ryan Reaves was acquired by the Golden Knights prior to the NHL Trade Deadline in 2018, he has been a fan favorite. They were looking to add some toughness to their lineup for a playoff run after having the best inaugural season ever. The team lacked someone who would get in an opponent’s face and protect their smaller, skilled players so he stepped right in.
Reaves was coming in as an unrestricted free agent, but with the success the team experienced with him, he was ultimately re-signed to a two-year extension that summer. Now that current deal is about to expire and the 33-year-old doesn’t have a lot of tread left on those tires.
He could leave and sign another two or three year deal for financial security with a team willing to pay for toughness, or stay in Vegas on a cheap deal and start thinking about life after hockey. He loves the city and has already started his own brewery in the desert, 7Five Brewing.
Prediction: Re-signs for one year, $2.5 million.
Much like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare last season, the Golden Knights won’t have the ability to match anything Nosek gets on the open market. Claimed from the Detroit Red Wings in the expansion draft, Nosek has been a staple on the team’s penalty during his three seasons with the club.
The team has a number of youngsters itching to be called up and make the team on a full-time basis. Players like Nic Roy, Cody Glass, and Lucas Elvenes have the ability to step into a contributing role next season and do it on cheap contracts.
Prediction: Signs with another team.
Stephenson was a player President of Hockey Operations George McPhee drafted in Washington while he was general manager of Washington Capitals. He never got the opportunity to realize his full potential in DC and the Golden Knights acquired him early in the season for a fifth-round pick in 2021.
He has fit in extremely well in Vegas, playing up in the lineup when Paul Stastny and William Karlsson were hurt or in an energy role on the third and fourth lines. He will be a restricted free agent (RFA) so the Golden Knights will have the upper hand in the negotiations so he will most likely get re-signed to a short term deal.
Prediction: Re-signs for two years, $4 million.
Even though it may seem like there could be a personal problem as this is his fourth team in four seasons and three in his last two, Cousins is a valuable player on the ice. The 26-year-old was on pace to set a career-high in goals and points before the season was put on ice (or off it). Like Stephenson, he will be an RFA, but with over 300 NHL games under his belt he will be looking for something longer than a one-year deal.
Prediction: Re-signs for one year, $1 million, walking him to unrestricted free agency.
After being a part of 32 transactions for the Golden Knights this season (being called up from the AHL and sent down), Roy’s entry-level contract is coming to an end. During his recalls, he filled in admirably for a number of injured players, giving general manager Kelly McCrimmon the ability to trade Cody Eakin knowing he had a replacement.
Roy will be the team’s fourth-line center next season as his qualifying offer will come in at under a million dollars, saving the team cap space to spend on a few of their other free agents.
Prediction: Re-signs for two years, $2.5 million.
Merrill is one of two defensemen that are free agents at the end of the season. But when Nick Holden signed an extension during the season and with Zach Whitecloud re-upping as well, the writing is on the wall for the Oklahoma native. Claimed in the expansion draft from the New Jersey Devils, he has suited up for 140 games in a Golden Knights sweater but looks to dawn a different one next season.
Prediction: Signs with another team.
Engelland has been the leader of this franchise since it’s inception. From the time he spent with the Las Vegas Wranglers in the ECHL, to the speech he gave to the crowd pre-game after the Route 91 tragedy, he will be a part of the organization for as long as he wants.
With the defensive depth they have in the system and the team re-signing Holden and Whitecloud already, it looks like Engelland could have played his last game in the NHL.
Perhaps the biggest trade deadline acquisition for the Golden Knights this season was Lehner. He has hinted at wanting to test the free-agent market again this summer so the Chicago Blackhawks said goodbye. He told John Dietz of the Daily Herald,
I’ve taken discounts my whole life. I’m not a guy that wants to be overpaid either.From ‘Blackhawks’ Lehner Like Chicago, But Won’t Take a Discount to Stay Here’ Daily Herald 01/10/2020
Even if it takes a little extra, management needs to try and keep the Swedish netminder.
In his three starts for the club, he is 3-0 with a goals-against average of 1.67 and a save percentage of .940 with one shutout. But the biggest reason they need to re-sign him is to limit Marc-Andre Fleury’s workload. He is now closer to 40 than 30 and has been susceptible to injuries since he has arrived in Vegas.
While Lehner would like to be in control of the crease, the most successful teams run a tandem in net. They have a de facto number one, but their back up is good enough to play 35 games during the season so his partner can stay healthy for a long playoff run.
The Golden Knights could get creative with a deal as they have $10.5 million coming off the books in the summer of 2021, so he would have to be willing to sign a contract that pays him more on the backend of the deal versus front-loading the agreement, but that is one way they could sign him long term.
Prediction: Re-signs for five years, $30 million.
With my predicted numbers, that means management will have to trade a current player or two to fit under the projected salary cap for next season, much like they had to do last offseason. A player like Paul Stastny could easily be moved as he will be a free agent in 2021 and would still bring value to a team for his veteran presence and face-off abilities.
Even though the big guys have their deals in place, this is still a big summer for Vegas. A number of role players are up for a new contract and it is time they move on from some of them as they have young players battling in the minors to move up that will come in on cheaper contracts.