Well, this wasn’t exactly how things were expected to go. If you would have asked George McPhee and his staff in Vegas what the goal was for the 2017-18 NHL season, they would have answered with two simple words – “Stanley Cup.” Still, if anybody actually believed that the Golden Knights would be legitimate playoff contenders in their first season, they’d be in the vast minority. Still, here we are five games into the Golden Knights season and the NHL’s newest franchise owns a 4-1-0 record and sit in second place in the Western Conference. How impressive is that? Well, the Golden Knights are only the third team in the history of the NHL to win four of their first five games – a feat that hasn’t been done in over 90 years.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) October 16, 2017
It’s early. Nobody should be booking their flights to see the Golden Knights in the postseason just yet. But still, it’s worth at least exploring the fact that the team has a plethora of players signed to contracts with only one year remaining. The best of that group, however, is undoubtedly veteran forward James Neal.
Debuting at 21 years old with the Dallas Stars back in 2008-09, Neal made his mark right away as a rookie scoring 24 goals and 37 points in 77 games. He has continued to produce with consistency in every single season of his career as well, scoring over 20 goals in every single season (including 21 in 40 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) and he’s eclipsed the 30-goal mark twice, including a 40-goal season in 2011-12. Now 30 years old, Neal is starting the season white-hot with six goals through the first five games of the season including at least one goal in each of the Golden Knight’s first four games.
Neal is an Ideal Trade Deadline Candidate
Heading into the season, Neal seemed like an obvious candidate to be moved at the trade deadline to a team looking for a veteran goal-scorer. It made all the sense in the world as the Golden Knights were expected to be close to the bottom of the league standings and looking for additional prospects and draft capital to build the foundation of the future upon. While it’s way too early to assume the Golden Knights will be contenders by the time February (and the trade deadline) roll around, it’s never too early to discuss what the team should do with Neal if the situation should arise.
A good goal scorer is always in demand in the NHL. In an era where goal scoring appears to be down, a player like Neal will be a hot commodity for a team looking to win a Stanley Cup this season. Players who have accomplished much less and who perform much worse than Neal does have been acquired for hefty price tags in the past, and Neal could fetch a very good return for Vegas if that ends up being the route they decide to travel. But the question remains: if the Golden Knights are still in the playoff hunt by the deadline, do they even consider moving Neal?
A Variety of Possible Outcomes
It’s a good problem to have for McPhee and the Golden Knights. On the one hand, they could keep Neal as their own form of a rental and look to make a strong push for the playoffs in their inaugural season. It would be a good reward for their newly-formed fanbase and could prove to the millions of people who live in Nevada that the team is serious about building a contender from the get-go. On the other hand, however, the team could keep Neal and miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round and then risk losing him for nothing.
There’s also the distinct possibility that Neal wants to sign an extension with the Golden Knights, which creates a whole new problem altogether. The team could sign Neal to an extension, but do they want to commit a lot of money and years to a player on the wrong side of 30 rather than getting valuable assets in return for him? Given Neal’s consistency, it’s hard to bet against him at this point. Still, it’s a tale as old as time – long-term contracts to players can come back to bite teams down the line. Making things even more complicated is the fact that Neal isn’t the only player who could find himself on another team following this 2017-18 season.
The team is currently looking at 11 pending unrestricted free agents and 13 restricted free agents on their roster and in their system. That’s a lot of uncertainty moving forward. Even if the team makes the playoffs this season, there’s no guarantee they’ll look anything even close to the same next season, which means keeping Neal could be a gamble the Golden Knights just won’t want to take.
Too Early to Tell
Again, it’s so early in the season that it’s almost impossible to make heads or tails of the situation. For now, the Golden Knights will aim their focus on earning a playoff spot. If they’re in the race by the deadline, they’ll have achieved their goal in just their first season in the league. Anything after that – including personnel and trade deadline decisions, will be considered when that time arises. Neal is obviously a valuable trade chip, but as an instant fan-favorite in Sin City and a possible candidate for captaincy one day, it’s hard to imagine the team parting ways with him given how both he and the club have performed thus far.
Brandon Share-Cohen has covered the NHL and various professional sports for six years. Working with The Hockey Writers, Brandon works extensively on covering the Boston Bruins in addition to his role as the News Team Lead.