Up to this point, most answers that Vegas Golden Knights general manager (GM) Kelly McCrimmon has provided to questions surrounding his team’s tight cap situation in the wake of the Jack Eichel trade have hinged on their present injury-related reprieve.
“That takes any immediate pressure off our salary cap,” McCrimmon said of Eichel’s neck surgery and long-term injury reserve (LTIR) status at the time of the trade. “You do have to ask yourself what happens when we return to full health, and yet sometimes you never return to full health. … If and when that poses a challenge for us, we’ll address it at that time.” (from ‘Blockbuster trade alters Golden Knights’ salary cap future’, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 11/04/18).
That luxury, if you want to call it that, is running out for the Vegas GM. Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and William Karlsson are all off of LTIR and back in the Golden Knights’ lineup. What happens next for the club, who seem to have snapped out of their early season doldrums but still have plenty of work to do, will loom large for McCrimmon. He has made a major gamble on Eichel, turning a long cap sheet into an almost impossible one, and now must show he’s got the next steps figured out.
Let’s look at some of the considerations that need to be made as the Vegas front office anticipates – for many reasons – Eichel’s return to health and eventual debut with the team.
How Long Can the Golden Knights Wait?
The latest reporting on Eichel’s post-surgery recovery has the door being kept at least a crack open for the 25-year-old to represent Team USA at the Olympics in February. Now, keep in mind how much of a long shot this is – even apart from Eichel getting the green light to play, the NHL’s participation in Beijing remains incredibly muddled at the moment. For the Golden Knights, however, that possibility signals a possible return to play within the next two months.
In that time, plenty could still change. It goes without saying that injuries could always rear their ugly head once again. No, that is not a wished for scenario by McCrimmon, but it would offer the GM a little more breathing room at a time when many of Vegas’ Pacific rivals are faltering and leaving the division wide open.
On the other hand, the club’s race against time is also a race against leverage. Its tight cap situation is known across the league, and as we get closer to the March 21 trade deadline, teams will presumably only raise their price in potentially unburdening the Golden Knights from some of their salary constraints. We may well have to consider subsequent cap compliance moves to come, and the assets required to facilitate them, as part of the total cost to land Eichel.
One Big Contract or Several Smaller Ones?
Assuming Vegas does ultimately have to make moves to accommodate Eichel’s $10 million contract on the books, McCrimmon and the front office will have to chart a path on how they want to do so. Do you minimize the loss of depth, especially after already trading away Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs, by dealing one larger contract (that is likely also an impactful player) or hold onto your top-end talent by trading a collection of salary-matching depth pieces?
Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo aren’t going anywhere, so the focus of any salary-easing deal falls on the likes of Max Pacioretty and Reilly Smith. Pacioretty has been on a tear since returning from a broken foot, but Vegas could gamble that another winger has the chance to be similarly productive to the former Montreal Canadien at a cap hit far below his $7 million. In the same vein, Smith is unlikely to be retained as a pending unrestricted free agent and could be deemed replaceable despite solid production to date.
If those players are deemed too valuable to jettison, then it stands to reason that barring any other means of alleviating the cap strain, plenty of depth will need to be sacrificed. A quick look at the Golden Knights’ salary picture shows Mattias Janmark, Brett Howden, Michael Amadio, Nicolas Roy, Keegan Kolesar and Adam Brooks all bound for restricted free agency this summer. Still, that’s a whopping six forwards to lose the services of – and even then the savings is under $6 million!
A Laurent Brossoit ($2.325 million) or William Carrier ($1.4 million) could be moved for slightly more cap savings, but both would leave significant holes. This goes to show just how difficult this exercise could ultimately get for McCrimmon and the front office. Unless…
Golden Knights Could Go the Skeleton Route
… They put the burden on the players, as they have in the past. Last season, rosters that fell well under the 23-player max were the norm, to the point where they actually dressed just 15 players for a late season tilt against the Colorado Avalanche.
The feasibility of this once again is an interesting question. On one hand, the cap constraints have only grown tighter with Eichel on board and we’ve already seen how complicated it would be to carve out significant space at this point. On the other hand, Vegas’ standing in the Pacific seems more tenuous than in prior seasons. Yes, they currently sit atop the division, but they remain just four points clear of a playoff spot with Edmonton, currently on the outside looking in, rounding back into form.
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The strategy of holding down the fort and waiting for playoff time, at which point there is no salary cap, is a viable and increasingly popular tactic. It’s also incredibly privileged. The Golden Knights have over 50 games remaining on their scheduled slate and being short-handed simply isn’t a sustainable long-term solution, particularly given that their No. 1 center will be roughly a year removed from his most recent NHL game when he returns to the ice.
With the league set to pause operations early heading into the holidays, McCrimmon will surely take some time to rest and visit with family. He’ll need the break, as things promise to get exciting, hectic and incredibly challenging once the schedule gets rolling again.
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I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.