Wednesday marked the opening of free agency, a period in which much of the NHL is adding pieces that they hope will help improve their stock for the upcoming season. But the biggest move made by the Vegas Golden Knights was trading top-line winger Max Pacioretty and depth defenseman-turned-forward Dylan Coghlan to the Carolina Hurricanes for, well, nothing.
I know, I know. The Golden Knights are hardly the only team facing the squeeze of the $82.5 million salary cap, and financially-mindful decisions governed the day, even as money and term were being flung in seemingly every direction. But that doesn’t change the fact that Vegas got worse on a day when so many other teams got better.
We’ve seen already seen some of the added cap flexibility afforded by unloading Pacioretty’s $7 million salary put to good use (more on that later), and perhaps the Kelly McCrimmon-led front office will continue to make smart, sensible additions to flesh out a still-talented roster. Still, it’s hard not to view Pacioretty as another casualty of the Jack Eichel trade and the club’s continued tendencies toward undisciplined spending.
Pacioretty is Now Part of the Cost of Eichel
Causality is never perfectly straightforward when it comes to the building of a roster and how certain decisions come to impact others, but there’s a pretty clear line to be found between the acquisition of Eichel and his annual eight-figure cap hit and the ensuing cap crisis that has now claimed Pacioretty.
The above tweet highlights the true cost of adding Eichel, not to mention laying out how much pressure there is on the 25-year-old (and McCrimmon, for that matter) to deliver on the organization’s risky acquisition.
Pacioretty led the Golden Knights in scoring as recently as the 2019-20 season, Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs offered instant production and promise in Buffalo last season after coming over in the Eichel blockbuster, and Coghlan would’ve offered valuable depth in Vegas this year. Had the Golden Knights selected Noah Östlund, taken with the No. 16 pick, he’d likely already rank among the top organizational prospects.
Over the past 12 months, Vegas has made three trades in which they’ve unloaded established NHL talent without getting any assets back. Then-reigning Vezina winner Marc-André Fleury was moved out last July for low-level prospect Mikael Hakkarainen, whose contract was terminated weeks later. Last month, Evgenii Dadonov was sent to Montreal for Shea Weber, who will likely never suit up again. Now, Pacioretty is gone – and the Golden Knights still find themselves pushing the upper limits of the cap.
Was Pacioretty an Asset?
The departure of Pacioretty is probably easier to stomach if you consider him an aging, injury-prone liability eating up $7 million worth of cap space, but that perception simply doesn’t align with reality. The 33-year-old played in less than half of the team’s games last season, but he produced when healthy, recording 19 goals and 37 points in just 39 games.
The fascinating thing about the Golden Knights’ deal with Carolina is how neutral an asset Pacioretty seems to be. The Hurricanes must surely be excited by the scoring and leadership he can still offer, but the injury risk and cap hit meant they weren’t prepared to part with significant assets to get a deal done. Instead, the inclusion of Coghlan acted as a slight sweetener to ensure everything went through (Fleury, meanwhile, was practically a completely neutral asset).
That doesn’t mean the Connecticut native will be easy to replace in Vegas, mind you. Even with the re-signing of Reilly Smith being made official, there’s a hole in the top-six with dreams of a vaunted Eichel-Pacioretty-Mark Stone super-line having been dashed. Perhaps the newly acquired Kontinental Hockey League star and Finnish Olympic gold medalist Sakari Manninen will get a shot to join one of the team’s top lines.
Vegas’ Other Wednesday Moves
With Pacioretty’s contract off the books, once the trade went through, it did free up the Golden Knights to get to work on fleshing out their own roster. On top of reportedly adding Manninen and making Smith’s return official, the club retained Brett Howden on a one-year, $1.5 million deal and extended Jonas Røndbjerg for the next three years at an average annual value of $766K.
Vegas also bolstered their depth chart with what they hope are value additions. They added to their forward corps by signing Sheldon Rempal and Byron Froese to identical two-year, $1.525 million two-way contracts and added veteran netminder Michael Hutchinson to a one-year contract worth $750K. All have previous experience in the league and can step into the lineup in the event of injuries.
The sunny outlook on the Golden Knights right now is that this is a strong group of forwards that will be led by a healthy Eichel and Stone and backed by a loaded blue line and solid netminder in Robin Lehner. But after a day that saw yet another impact player depart with no return coming the other way, it’s admittedly a tough time to see that sunny outlook. Can Eichel prove himself to be worth it?