Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP
Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 | 2 a.m.
It’s normally a July 1 feeding frenzy, but Oct. 9 will have to do. NHL free agency opens at 9 a.m. today, giving the Golden Knights and 30 other teams a chance to improve their rosters. Unlike past years, there was no window to talk to pending free agents, meaning anything can happen.
The Golden Knights solidified their future over the past week with extensions for Robin Lehner and Chandler Stephenson, but those came at a cost. As of this writing, Vegas is already over the salary cap.
According to CapFriendly, they have $84.3 million committed to next year’s roster. Teams are allowed to reach $89.65 million in the offseason, giving the Golden Knights some wiggle room to add, but they have to be under $81.5 million by training camp.
There are a few routes Vegas could take, most notably a trade of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He makes $7 million against the cap, and unloading even part of his contract would help put Vegas in cap-compliance. Deals for Paul Stastny ($6.5 million cap hit), Nate Schmidt ($5.95 million) and others have also been reported as possibilities.
The cap crunch the Golden Knights face is not unique to them. Teams weren’t expecting a flat $81.5 million salary cap when they worked last summer and at the trade deadline, forcing many teams into tough decisions. Choosing not to qualify restricted free agents and buyouts have made more players available than previously thought.
The Golden Knights will have the option of multiple players. We take a look at 10 potential matches.
Alex Pietrangelo, defenseman
This is the big one. The Golden Knights won’t be able to circle back around to the Blues captain later, so if they’re going to make a run at the biggest name on the market, they’ll have to pounce early and work their way down the list of remaining free agents later. Pietrangelo would be expensive, perhaps $9 million per season. He would also require all kinds of cap-juggling that could cost Vegas multiple veteran players to make it work, as we detailed last week. But there’s something to be said about star power, and if the Golden Knights have a chance to get Pietrangelo, every other move might just be worth it.
Nick Cousins, forward
Just because Vegas didn’t extend him a qualifying offer doesn’t mean the door is closed on a reunion. When the Golden Knights acquired him in February, there was little doubt they planned to keep him. But in a flat-cap world, Cousins was a casualty of not having enough space on the roster. The issue with bringing him back is that if the Golden Knights weren’t willing to give him a qualifying offer of $1 million, it’s worth wondering if he’d play for six figures. If he doesn’t find that million-plus on the open market, keep an eye on if he returns to Vegas.
Carl Soderberg, forward
With Cousins’ departure went some of their center depth. And with all the talk during the playoffs of the Golden Knights needing to get bigger and more in front of the net, enter Soderberg. The former Arizona center would fit on the Golden Knights’ third line while also establishing a net-front presence at 5-on-5 and on the second power-play unit. He turns 35 next week, and it’s never ideal to have two 35-year-olds manning your middle-six (Paul Stastny turns that age in December), but on a short-term contract, Soderberg could provide decent value if the Golden Knights can get him for less than the $4.75 million he made last season.
Patrick Maroon, forward
Another gritty big body in front of the net, Maroon has been part of the last two Stanley Cup winners with St. Louis and Tampa Bay. He played mostly on the fourth line, but still chipped in on the power play. If Soderberg is out of Vegas’ range, a younger, cheaper option is available. Maroon played last season on a one-year, $900,000 contract and if that’s his asking price he’ll have no shortage of suitors. Even if it’s higher, Vegas could consider it and would be an attractive destination with its Cup-contending roster and lack of state income tax that could differentiate it from other suitors.
Aaron Dell, goalie
Assuming that Fleury is indeed on his way out, the Golden Knights will need a backup to Robin Lehner. If it’s not Oscar Dansk, who has played just five games in his career, Vegas could grab one from free agency. Dell was the clear backup entering the season, but a combination of solid play and a struggling counterpart saw him start a career-high 30 games. He looked strong for stretches with the Sharks last season, including a 14-game stretch in the middle of the season where he posted a .924 save percentage. Considering the overload of goalies on the market this season, Vegas will have the opportunity to be patient and snatch a backup from the overcrowded pond. Remember Vegas coach Peter DeBoer was the only coach the fourth-year goalie had known before San Jose fired him. There could be a fit for a reunion in Vegas.
Alexander Wennberg, forward
It’s a name that wasn’t expected to be available, but a surprising buyout from Columbus put Wennberg on the market. He wasn’t living up to the $4.9 million cap hit he signed after a terrific 2016-17, but a change of scenery could help rejuvenate his career. He’s a terrific defender and penalty killer and could slide into the third center role, and potentially even second if he bounces back and Stastny is moved for cap reasons. He won’t make the $4.9 million on the open market and he won’t have any shortage of options, but it makes a lot of sense for Vegas to bring him in. It’s not often players like Wennberg, who is still 26 years old, become available in free agency.
Andreas Athanasiou, forward
Another player who wasn’t expected to be on the market, Athanasiou was acquired by Edmonton at the trade deadline, but not qualified an offer as a restricted free agent. Athanasiou struggled this season with just 26 points after a 30-goal, 54-point breakout in 2018-19. He was also a league worst minus-46 and say what you will about plus-minus as a stat, you never want to be at the bottom. Still, most of his struggles came with a historically bad Detroit team, and if he’s put on a team with a better system he could reclaim the magic of two years ago. He has blinding speed, and a third line of Athanasiou, Chandler Stephenson and Alex Tuch would be a terror on opposing bottom pairs trying to catch up to them. He made $3 million last season.
Kevin Shattenkirk, defenseman
The right side of Vegas’ defense is good as it is with Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Zach Whitecloud, but if the Golden Knights talked themselves into Pietrangelo, miss out, and still want to upgrade, Shattenkirk would be a fine option. He had a revitalized season in Tampa Bay after a buyout from the Rangers, and with those buyout checks still rolling in, could be had at a lesser cost than a comparable player. He’s a natural right-shot, and while he wouldn’t be worth trading Theodore or Schmidt for, his presence would allow either to shift to back to their natural left side. Brayden McNabb and Alec Martinez man the left side of the top-four so it might mean moving one of those two.
Erik Gustafsson, defenseman
The Golden Knights were connected to Gustafsson at the trade deadline before Chicago dealt him to Calgary, and it’s hard to ignore the flashy offensive potential. Two years ago he turned in a 17-goal, 60-point season that feels like a long time ago after a poor 2019-20. He has offensive talent but may be a liability defensively at this point in his career. Gustafsson’s best attribute is his ability to run a power play, but with Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Alec Martinez on the roster Vegas would need to get Gustafsson cheap in order to make giving him a shot worth it. Still, there’s value in running a power play well, and the Golden Knights could shield him from tough 5-on-5 assignments on the third pair.
Mattias Janmark, forward
A bit of an off-the-board choice, but he was quietly very good for the Stars last season. He was fourth among forwards in expected-goals percentage during the regular season and led Stars forwards by generating 57% of the high-danger scoring chances when he was on the ice (according to Natural Stat Trick). It didn’t translate to actual scoring with just 21 points, but the puck-possession prowess would play well in Vegas, a far-better possession team than Dallas. It wouldn’t be a flashy move, but the kind of sneaky signing that would boost the bottom-six.