Golden Knights can still land Erik Karlsson after Pacioretty trade

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By trading for Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights management declared that this team is for real. So why stop there?

The Golden Knights have prominently factored into Erik Karlsson trade rumors stretching back to last season’s deadline, and while extensions to Pacioretty and Marc-Andre Fleury could make it tougher to continue adding pieces, they could make things work with Karlsson. Especially for next season, but not just exclusively so.

Cap Friendly estimates the Golden Knights’ cap space at $9.438 million, and the situation is actually cozier than that, as David Clarkson‘s $5.25M is almost certain to go to LTIR … assuming his contract remains on the books. That brings us to a point: Golden Knights GM George McPhee (or VGKGMGM) has a lot of tools to make a Karlsson trade happen, even after giving up Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki, and a second-round pick to land Patches.

[Read about the Pacioretty trade, plus his extension]

Let’s examine the factors that could serve as catalysts for a trade:

A different timeframe

Credit the Golden Knights for displaying the agility to zig and zag with their contrasting opportunities. It’s a message to rebuilding teams: if you can pile up an absolute treasure trove of draft assets, you can set yourself up handsomely in two very different ways: 1) by keeping the picks, thus giving you a ton of “dart throws” to land gems or 2) you can package those picks for the Pacioretties (plural for Pacioretty, obviously) and Karlssons of the world, if the opportunity strikes and makes sense.

A stunning trip to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is one reason why it makes sense – OK, the best reason, let’s be honest – but not the only one.

The Golden Knights managed to lock up significant prime-age players to term, as 27-year-old wingers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith will see their contracts (both at a team-friendly $5M cap hit) extend into their thirties. Pacioretty will turn 30 shortly after his reasonable-enough four-year extension kicks in to start 2019-20. Paul Stastny is 32 and set to begin a three-year deal, while MAF’s already 33 and under contract through 2021-22 (for better or worse).

We can spend days debating the merits of going all-in after a hot streak, as Vegas is risking doing just that, even after showing some restraint in letting James Neal and David Perron walk.

The bottom line is that Vegas’ outlook is different now, so they might as well go big with this shorter window.

Still plenty of picks/futures to move

Despite only being in existence for two offseasons (and lacking a first-round pick for 2018), the Golden Knights have managed to accrue some nice assets. Before the Suzuki trade, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked Vegas’ farm system eighth overall [sub required], with Suzuki ranking as their fourth-best prospect.

So, if Vegas deemed it worthwhile, they could still trade a prospect, with Cody Glass ranking as the headliner.

The notion that they still have some gems in their system must be comforting for McPhee, who apparently worried about Filip Forsberg parallels after moving Suzuki (another mid-first-rounder moved not very long after that player was drafted by McPhee).

Plenty of people were quick to lampoon the Golden Knights for all the draft picks they’ve traded away lately, as the Tatar trade cost them a first, second, and third, while Pacioretty cost them a second and Suzuki.

That’s fair, yet it’s crucial to remember that Vegas absolutely hoarded picks heading into the expansion draft.

Via Cap Friendly’s listings, the Golden Knights have:

2019: their original picks aside from a seventh-rounder, two additional third-round picks, and one additional fifth-rounder. (Nine picks overall.)

2020: Their seven original picks, plus two more second-rounders. (Nine overall.)

2021: Six of their seven own picks, only missing a third-rounder. (Six picks overall.)

Vegas could send Ottawa a package of merely its excess picks (two thirds, a fifth in 2019, two seconds in 2020) and do well enough for Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to reference it as a win in another deeply strange video. The Golden Knights could also make a mix of players, prospects, and picks that could conceivably land Karlsson without totally mortgaging their future.

[Highlights from Melnyk’s odd video.]

Contracts that could move, and possibly cancel out some of Ryan’s cost

The Senators’ cash troubles are painfully apparent, to the point that Melnyk’s outdated jersey almost feels symbolic.

With that in mind, it could be crucial for Vegas to find a way to absorb one of Ottawa’s roughest contracts in Bobby Ryan ($7.25M cap hit through 2021-22) or Marian Gaborik ($4.875M through 2020-21). The Golden Knights likely realize that, from a sheer salary standpoint, they’d be doing Ottawa the biggest favor if they took on Ryan, and Clarkson’s salary structure would be highly appealing to penny pinchers.

Consider the year-by-year breakdown (cap hits in parentheses):

Ryan (7.25) Gaborik ($4.875) Clarkson ($5.25) Ryan – DC Gaborik – DC
2018-19 $7.5 $4.575 $4.75 $2.75 -$0.1750
2019-20 $7.5 $3.175 $3.25 $4.25 -$0.0750
2020-21 $7.5 $3.075 n/a $7.5 $3.0750
2021-22 $7.5 n/a n/a $7.5
Savings: Ryan—> $22
Savings: Gabby-> $2.8250

So, overall, the Golden Knights would save Melnyk $22M in total salary (ignoring the potential 2020-21 lockout) over four years if Clarkson’s deal was exchanged for Ryan’s contract, including $2.75M this season. Gaborik’s salary is actually a bit higher than Clarkson’s during the next two seasons, yet Gabby’s deal is more expensive because it lasts for one additional season. (If Melnyk is penciling in a lockout of any kind, it would negate some of the advantage of a Clarkson – Gaborik swap. It would also negate happy thoughts.)

If the Senators truly demand moving salary in a Karlsson deal, then a Clarkson – Ryan swap would be a huge selling point, and one would assume Vegas pointed this out before.

Managing the Ryan cap hit would be a considerable challenge, assuming his wrist/hand issues wouldn’t also plop him on the LTIR at some point during his career. Ottawa is only retaining Dion Phaneuf‘s salary, so perhaps Vegas could convince Ottawa to eat a bit of that egregious Ryan money?

The Golden Knights could also mix in a smaller, mid-level contract or two to make things work.

Cody Eakin makes a $3.85M cap hit and salary for two more seasons, and he’s a solid player at 27. Erik Haula‘s also 27, and a fantastic value at $2.75M per year through 2019-20 (fantastic enough that Vegas would probably not want to give him up). Ryan Reaves is making slightly more than Haula during the same two seasons, and Ottawa might be so bad that fights become the main attraction some nights, which would make Reaves that much more valuable.

There are also some depth defensemen who could conceivably be part of a deal, such as Nick Holden, Deryk Engelland, and Jon Merrill.

***

All things considered, the Golden Knights have a lot of ammo – and incentive – to get an Erik Karlsson trade done.

The sheer array of variables likely explains why this process is taking so long, and not just when Vegas has been involved.

How much value does Vegas place on Karlsson agreeing to an extension? Will Ottawa drastically reduce its asking price if the Golden Knights take on Ryan’s enormous contract? These are questions that loom over the process.

The bottom line is that Karlsson is absolutely world-class, particularly right now, and the Golden Knights boast the sort of cap space, prospects, and picks to make something happen. After adding Pacioretty, it might be a flat-out disappointment if they don’t trade for the Senators’ star.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.