New Golden Knights GM faces big opportunities, challenges

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The Vegas Golden Knights announced a passing of the torch on Thursday, as Kelly McCrimmon becomes GM, while George McPhee is no longer GM, but sticks around as president of hockey operations.

It’s a move that echoes Steve Yzerman giving way to Julien BriseBois in Tampa Bay: like the Lightning with BriseBois, the Golden Knights didn’t want to lose a respected executive in McCrimmon. There are also parallels in the job McCrimmon is transitioning into. Much like the Lightning, the Golden Knights boast a talent-rich roster, and while Vegas features some Lightning-like bargains, the bottom line is that a cap crunch hovers over all of that luxurious skill.

Let’s take a look at the road ahead for McCrimmon, McPhee, and the Golden Knights.

Flipping assets for that hair flip?

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After an out-of-nowhere 43-goal, 78-point breakthrough in 2017-18, William Karlsson needed a new contract last summer. The two sides settled on something of a one-year “prove it” deal for 2018-19, and while he didn’t sustain the unsustainable 23.4 shooting percentage from 2017-18, Karlsson confirmed that his ascension wasn’t a mere mirage.

Now Karlsson finds himself as an RFA once again at age 26, and paying up for his next contract is the pivot point for the Golden Knights’ off-season.

With Mark Stone‘s (clearly justifiable) $9.6 million cap hit set to kick in starting next season, and the Golden Knights’ well-stocked with other legitimate talents, Vegas is in a congested situation even before you factor in whatever dollar amount Karlsson will command. A glance at Cap Friendly gives the impression that Vegas is less than $700K under the ceiling, and maybe some final details might tweak that, the bigger picture is that this is a challenging situation.

Here are a few players who could get moved out to accommodate this situation. I’m leaving out plenty of names such as Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Nate Schmidt for a simple reason: they’re all on manageable, if not outright bargain contracts, and so I’d think McCrimmon would be making huge errors in moving any of them out.

  • Cody Eakin, 27, $3.85M cap hit expires after 2019-20: No, this isn’t because the major penalty he was whistled for that turned that unforgettable Game 7 on its head.

Instead, it’s simple math. The Golden Knights have a plethora of forwards, and Eakin’s pricey for a depth player, which is how he’d fall in the lineup under basically all circumstances.

  • Erik Haula, 28, $2.75M through 2019-20: His pretty scary injury wrecked his 2018-19 campaign after his 29-goal breakthrough the year before. This would be more about dumping salary than any indictment on Haula, and Vegas would be unlikely to get fair value in such a trade. That might have to do it if teams don’t bite on other trade possibilities, though.
  • Ryan Reaves, 32, $2.775M through 2019-20: Yes, he’s an entertaining quote and menacing presence, but it’s not quite ideal to spend nearly $3M on an enforcer in the modern NHL. Not when every dime counts. Really, the Golden Knights could save big money and force Gerard Gallant to put more talent on the ice.
  • Colin Miller, 26, $3.875M through 2021-22: If I were an opportunistic opposing GM, I’d circle Miller like a (not necessarily San Jose) Shark. He’s a good, useful player on a reasonable deal, but with Miller occasionally landing in Gallant’s doghouse, he could be almost $4M used in a less optimal way. Plenty of teams need RHD, and could get a nice gem if they pounce. And if, frankly, McCrimmon makes a mistake.

There are other possibilities (Brayden McNabb maybe?) but those are generally the most feasible salary dump options in trades, with different players appealing to different mindsets.

Supporting cast calls

Remarkably, Vegas already has a strong core, for the most part. They face some noteworthy decisions around those key players, though.

There are some free agents to consider. Is Deryk Engelland going to retire, and if not, would the veteran take a team-friendly deal to stay with Vegas? Brandon Pirri deserves an NHL gig somewhere, but would he be lost in the shuffle in Vegas’ deep offense? Can the Golden Knights retain surprisingly effective fourth-line Pierre-Edouard Bellemare?

Alongside the aging pieces, you have intriguing talent looking to make a dent. Vegas must determine if Cody Glass is ready for the big time, as he could provide cheap production on a rookie deal. What will they do with Nikita Gusev and Jimmy Schuldt, who spent last season in the KHL and NCAA respectively, and need new deals?

Some of these situations are tricky, yet it’s plausible that Vegas could end up with enviable depth if they make the right moves (and get some good luck).

Beyond the flower

And, personally, I think McCrimmon really needs to take a long look at the team’s future in net.

Considering this cap crunch, it’s probably best to stick with Malcolm Subban on another short deal. He’s an RFA, and as The Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes (sub required), the team seems to think he still has potential.

As a former first-rounder (24th overall in 2012), Subban’s potential may still be bandied about for years. Yet, at 25, there needs to be more real production to go with all of the theoreticals and hypotheticals.

Instead of spelling an aging Marc-Andre Fleury with regularity, thus keeping “The Flower” fresh for the spring and summer when the games matter the most, Gallant has been reluctant to start Subban, whose career save percentage is a middling .903 in 45 regular-season games.

Part of that might be attributed to Gallant’s tendency to lean heavily on his starters, yet it’s also easy to see why Gallant is reluctant to go with other options: those other options haven’t been very appealing. Fleury is 34, and you could argue “an old 34” with 940 games (regular season plus playoffs) under his belt, so this is an area the Golden Knights can’t neglect for much longer.

(Really, it’s one they probably should have been more aggressive to address already; it’s a little surprising they never pushed harder to land someone who ended up claimed on waivers like Curtis McElhinney, among other options.)

***

This is a challenging situation, no doubt. There are potential bumps in the road, especially if the aging curve hits “MAF” hard.

Yet the upside is also huge. If you saw the Golden Knights once they added Mark Stone, you’d likely agree that this team could be a viable contender, rather than a Cinderella story.

It’s up to McCrimmon to add volumes to this tale, rather than allowing cap concerns to slam that book shut.

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.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.