Golden Knights have big decisions to make after Karlsson extension

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The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the teams that are going to be hit the hardest by the lower-than-expected salary cap ceiling for the 2019-20 season.

As of Sunday the team has, quite literally, zero salary cap space and is reportedly on the verge of signing restricted free agent William Karlsson to a long-term contract extension this upcoming week. According to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, Karlsson’s new contract is going to be a max-term eight-year contract, with TSN’s Bob McKenzie adding that the salary cap hit will come in at “a shade under” $6 million per season. That is yet another hefty contract handed out by the Golden Knights, something that they have done pretty regularly over their first two years in the league.

In a vacuum, Karlsson’s extension seems pretty fair.

The eight-year term is significant, but he is still only 26 years old and isn’t likely to fall off a cliff in his production for several years. The cap hit is also probably significantly less than he could get on the open market, which is probably a tradeoff with the longer term.

He is probably never going repeat his improbable 40-goal season from two years ago, but he showed this past season that he can still be an excellent all-around player. There is a lot of value in a possession-driving, 25-goal, 55-point forward (assuming Karlsson is able to maintain that sort of production).

Once Karlsson’s deal becomes official, the Golden Knights will have six players signed through the end of the 2024 season. That group doesn’t include the long-term contracts recently signed by Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Given that the Golden Knights will still need to fill out three more roster spots even after making the Karlsson contract official the salary cap situation means that somebody, somewhere on the roster, is going to have to go.

That means first-year general manager Kelly McCrimmon is going to have some major decisions to make over the next couple of months.

It is probably a safe assumption that Fleury, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch are fairly secure with their spots in the organization because they are pretty clearly the foundation of the team. Fleury and Marchessault have been from day one, while Stone just signed a massive contract extension following his acquisition from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline. Tuch is still only 22 years old and is on a contract that looks like it could be a steal for the team.

After that, all bets should be off.

Max Pacioretty could be an option and would shed $7 million per year after the team’s cap number, but that would be a complicated deal to make work and justify. Not only does Pacioretty have some control over where he goes (he had a modified no-trade clause) but trading him after just one season would be a tough pill to swallow given the sequence of events and the price they had to pay to get him. The Golden Knights traded Tomas Tatar (after trading three draft picks, including a 2018 first-rounder) and a top prospect in Nick Suzuki to get Pacioretty and then immediately signed him to a new long-term contract that, technically speaking, has not even started yet.

It is also doubtful they would be able to come out ahead by trading him given that he will be 31 this season, carries a pretty big cap hit, and is not the goal-scorer he was during his prime. Are you going to get back anything close to what you gave up for him just one year ago?

He had a fine year in 2018-19 when he was healthy, but his days of pushing the 40-goal mark are probably in the rear-view mirror.

Sticking with potential top-line players to be on the move, Paul Stastny and Reilly Smith both count more than $5 million against the cap, but like Pacioretty also have some control over where they go with limited no-trade clauses. The other issue is that Pacioretty and Stastny were great together on a line, and Vegas probably doesn’t want to break that up (nor should it).

After that you get into the depth players. Erik Haula, Cody Eakin, and Ryan Reaves all count more than $2 million against the cap and while all have proven to be quality depth players, none of them are irreplaceable.

Defender Colin Miller is another player whose name has been mentioned in trade speculation, but his cap hit is relatively small and he has been a pretty big part of an underrated defense.

No matter who goes, and whether it is a significant core player or a bunch of smaller depth players, the Golden Knights are set to be one of the busiest and most active teams in the league in the coming days and weeks. They really have no other choice.

Related: Pressure ratchets up on cap-strapped teams

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.