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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?

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.

Golden Knights ready to turn page, look toward next season

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights’ second postseason didn’t last nearly as long as their first but general manager George McPhee said ”there will be no pity parties” after the way it ended, and the team is already looking forward to next year.

”We’re going to take the rearview mirror out and move forward and put a real good team on the ice next year and go compete again,” McPhee said Thursday during his season-ending news conference. ”This is a good team; it’s built for the long run.”

After losing in the Stanley Cup Final last postseason, the Golden Knights were eliminated from this year’s playoffs in the first round when the San Jose Sharks came back from a 3-1 series deficit and then erased Vegas’ 3-0 lead in Game 7. The Sharks got a boost when Vegas forward Cody Eakin was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for a cross-check to San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, who was knocked out after crashing to the ice. The Sharks scored four power-play goals and then won the game 5-4 in overtime.

”You always get better from losing like that,” coach Gerard Gallant said. ”It’s tough to swallow for the last couple of days. But today, I’m moving on. We move on, we’re not going to make excuses. We’re disappointed, definitely, because we had a real good hockey team, but I’m not disappointed in the way our hockey team played and competed all year and the playoffs.”

Vegas endured plenty of adversity during the regular season, overcoming a 20-game suspension for defenseman Nate Schmidt and a bevy of injuries, including to Alex Tuch, Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and a season-ending lower-body injury to Erik Haula.

”We talk about last year a lot being the perfect season, with no ups and downs; this year we had some,” Gallant said. ”This year we had to battle and compete and find a way to make the playoffs. As we know we got spoiled here pretty good two years in a row in the playoffs and going to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s not easy to make the playoffs.”

But with the acquisitions McPhee has orchestrated, the Golden Knights figure to be a major player in the Pacific Division next year.

The Golden Knights have potent scorers Stastny, Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, Mark Stone, Reilly Smith and Tuch locked up for several years, along with three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Other things to know as the Knights head into the offseason:

MARCHING ON: Marchessault was outspoken after the Game 7 loss about how the league needs to institute video replay for major penalties during the playoffs and had an expletive-laced tirade about the referees.

He offered no apologies Thursday for his outburst and said he was ready to move on.

”We’re at the point where it’s over with, it’s in the past, whatever happened is just going to make us stronger,” Marchessault said. ”We’ll be right up there again, like this year.”

KARLSSON FUTURE: The most crucial offseason decision will be whether forward William Karlsson signs long-term with the team. After scoring a career-high 43 goals and 78 points during the 2017-18 season, Karlsson and the team agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million contract. Now, after a significantly less productive season – 24 goals, 56 points – both camps will be pressed to determine his worth.

”We’ll get to work on it shortly and hopefully get it wrapped up,” McPhee said. ”He had a real good season, he’s a good player. We’d like him to sign long-term with us and we’ll get to work on it.”

Karlsson said he would prefer to sign long-term.

But with the additions of Pacioretty and Stastny prior to the season, and Stone at the trade deadline, the Golden Knights went from having plenty of room under the salary cap to having very little wiggle room.

EAKIN SPEAKS: Eakin spoke for the first time since the last game and was at times borderline emotional when discussing the Game 7 penalty.

”Everyone saw the play and knows what happened and we can’t think about it anymore, really,” he said. ”I think mistakes were made, but it’s a fast game, that kind of stuff happens and that’s all you can say about it.”

HAULA’S RETURN: Haula figured to be an integral part of Vegas’ forward depth until a lower-body injury ended his season just 15 games in. Haula had been seen wearing a knee brace at the practice facility, but McPhee said Thursday it wasn’t Haula’s ACL.

”It’s not something I wish on anybody, things can always be worse,” Haula said. ”You kind of reinvent the wheel when you’re out for that long. It’s kind of an interesting process. I never thought when it happened that I could even be on the ice. I was close to joining the team at practice and that was great.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Evander Kane loses cool as Sharks’ meltdown continues

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The San Jose Sharks are unraveling.

Not only has their biggest and most obvious flaw — goaltending — once again been exposed in their in Round 1 series against the Vegas Golden Knights, but the team has started to melt down in all phases and now has been pushed to the brink of elimination following an ugly 5-0 loss on Tuesday night.

The Golden Knights are now in complete control of the series with a 3-1 lead and seem to be just toying with the Sharks.

If the results weren’t bad enough, the Sharks completely lost their composure in the third period of Game 4, a development that was highlighted by an Evander Kane tantrum that resulted in him earning 14 penalty minutes and an early exit to the locker room.

After aggressively cross-checking Paul Stastny in the neutral zone, Kane delivered a sucker-punch to the face Colin Miller in the scrum that ensued.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Kane has made headlines in this series for his Game 3 fight with Golden Knights enforcer Ryan Reaves and then some trash talk through the media on Tuesday where he said, among other things, that he thought he was “fighting the muffin man” when he dropped the gloves with Reaves.

As Kane was being escorted to the locker room on Tuesday, the Vegas in-game entertainment crew played “The Muffin Man.”

Here is the entire sequence involving Kane on Tuesday.

Whether or not that punch is enough to earn a suspension remains to be seen, but it will almost certainly be looked at by the NHL Department of Player Safety.

The Sharks were already playing Tuesday without Joe Thornton after he was suspended for a hit to the head late in the Sharks’ Game 3 loss.

But the meltdown did not stop there.

With the Sharks already shorthanded late in the third period, Timo Meier earned a two-minute minor unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yelling at the officials from the bench.

As for the actual hockey, things were not much better.

Starting goalie Martin Jones gave up two early goals — including another in the first two minutes — on only seven shots and was benched after the first period. Backup Aaron Dell did not play any better, while the Sharks’ defense that is led by Norris Trophy winners Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns just looked bad at times. The former still does not look to be anywhere near 100 percent healthy.

Max Pacioretty had four points, including two goals, in the win for Vegas while Shea Theodore, Alex Tuch and Jonathan Marchessault also found the back of the net for a Golden Knights team that is having no problems feasting on the Sharks’ horrendous goaltending.

The series shifts back to San Jose on Thursday for Game 5 at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN where the Golden Knights will have a chance to move on.

More Sharks-Golden Knights:
Sharks lose Thornton for Game 4
Trash talk between Kane, Reaves almost as good as their fight

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.

Golden Knights could get playoff boost from KHL scoring leader Gusev

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The Vegas Golden Knights looked a little overwhelmed by the sheer talent of the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If only they had, say, the leading scorer from the KHL this season …

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Nikita Gusev’s agent J.P. Barry confirmed that the 26-year-old forward has been released from his contract from St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL. Dreger reports that this opens up Gusev to sign a one-year entry-level contract with the Golden Knights for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Gusev is expected to join the Golden Knights by this weekend.

Barring a change-up that would put Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann rushing to join the Penguins to shame, one would think that this weekend would exclude Game 2 on Friday night (10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream), but who knows about Game 3 on Sunday (10 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Live stream)?

Overall, it’s difficult to tell if Gusev can get into the mix by Round 1 in general … but we’ll see.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

On one hand, it’s easy to see why people would be excited about this development.

Gusev topped all KHL regular-season scorers with 82 points in 62 games; in fact, second place point producer and former NHL forward Nigel Dawes was pretty far behind with 69. Gusev also generated 19 points in 18 playoff games, the second best total. Gusev also won a gold medal with Russia during the 2018 Winter Olympics, scoring 12 points in six games.

Yes, KHL successes don’t always directly translate to NHL success, yet we’ve also seen Artemi Panarin and Alexander Radulov go from strong work overseas to dominant play in the NHL. One could picture Gusev combining with, say, Alex Tuch to form a pretty frightening third line — or at least one that might keep up with Joe Thornton‘s also-frightening third line for San Jose. For all we know, Gusev could be a difference-maker during Round 1, and maybe beyond.

On the other hand, for all of the successes the Golden Knights have had in their first two years, there are a few reminders that not every player integrates well into this mix.

Vadim Shipachyov and Gerard Gallant mixed like oil and water, as Slepyshev went from being a KHL scorer with fascinating potential to a disaster (and ultimately, a footnote). There isn’t just the worry of a bumpy ride from the KHL to the NHL. Gallant didn’t have much success with a newcomer in Tomas Tatar, who became a healthy scratch during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and then returned to being effective during the 2018-19 regular season with the Montreal Canadiens.

Gallant certainly wasn’t making any promises when asked about Gusev — in fact, he admitted that he doesn’t know much about the forward (or at least that’s what he said).

“I don’t know much about him, and George (McPhee) mentioned it today there’s some reports out there,” Gallant said on April 11, via David Schoen and Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If he joins us, then we’ll see what’s going to happen. But I don’t know the player well enough.”

Schoen confirmed Dreger’s report, and Barry’s additional comments make this sound like a work in progress:

It’s all a bit of a mystery, but hey, mysteries are fun, right?

For more on Friday’s Game 2 matchups, read The Wraparound.

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.

Sharks vs. Golden Knights: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Golden Knights used the 2018-19 NHL season to prove that their inaugural year, where they reached the Stanley Cup Final, wasn’t a fluke. The regular season wasn’t as successful at 2017-18 (a 16-point decrease), but they still finished third in the Pacific Division and strengthened their roster with the additions of Paul Stastny in free agency and Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone in separate trades.

It was a bumpier road to the playoffs this season, however. Vegas had five losing streaks of three games or more and saw an expected step back in offense, especially from William Karlsson, who went from 43 goals to 24. But the Stone acquisition gives the Golden Knights not only a formidable second line, but also a strong two-way presence.

Acquiring Erik Karlsson before the season was Sharks general manager Doug Wilson’s way of finding that “difference-maker” he sought for so long. Unfortunately for San Jose, injuries limited the blue liner to only 52 games, but he returned in the season finale and the hope is he’ll be 100% going forward.

Finishing second in the Pacific Division, the Sharks were led by four 30-goal scorers — Joe Pavelski (38), Tomas Hertl (35), Evander Kane (30) and Timo Meier (30)  — and Brent Burns, who was first in points in the team with 83. Their special teams were strong, as were their possession numbers. But the biggest flaw was the play of Martin Jones, who posted an .896 even strength save percentage and just hasn’t been the same netminder who helped lead them to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

It’s a rematch of Round 2 from 2018 where the Golden Knights advanced in six games. Can the Sharks exact a measure of revenge in 2019?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 10:30 p.m.: Golden Knights @ Sharks | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Friday, April 12, 10:30 p.m.: Golden Knights @ Sharks | NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
Sunday, April 14, 10 p.m.: Sharks @ Golden Knights | NBCSN, SN, SN360, TVA Sports
Tuesday, April 16, 10:30 p.m.: Sharks @ Golden Knights | NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
*Thursday, April 18, TBD: Golden Knights @ Sharks | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Sharks @ Golden Knights | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Golden Knights @ Sharks | TBD

FORWARDS

VEGAS: Once again, Vegas’ top line led the way as Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith were top-three on the team in scoring. But what’s made the Golden Knights even stronger was the creation of their second line, which features three players acquired since last season. Pacioretty, Stastny and Stone now gives head coach Gerard Gallant another line to roll out and cause havoc for opponents.

So two strong lines is worrisome enough for the Sharks, but the bottom six can also provide a challenge for San Jose. Cody Eakin (22 goals) and Alex Tuch (20 goals) lead a strong set of depth forwards that have the experience of last year’s Cup Final run and ability to chip in a timely goal when needed. Throw in Ryan Reaves, who scored two big goals for Vegas last postseason, after a career year offensively with nine goals and 20 points, and Peter DeBoer and his staff will have their work cut out for them.

SAN JOSE: The Sharks were tied for the second-highest scoring team in the NHL with 289 goals. Four players hit the 30-goal mark, four others reached at least 16. The addition of Gustav Nyquist (six goals in 19 games) at the trade deadline bolsters an already dangerous arsenal and strengthens a very good power play.

Like Vegas, San Jose can roll a dangerous top two lines and a third line featuring a now healthy Joe Thornton is still a creative genius on the ice. Beyond their biggest names, the Sharks have also been buyoed by the likes of Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen, who don’t get a lot of headlines, but have make impactful contributions this season. Joonas Donskoi, who hasn’t scored since Jan. 10 and finished with 14 this season, could really use a goal if he’s in the lineup.

ADVANTAGE: San Jose, but it’s pretty close. When clicking, the Sharks can attack you in waves and keep the pressure on. Vegas upped their goals per game average after acquiring Stone, jumping from 3.0 goals/game to 3.32 goals/game.

DEFENSE

VEGAS: Unlike the Sharks, where Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns ate a ton of minutes, Gallant spread out the ice time among his defense pretty evenly. Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt were the only two to finish with at least 20 minutes a night, while Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Brayden McNabb, and Nick Holden played between 18-19 minutes per game. Jon Merrill was right there with 17:53 per game.

Theodore emerged this season as a viable top-pairing defenseman, finishing with 12 goals and 37 points along with a fantastic 56.28% Corsi rating.

SAN JOSE: A healthy Erik Karlsson will pose plenty of problems for the Golden Knights. But if he’s well less than 100%, plus Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s inconsistent play lingers in the postseason, that will put plenty of pressure on goaltender Martin Jones. The Sharks were the second-best shot suppression team in the NHL (28.3 shots allowed per game) but allowed 3.16 goals per game.

ADVANTAGE Even*. The asterisk here is if Karlsson plays at 100% he could give the Sharks a slight edge. But there’s no doubting the defensive unit Vegas offers, and how they work well together and there really is no standout name on their blue line. San Jose offers threats in perennial Norris Trophy contenders in Karlsson and Burns, but Vegas’ pairings have shown their up to the task at limiting opponents’ chances, and they’ll be busy doing so going up against a Sharks team that averaged 33 shots on goal per night.

GOALTENDING

VEGAS: Marc-Andre Fleury returned to the net last week, a great sign for the Golden Knights after his strong performance last spring. He finished the season with a .917 ESSV% and was second in the NHL with eight shutouts. Vegas was also a strong shot-suppression team, allowed 28 per night at even strength, and as we’ve seen throughout his career Fleury’s acrobatics can quickly turn a strong scoring opportunity for an opponent into a highlight-reel save.

SAN JOSE: Martin Jones will hope for reset once Game 1 arrives. He had a forgettable regular season with an .896 ESSV% and a .788 high-danger save percentage, which was 24th out of 25 goaltenders with at least 2,000 minutes played, per Natural Stat Trick. His partner, Aaron Dell, wasn’t much better with an .899 ESSV% and a .793 HDSV%. There are plenty of strengths to this Sharks team, but their goaltender might the weakness that holds them back.

ADVANTAGE: Vegas. A healthy Fleury means good things for Vegas. Jones has shown no signs that a rebound is coming this season, and Dell doesn’t offer any help behind him if things get ugly.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can Vegas’ power play wake up?

The Golden Knights scored 39 power play goals this season and finished with a success rate of 16.8%, good enough for seventh-worst in the NHL. With extra man situations becoming tougher to draw in the postseason, Vegas needs to take advantage of their extra man opportunities as they could be the difference in any game at this point.

Which Martin Jones will show up?

There’s no fallback option here for the Sharks. Dell has struggled as well, and when playoff hockey gives us those tight, low-scoring games, it’ll be up to Jones to come up with a big save and even steal a game or two if San Jose is to have a shot. Can a reset heading into Game 1 work wonders for Jones? We’ll see.

PREDICTION

VEGAS IN 6. Unless Jones reverts back to his old form, it’ll be tough to see the Sharks really making a challenge at getting revenge for last year’s playoff exit. The Golden Knights are well-balanced up front, have played strong defensively in front of Fleury and Malcolm Subban, and have the clear better goaltending heading into this matchup. 

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Islanders vs. Penguins
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.