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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

Golden Knights’ owner says NHL executive apologized for Game 7 penalty

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The owner of the Vegas Golden Knights said Thursday a senior NHL executive phoned him to apologize for a penalty called during Game 7 of his team’s loss to the San Jose Sharks.

Owner Bill Foley said the call came the morning after Vegas lost 5-4 in overtime Tuesday night to end the first-round series. Foley said at a news conference the call came from an executive who is ”about as senior as you can get,” but he did not want to identify him.

The play in question was a major penalty on Cody Eakin of the Golden Knights that Foley described as ”infuriating.”

The owner said the executive admitted it was a ”bad call” and the league did ”acknowledge” it. Foley added that the apology made him ”feel a little better after that.”

Foley said he was sitting with injured forward Erik Haula in a suite at SAP Center when Eakin cross-checked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski in the chest with 10:47 to play. Paul Stastny bumped Pavelski as he fell to the ice, where he was knocked out and bleeding on the ice.

The officials conferred on the unreviewable play while a dazed Pavelski was helped to the locker room with a towel pressed to his head. Eakin was assessed a 5-minute penalty for cross-checking and a game misconduct. The Sharks scored four goals on the ensuing power play.

Series supervisor Don VanMassenhoven said the major penalty was given because the cross-check caused a significant injury.

”The game was ours, it was over, 3-zip,” Foley said. ”We were looking, saying ‘all we gotta do is play some defense, play defense and stay out of the box.’ Within 30 seconds, 5-minute major. It wasn’t a penalty. Painful.”

San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said Pavelski is listed as day to day but is not expected to be cleared for Game 1 of the second-round series against the Avalanche on Friday night.

DeBoer downplayed the league’s call to Foley.

”I haven’t gotten many of their calls where they made a mistake,” DeBoer said. ”There were a couple earlier in that series where I would have appreciated a call. We’re past that. We’re on to the next opponent now.”

AP sports writer Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, contributed to this report.

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

PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: The issues in St. Louis; Schneider’s struggles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• So how are things going with the St. Louis Blues? “We were terrible in the first period. Every player. Terrible.” [Post-Dispatch]

• Meanwhile, the Blues handed Robert Bortuzzo a three-year extension. [Blues]

• Seattle’s NHL arrival will only grow the already rich history of the sport in the community. [NHL.com]

• How Mikko Rantanen turned into one of the NHL’s top scorers. [Sportsnet]

• What’s next for struggling Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils? [NJ.com]

• This will be a fun headline to remember: “He’s baaaaack – Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli looking like the resident genius” [Edmonton Sun]

Mikko Koskinen has been quite a find for the Oilers. [TSN]

• Knee surgery will likely keep Erik Haula of the Vegas Golden Knights out for the remainder of the season. [Las Vegas Review-Journal]

• A lower-body injury will keep Mike Green out of the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup for the next 3-5 weeks. [MLive]

• A busted finger means the Oilers will be without Oskar Klefbom for the next 6-8 weeks. [Oilers Nation]

• The Vancouver Canucks appear to have some interest in Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky. [NoVa Caps]

• Which NHL players are carrying the biggest offensive burdens for their teams? [ESPN.com]

• Some ideas on how to fix the New York Islanders power play. [Gotham Sports]

• The Guy Lafleur disco album is really something. [Punk Junk]

• Washington Capitals roll out welcome for the Black Girl Hockey Club’s first meeting. [Color of Hockey]

• Injuries have really put a damper on the Arizona Coyotes’ season. [Featurd]

• Finally, our good friend Gritty had a special Christmas message for ESPN’s Katie Nolan:

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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.