Max Pacioretty

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Mark Stone faces new pressures as highest-paid Golden Knight

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vegas Golden Knights.

One of the many interesting things about the Golden Knights is that, through their first two years, they did a lot by committee. There wasn’t a “face of the franchise” beyond the smiling visage of Marc-Andre Fleury, and by the nature of the goalie position, Fleury could let the game come to him, rather than being expected to exert his will.

Don’t get this as a jab at the talent Vegas assembled with astonishing speed, mind you. It’s merely that the face of the franchise was more of a cerberus, maybe the three-headed monster of a top line in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith.

It feels strange to say this since Mark Stone‘s only been with the Golden Knights since that momentous trade from late February, but this is now in many ways “his team.”

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three QuestionsX-factor]

Simply put, Stone signed on for a lot of pressure when he agreed to a mammoth eight-year, $76 million extension, and it makes a lot of sense that he’ll be under plenty of it in 2019-20, as he’ll be paid $12M between signing bonuses and his base salary.

Now, it’s true that Stone has become used to being a go-to guy, as he certainly played that part with the Ottawa Senators, right down to being the person who answered a lot of questions for Sens teammates who were caught blasting coaches in a video of a leaked Uber gripe session. At least he got plenty of “media training” in Ottawa.

But expectations have a way of ratcheting up the intensity.

Stone spent the past season making $7.35M after the Senators enjoyed the stunning steal of Stone only carrying a $3.5M cap hit from 2015-16 through 2017-18. Considering the term and the top dollar of a new Stone deal kicking in, few will be making arguments about him being underpaid any longer, and you might struggle to make an argument for underrated.

The bar has been raised in ways that go beyond the financial, too.

Despite the Golden Knights merely entering their third season in the NHL, people aren’t going to be looking at this team as scrappy underdogs like they often did with the Senators. This is a team with win-now aspirations, so if Vegas sputters, Stone will be a natural scapegoat as their biggest earner.

Speaking of win-now, it’s also clear that the Golden Knights carved up pieces of their future to be a more impressive team in the present, and Stone is the biggest example of that mindset, along with what Vegas had given up before for the likes of Max Pacioretty and Tomas Tatar.

Erik Brannstrom was (and is) a coveted defensive prospect, and if he continues to impress in conjunction with any Golden Knights struggles, then things could get a little awkward — even if Brannstrom’s potential continues to be seen mostly outside of the NHL. That’s the tricky thing for players involved in trades: they’re not judged by individual efforts and their team’s results alone, but they’re also compared to the player they were trade for, and how their former team performs.

The good news is that it sure seems like Stone can handle it.

And maybe just as importantly, Stone can bring value to the table even if he goes through cold streaks scoring-wise. We actually saw that right off the bat when he joined the Golden Knights in 2019-20, as he only managed a single assist through his first four games, and took six to record his first goal for Vegas.

Even then, Stone was making a positive impact with his two-way play, and few remember those early struggles thanks to the impact he made during the Golden Knights’ memorable Round 1 series against the Sharks. If you’re going to commit a $9.5M cap hit and bunch of term to any type of forward, you could do a lot worse than a winger who justifiably generates a ton of Selke hype as an all-around dynamo.

Stone should face a lot of pressure in 2019-20, with some anxieties being new, and others familiar. He’s generally well-equipped to hurdle over these obstacles, but that doesn’t make any of this easy.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s Vegas Golden Knights Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Vegas Golden Knights. 

2018-19
43-32-7, 93 points (3rd in the Pacific Division, 7th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in Game 7 of Round 1 against the San Jose Sharks.

IN:
Jaycob Megna
Garrett Sparks

OUT:
Nikita Gusev
Colin Miller
Erik Haula
Ryan Carpenter
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Maxime Legace

RE-SIGNED:
Deryk Engelland
Malcolm Subban
Brandon Pirri
Tomas Nosek
William Karlsson

2018-19 Summary

Could they have done it all over again, or even one-upped their magical inaugural season with a Stanley Cup banner in just their second season in the NHL?

Ultimately, the answer to both of those questions was no. It wasn’t because they didn’t put themselves in position to take another run at Lord Stanley. Despite putting up 16 fewer points than they did when they won the Pacific Divison crown in 2017-18 the Golden Knights, plagued by injuries at times, still managed a third-place showing to secure a second playoff spot in as many years.

And in Round 1, they seemed to be cruising with a 3-1 series lead against the San Jose Sharks.

Seemed.

After dropping Games 5 and 6, the Golden Knights appeared to regroup. They held a 3-0 lead in the third period, and barring disaster, would be heading off to face the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2.

Instead, disaster ensured.

A five-minute major to Cody Eakin for a phantom who-knows-still-to-this-day roughing call handed the Sharks a lifeline. And it would be used to maximum effect as the Sharks rattled off four goals in four minutes during the extended power play to lead the game.

The Golden Knights forced overtime but it only delayed the inevitable as Barclay Goodrow completed one of the zaniest comebacks in NHL history.

Heartbreak in Year 1. Hearts torn out in Year 2.

It was always going to be a tough act to follow for the Golden Knights.

Vegas set the bar for expansion teams so high in their inaugural season in 2017-18 and were tasked with following up a Stanley Cup Final appearance in just their second year.

They certainly looked well on their way prior to the season kicking off, having added Paul Stastny in free agency and Max Pacioretty via trade.

[MORE: X-factor | Three QuestionsUnder Pressure]

But both players battled injuries at different points during the season, including Stastny’s, which limited him to 50 games.

Vegas wasn’t the same 109-point team from the year prior, but they announced their ‘win-now’ intentions at the trade deadline to not only acquire Mark Stone from Ottawa, but also agree to a big-money, multi-year extension.

The pieces were in place until their epic collapse watched it all go out the window.

It’s been a much quieter offseason in Vegas this time around, and the biggest news has been the players who have left the club, including Nikita Gusev, Colin Miller and Erik Haula.

Gusev is considered by some to be the best player outside of the NHL. The Golden Knights signed him this past spring but couldn’t work out a deal.

Other subtractions have come with the reality of the salary cap setting in on The Strip. The scrap bin was only available for a limited time. Guys need to be paid and you can’t keep everyone.

A healthy start to the season for Stastny should improve their early-season prospects. Having Stone in the mix for a full training camp with his new club can only be a good thing, too.

And there’s no reason to suggest that the Golden Knights won’t be a playoff team for a third consecutive season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s Montreal Canadiens Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

2018-19
44-30-8, 96 points (4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Ben Chiarot
Nick Cousins
Keith Kinkaid

OUT:
Jordie Benn
Andrew Shaw
Nicolas Deslauriers
Antti Niemi

RE-SIGNED:
Christian Folin
Artturi Lehkonen
Joel Armia
Charles Hudon
Jordan Weal
Mike Reilly
Brett Kulak
Nate Thompson

2018-19 Summary

Close but no cigar. Despite putting up 96 points in 2018-19, the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the playoffs. It was close, but they were eventually eliminated on the final Friday of the regular season when the Columbus Blue Jackets clinched the last Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Even though they didn’t make the playoffs, last season wasn’t a total failure for an organization that appeared to be in shambles the previous year. Habs general manager Marc Bergevin moved captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Tomas Tatar, top prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick and he also shipped Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi. Both trades couldn’t have worked out any better for Montreal. Tatar gave the Canadiens a 25-goal and 58-point season, Suzuki had a great year in junior and could make the club this year and Domi ended up leaving the team in scoring, while Galchenyuk has already been traded again.

The difference between last season and this season, is that the public’s expectations were in the toilet coming into 2018-19. Those expectations will be much, much higher this year. Missing the playoffs by a hair won’t be good enough.

“I knew we’d have a better team this season [with the changes that were made], but what I really like is the character. We’ve come from behind in a lot games. That didn’t happen last year. I’m proud of that,” Bergevin said last January, per the team’s website. “Hats off to the players and the coaches. We started at zero and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

The Canadiens got off to a good start last year, which was surprising considering the fact that Shea Weber missed the first two months of the season. Carey Price, who needs to be on top of his game for this team to have a chance to play meaningful games in the spring, had a rough month of November, but he was terrific when they needed him down the stretch. Those two veterans will obviously be key for the Habs. If they can stay healthy, Montreal will have a chance.

Brenden Gallagher ended up being their only 30-goal scorer last year (he had 33), but they got depth scoring from all over the lineup. Domi and Tatar were the only two Habs to surpass the 20-goal mark, but nine other players hit double figures in goals.

The downside to all that, is that a few of those players had great years by their standards and they still missed the playoffs. Can they do it all over again and then some?

One of the players who surprisingly stuck with the team all year, was 2018 third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He finished with 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as an 18-year-old in the NHL. He has all the potential in the world and he may become that true number one center the organization has been looking for for years. If he can take a big step forward in his second year, the Habs will be much better for it.

In the end, Bergevin and his staff  got the benefit of the doubt because they seemingly turned this ship around in one year. That won’t be the case if they fail to make it back to the postseason this time around.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Trade: Sabres improve defense with Colin Miller; Vegas saves money

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Not long ago, I shared my belief that NHL teams are more likely to improve through savvy trades, rather than free agent spending (especially for defense). Quite a few NHL GMs seem to agree.

The Buffalo Sabres made a shrewd decision on Friday, taking advantage of the Vegas Golden Knights’ salary cap bind by landing quality defenseman Colin Miller. (It probably didn’t hurt that Miller sometimes lands in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse, making it that much more imperative to move Miller.)

Here are the terms of the trade via TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who also reports that the call has been made official.

Sabres receive: Colin Miller.

Golden Knights get: 2021 second-round pick (St. Louis Blues’) and 2022 fifth-round pick.

Again, this is a situation where the Golden Knights needed to save money. While I’d argue that Miller is well worth $3.875 million per season (quality right-handed defensemen are hard to find), Miller was lost in the shuffle a bit in Vegas. Much like with the Brandon Montour trade, the Sabres need all the defensive help they can get, so Miller is quite the boon.

Miller is in his prime at 26, and his $3.875M cap hit runs through 2021-22, so if Miller can indeed rise to a top-four level, than the Sabres might have received a nice bargain here. With Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner combining for a $19M cap hit, Buffalo needs all the value it can get.

That brings us to an interesting side note: could this also open the opportunity for the Sabres to move divisive defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The 24-year-old struggles mightily in his own end, but there are likely those around the league that believe in his talent (and maybe their ability to improve his defensive play), so maybe someone would take on Ristolainen and his $5.4M cap hit, which expires after 2021-22? It’s conceivable that the Sabres could move Ristolainen for some help on offense, as the drop-off from the dynamic Eichel – Skinner duo to everyone else is jarringly steep.

(Naturally, if Buffalo can find a taker for Zach Bogosian‘s bloated $5.142M cap hit, that would be sweet, too.)

If not, the Sabres still stand to be better on defense, an area of glaring need. Different people can have different qualms with all of Ristolainen, Montour, and Miller, but it sure beats what they’ve slogged around the ice with before. Of course, the biggest factor remains Rasmus Dahlin, who was brilliant in 2018-19 and may only get better from there.

The Golden Knights basically had to do this, considering their cap clogging situation, what with Mark Stone‘s $9.5M and Max Pacioretty‘s $7M extension about to kick in. As fantastic as William Karlsson‘s freshly signed $5.9M really is considering this climate of escalating prices, the bottom line is that all that extra money is inevitably going to push good players like Miller out.

Miller is a luxury the Golden Knights could no longer afford, much like Erik Haula. It’s possible they have some prospects who can stem the tide.

That stings, but honestly, who would have expected the Golden Knights to be selling off talent because they have too much of this, so early in their existence?

Either way, brilliant work by Buffalo. The Sabres still have work to do, but this is another important step forward.

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 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.