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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.