Vegas Golden Knights: An interview with The Athletic’s Jesse Granger

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LAS VEGAS, NV – JANUARY 01: Alex Tuch #89 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates with teammates after scoring an empty net goal against the Los Angeles Kings during a game at T-Mobile Arena on January 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

With the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and free agency both in the books, we caught up with Jesse Granger of The Athletic to talk all things Vegas Golden Knights!

Jesse does a superb job of covering the Vegas Golden Knights for The Athletic, which is an online publication that has changed the sports journalism landscape.

Consistently breaking stories and bringing Golden Knights fans a slew of exclusives, we thought who better to get an offseason lowdown from than Jesse!

Jesse kindly agreed to speak with me over the phone a few days ago and we covered a slew of topics, including the latest on Nikita Gusev, prospects that impressed in Development Camp, expectations for 2019-20 and what it is like covering the Vegas Golden Knights.

So, grab a coffee, load up on some snacks and sit back and enjoy our extensive Q&A session with The Athletic’s Jesse Granger…

VGK: Jesse, thank you for doing this. Let’s start with a topic that is very much dominating Vegas Golden Knights news at the moment and that is of course Nikita Gusev’s future. What is the latest on that situation?

JG: “The biggest issue surrounding the whole Nikita Gusev situation is the salary cap obviously, and the Golden Knights are pressed up against it already. They’ve got about $2 million in space and they’ve just signed Malcolm Subban to a new deal and they still have to sign Deryk Engelland to a new deal and restricted free agent Jimmy Schuldt to a new deal.

“That $2.5 million will probably go to those two which leaves them with nothing for Nikita Gusev. You then look at the negotiations and, from what I’ve been told, right now he’s looking at two years for $4 million per year and the Golden Knights are looking to lock him in at two years at $2 million per year.

“They aren’t close in negotiations, they are pretty far apart and and because of that, because of the cap space issue and because of the negotiations being so far apart, they are looking at the option of trading him.

“I wouldn’t say the Golden Knights want to trade him but they are looking at the option. They’ve had teams call from around the league, they’ve had a few offers but I don’t think the offers are what they would like. Right now they are getting something like a second round pick with a prospect or a late draft pick attached to that, which is not nearly the value Nikita Gusev should draw.

“They are kind of stuck right now but I do think it is better for this team in the long run if they can find a way to move some players to sign Nikita Gusev because I think they are a lot better this season with him on the roster, but we’ll see what they do.”

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – MAY 26: #97 Nikita Gusev of Russia and #86 Nikita Kucherov of Russia celebrates their win with bronze medal after the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia third place play-off game between Russia and Czech Republic at Ondrej Nepela Arena on May 26, 2019 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by RvS.Media/Monika Majer/Getty Images)

VGK: It is a tricky one isn’t it because Nikita Gusev has shown throughout his KHL career and at the IIHF World Championships what he’s capable of. What do you make of his potential to succeed in the NHL?

JG: “It is never a sure thing when a guy is coming over from another league or when a guy has been drafted from junior hockey or college, it is always projecting but Gusev’s numbers project extremely well in the NHL.

“Dom Luszczyszyn, our analytics guy at The Athletic, and myself did a deep dive and we found that for these KHL stars, roughly 80% of their points will translate to the NHL and if that were to happen it would be 57 points, which is roughly 21 goals and 36 assists which would be phenomenal.

“That would have been second on the Golden Knights last year behind only Jonathan Marchessault, so I think he has the potential to be a playmaker on this team.

“He’s really good on the power play, we saw him at the World Championships with Nikita Kucherov and he was one of the best players on the ice, that is including a bunch of top level NHL stars, and he was just as good if not better than all of them.

“He projects really well, I think he could be a power play guy who scores a load and gets a lot of assists.”

LAS VEGAS, NV – APRIL 04: The Vegas Golden Knights prepare to take the ice for warm-ups prior to a game against the Arizona Coyotes at T-Mobile Arena on April 4, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

VGK: As already mentioned, in order to sign Nikita Gusev to a new deal the Golden Knights are going to have to pull the trigger on another trade or two, so who would be the most likely candidates to be dealt?

JG: “As for who they get rid of that’s what makes this tough. If they had guys the team just wanted to get rid of then this would be easy but the trouble is they’ve already traded Colin Miller to open up salary, they’ve already traded Erik Haula and now it is looking like Ryan Reaves and you mentioned Cody Eakin, plus I think Nick Holden is another guy.

“Holden is making $2.2 million this year and he may not play many games, he could be a healthy scratch for the majority of the season which is obviously a waste of $2.2 million dollars.

“I don’t know how many teams would be willing to take on that contract, you probably would have to pay them to do so with a draft pick, so that is one option, and the other option is Ryan Reaves who I don’t think is as valuable as some, but the coaching staff certainly does.

“Gerard Gallant likes him a lot and George McPhee likes having his presence on the ice, so you have to consider that. Cody Eakin is a really important piece to this team but he’s probably gone after next year as a UFA because I doubt this team can re-sign him and Cody Glass is close to being ready for the NHL.

“This is probably Cody Eakin’s last season so do you want to lose him for nothing next summer or do you want to trade him for something now? I think it comes down to do you need Cody Eakin to win a Stanley Cup this year?

“This is a Stanley Cup contending team and that is obviously the goal, so do you need Cody Eakin to win the cup more than you do Nikita Gusev?

“That is the decision they are going to have to make and I’m glad I don’t have to make it!

“Nikita Gusev could score 30 goals this year and Ryan Reaves and Nick Holden could combine to score five goals this year, that wouldn’t surprise anyone, so the potential with Gusev is obviously a lot higher.”

SAN JOSE, CA – APRIL 12: Marc-Andre Fleury #29 and Deryk Engelland #5 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrate the win over the San Jose Sharks in Game Two of the Western Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on April 12, 2019 in San Jose, California (Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images)

VGK: Moving on from Nikita Gusev now, you’ve mentioned him already but what is the latest on Deryk Engelland’s proposed new deal with the Vegas Golden Knights?

JG: They are going to come to an agreement and by all accounts it is probably going to be a one-year deal.

“The only thing holding it up right now is they are trying to work out the bonus structure, but once you reach that stage they can put bonuses in your contract and they are making it a very heavy bonus-laden contract in order for the deal not to hurt against the cap as much.

“They are trying to work all that out and figure out the bonus structure, but I expect sometime before training camp that Deryk Engelland will be announced to a one-year deal.”

VGK: One final question on contracts and the business side of hockey, what will the front office do with David Clarkson’s rather hefty contract?

JG: “I don’t believe that they are going to have to move the David Clarkson contract. They can put it on the long-term injured reserve list, the LTIR, and once they’ve done that the second the season starts it basically disappears from the salary cap.

“He’s making $5.25 million and that will disappear the day the season starts, which is good for Vegas.

“It isn’t much of a salary cap hinderance as you would think, it is more just paying the player $5 million a year. I’ve spoken to George McPhee about the David Clarkson contract and the Golden Knights did request his no-trade list, which is funny because he hasn’t played for five years but he’s still got to submit his no-trade list.

“It made people think that maybe they were trying to trade him but I’ve spoken to George McPhee about it and he’s told me that it’s not an issue, it isn’t hurting them and he doesn’t expect them to do anything with it.

“David Clarkson’s contract will probably stay on the Golden Knights for this season and he’ll retire after that because that’s the end of his deal.”

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