This is a gigantic off-season coming up for the Vegas Golden Knights front office.
In truth, it has already started for the tandem of General Manager Kelly McCrimmon and President of Hockey Operations George McPhee, who will be in the middle of picking the bones from the Vegas Golden Knights’ incredibly disappointing postseason exit.
Once that process has been completed, the reasons why the Golden Knights lost in five to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final have been diagnosed and the lessons have been learned, attention will then turn to the 2020-21 season.
And, what was already going to be a hard task has been made even tougher by two factors that can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic:
- A truncated off-season
- A flat Salary Cap
The Golden Knights front office face a very short window to address what went wrong in Edmonton, assess the strengths and weaknesses of this roster and then look to prepare for next year.
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We’re now only a few weeks away from the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, with the First Round slated to begin on Oct. 6 with Rounds 2-7 taking place the following day.
The Golden Knights are currently projected to have the 29th overall pick in this year’s Draft according to CapFriendly, although the full order of the First Round will be determined after a Stanley Cup winner is crowned.
In what is widely considered a deep draft rich with high-end talent, the Knights should still be able to identify and pick a top-end prospect that can eventually make an impact in the NHL despite picking at the end of the First Round.
They will also have two third-round picks and one selection each in Rounds 6 & 7, although that could change if a trade goes down between now and then.
In truth, the front office and the scouting staff should have the majority of their homework done by now, but the next couple of weeks will give them a chance to cram in some last minute research on the prospects they have at the top of their Draft Board.
Once the 2020 Entry Draft is in the books, all focus will then switch to Free Agency which is set to open on Oct. 9.
Some big names, including Taylor Hall, Braden Holtby and Alex Pietrangelo, are on the cusp of hitting the open market but it is unlikely that the Golden Knights will be in a position to go big game hunting.
With the salary cap frozen at $81.5 million for 2020-21, and perhaps beyond, the Golden Knights are currently committed to spending $76,559,876 for next season already, leaving them with just under $5 million in cap space according to CapFriendly.
Further blurring the picture is the fact that the Golden Knights currently have six pending free agents:
- Nick Cousins (RFA)
- Chandler Stephenson (RFA)
- Tomas Nosek (UFA)
- Deryk Engelland (UFA)
- Jon Merrill (UFA)
- Robin Lehner (UFA)
Given their impact on this team in a short space of time, it is likely that both Stephenson and Cousins will be signed to new deals and then expected to help generate some much-needed secondary scoring in 2020-21.
However, that will eat up a considerable chunk of the $4,940,124 million the Golden Knights have in cap space, meaning that it is likely Nosek, Merrill and Engelland will all be allowed to move on with the latter likely to retire and maybe even take up a front office role with this franchise.
That isn’t even taking into account filling out any remaining holes on this roster, although the front office will probably look to the likes of Cody Glass, Peyton Krebs, Jack Dugan, Nic Hague and Dylan Coghlan to all step up and become key cogs of this team while still on their entry-level deals.
It would certainly help McCrimmon and McPhee to massage the salary cap constraints that are staring them right in the face, while any successful franchise in any of the major sports all do a good job of maximising the talents of their best prospects while they are on cost effective deals.
The Golden Knights need to do that now.
However, without doubt the biggest and most glaring question facing this organization this coming off-season is in net.
Just who is the starting goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights for the 2020-21 season and beyond?
It is a very good question and one we should find out the answer to sooner rather than later.
Well, perhaps we already know because, according to Jesse Granger of The Athletic, there is an agreement in place that will keep Robin Lehner in Sin City for five years at $5 million per year.
Now, Lehner did shoot those reports down but he was asked in the midst of a gruelling series against the Stars, so you shouldn’t really have expected anything else.
All the signs point to Lehner choosing Vegas as his new home after flying through four different teams in as many years, but then that leaves the future of face of the franchise Marc-Andre Fleury very much in doubt.
We already know that there is some ill-feeling towards the front office and Head Coach Peter DeBoer from Fleury’s camp over the handling of the goalie situation inside The Bubble, so that could boil over into the off-season.
But there is also the logistics at play here. If Lehner does sign a five-year deal with an AAV of $5 million, that is all of Vegas’ cap space gone just like that.
They will have to clear some space to make room for the likes of Stephenson and Cousins, which is why shedding Fleury’s contract would make sense.
The future Hall of Famer will earn $7 million in 2020-21 and again in 2021-22, so it would make sense to either find a trading partner for Fleury or buy him out and take the cap hit across the next few years.
Of course, in an ideal world you would love to keep this elite two-headed goalie monster intact, but that just doesn’t seem possible with the flat cap.
The front office could look to move a piece from their loaded top-six forward unit, maybe Paul Stastny, but they would likely have to retain some salary and that will defeat the whole point of the object.
Plus, paying two goalies a combined $12 million per year in a hard cap sport is nearly bordering on malpractice, so it does seem that one of Fleury or Lehner is destined for the exit door and right now it looks likely that it will be the former.
That decision alone could be season defining, especially if they do decide to move on from their face of the franchise, but the front office will also need to ensure that they give Pete DeBoer every piece possible to keep this Stanley Cup window open.
It won’t be easy given the flat cap and the Golden Knights may well have to promote from within, while ensuring they try and hit on their picks in this year’s Draft given how loaded and deep a draft class it is.
But, whatever decisions are made over the coming weeks, this off-season is a huge one for the short-term future of the Vegas Golden Knights, and maybe even for the long-term health of the franchise.
Every decision this front office makes will now come under heavy scrutiny, especially if another beloved figure in Marc-Andre Fleury is forced out of the door, and if those decisions don’t translate to winning in 2020-21, then heads could roll.
Buckle up because this is going to be a hell of a compelling off-season in Vegas for the Golden Knights.