After $500 million dollars and a year of fast and furious preparation, the Las Vegas Golden Knights are set to bring hockey to the Sin City. Although it may seem like a bit of an unconventional market for hockey, Las Vegas has already proven its value to the NHL by selling 16,000 of its 19,000 seats to enthusiastic desert hockey fans. But, their season ticket sellout was not the only source of offseason intrigue.
This summer the team captured an unparalleled amount of power during the NHL expansion draft. The draft allowed the team to select 1 “unprotected” player from each NHL team. Vegas was able to exploit many NHL teams that were not in positions to protect all of their players. As payment for not taking certain “unprotected players,” Vegas also stockpiled 3 2017 first-round picks and 9 future draft picks. No other team in the history of the NHL has wielded this kind of power over other NHL teams. Many have begun to ask ‘how will they look this season?’ The answer is: not too bad. Vegas may not be a playoff team in year one, but they have assembled a lineup with some very talented and experienced players. Headlining their lineup are players like -now- 3-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Marc-andre Fleury, as well as former Nashville Predators assistant captain James Neal, and versatile blue-liner Nate Schmidt. Accompanying this skillful group of veterans are a group of hot prospects and players who have lurked in the shadows for years but who may be ready to step into the spotlight. Players such as former Oilers defenseman Griffin Reinhart, former Stars center Cody Eakin, former Rangers center Oscar Lindberg, and former Avalanche goaltender Calvin Pickard are all eager to make their mark. Believe it or not, some of the most important components of this team lay off the ice.
Before arriving in Las Vegas, general manager George McPhee served as the general manager for the Washington Capitals. McPhee, who was responsible for drafting one of the NHL’s most prolific players, Alex Ovechkin, has already incorporated many of his former draft picks and players into the new Knights organization. Cody Eakin and Nate Schmidt are two examples of players who already know McPhee and are familiar with his system and objectives. Cap-wise the Knights are in an interesting position as 15 of their players are set to become free agents next summer. This provides the team with lots of cap flexibility to chase potential top free agents like John Tavares and Paul Stastny. However, this also means that the team could very well lose star players like James Neal and others who have a breakout year. Meanwhile, the Knights have avoided saddling themselves with horrible long-term contracts and retained salary trades. Now, with the salary cap expected to go up by another $2-$3 million dollars next season and with 15 of their current players holding expiring contracts, it will be interesting to see if Vegas chooses to build their core by slowly by acquiring top prospects through the draft process or if they choose the ‘win now’ strategy of signing top free agents to long term deals and stockpiling talent. Given the fact that most oddsmakers predict that it will take five years for the Knights to be competitive, my guess is that they will choose plan B. Only time will tell.
One way or the other, the team should have a good first year in the NHL, and while some may question their ability to make the playoffs right away, it would appear that their hopes will depend largely on ample scoring from James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault and solid work from what looks like one of the strongest goaltending cores in the league. One thing is for sure, it will be an uphill climb playing against teams in the toughest conference and division in NHL. In order to qualify the Knights will have to routinely beat fierce rivals like the Edmonton Oilers and LA Kings. Tune in on September 26th as the new Las Vegas Golden Knights take home ice against their division rivals, the LA Kings.