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Golden Knights 2022-23 roster projection 1.0: What might happen with the RFAs?

The Golden Knights made their first move of the offseason last week, trading Evgenii Dadonov to Montreal in a salary-shedding maneuver that freed up $5 million in cap space.

It appears that Vegas’ next move will be signing pending unrestricted free agent Reilly Smith to an extension. The 31-year-old winger’s five-year contract expired this season, and Smith’s hope all along has been to remain a Golden Knight. Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli reported Wednesday that Smith reached a verbal agreement with the Golden Knights, but that the deal wouldn’t be immediately announced due to salary cap considerations.

While the details of the potential extension haven’t been made public, it’s reasonable to expect the deal to be in the range of three years with an average annual value (AAV) of approximately $5 million, as Seravalli also reported. If that is the case, the Golden Knights will have used all of the cap space they created by trading Dadonov ,with four key restricted free agents still needing deals this summer.

The start of free agency is three weeks away, and there are still plenty of decisions to be made by the Golden Knights’ front office that will shape next season’s lineup. Dadonov’s exit was the first of many dominoes to fall, but at least one more cap-clearing trade should be expected. With this latest information, let’s walk step by step through the Golden Knights’ offseason and attempt to project the lineup for opening night in October.

Following the Dadonov trade, Vegas is already over next year’s projected salary cap of $85.2 million. However, newly acquired Shea Weber is expected to remain on long-term injured reserve, so his $7.86 million salary won’t count against the cap, leaving the Golden Knights with approximately $5.2 million in usable cap space. As stated above, an extension for Smith would use the vast majority of that space.

Vegas’ next order of business will be taking care of its restricted free agents. Nicolas Roy, Nicolas Hague, Keegan Kolesar and Brett Howden are all set to hit that status, with all but Hague having rights to arbitration if needed.

Because Hague is not yet eligible for arbitration, the Golden Knights could make a qualifying offer of $874,125, and his only options are to sign it or hold out. Hague is in a very similar situation to Shea Theodore four years ago, when Theodore held out of Vegas’ training camp until the sides eventually reached an agreement on a seven-year, $36.4 million contract. Don’t expect Hague to approach that dollar figure, but he’s certainly due a substantial raise after proving he’s an every-night NHL player over the last two seasons.

If the Golden Knights are fortunate, Hague will accept the qualifying offer, allowing Vegas to keep him at a very low cap hit for one more season, but it’s more likely Hague will want a longer-term deal, which obviously will cost more.

The other three RFAs have more leverage than Hague due to arbitration. If the sides can’t agree on a deal, they will meet with a third-party arbitrator later in the summer, and all three would be awarded contracts worth much more than their last. Roy, Kolesar and Howden each made under $1 million in 2021-22. Roy is due for the biggest increase in pay after registering 15 goals and 24 assists, sailing past his career-highs in nearly every metric. Using comparables around the NHL, we should expect Roy’s next cap hit to be approximately $3 million.

Jack Roslovic, who was also an RFA entering this summer, had similar numbers to Roy this season in Columbus. The 25-year-old signed a two-year deal with an AAV of $4 million this month. Roslovic has a longer track record at the NHL level, so Roy should slot in somewhere below him. Another RFA who recently signed is Denis Gurianov. His production wasn’t quite up to par with Roy’s, with 11 goals and 20 assists in 2021-22, but it’s close. Gurianov, 24, signed a one-year deal with Dallas with a $2.9 million cap hit, so it’s fair to estimate Roy’s upcoming AAV to fall somewhere between those two.

Another comparable worth noting is Andrew Copp, who registered the exact same stat line (15 goals and 24 assists) in 2020-21. The following summer, he hit restricted free agency and ended up signing a one-year contract worth $3.64 million. Like Roslovic, Copp has more NHL experience than Roy but it’s just another reference point as we project Roy’s potential contract.

PlayerAgeGoalsAssistsProj. GSVACap Hit

24

15

24

0.8

TBD

25

22

23

0.9

$4.0M

24

11

20

0.8

$2.9M

26

15

24

1.5

$3.6M

Kolesar was one of Vegas’ most consistent players this season, playing in 77 games. He doesn’t have the offensive upside of Roy but brings a physicality to the fourth line that the Golden Knights hope to rekindle in 2022-23. It’s hard to imagine Kolesar topping $1.4 million in AAV, which is what William Carrier makes as a fourth-line winger, but he’s certainly due a raise from his $725,000 this season. Expect Kolesar’s AAV to come in around $1.125 million, and the same goes for Howden, who showed flashes of offense but struggled through multiple injuries in 2021-22.

Projected 2022-23 Cap Hits

PlayerProjected Cap Hit

$3,000,000

$1,125,000

$1,000,000

$874,125

These projections are a best-case scenario for the Golden Knights, and there’s a real possibility that Hague will want a new deal as opposed to signing his qualifying offer, but for the sake of projecting, we’ll use these figures. Following these four signings, Vegas would have a 22-man roster with a combined cap hit of $83.3 million – $800,000 over the salary cap – and that’s not including an extension for Smith.

That means the Golden Knights will likely pursue at least one more cap-shedding trade this summer, with one candidate potentially being backup goalie Laurent Brossoit. The 28-year-old was solid over the first half of this season before slumping down the stretch and eventually bowing out with an undisclosed injury that required offseason surgery. Brossoit’s minus-7.3 goals saved above average and .895 save percentage both fell below expectations, and with the emergence of Logan Thompson as a much cheaper backup option, he could be expendable.

If Vegas were to deal with Brossoit it would save $1.6 million in cap space, the difference between Brossoit’s $2.325 million cap hit and Thompson’s $766,667. That, along with sending Dylan Coghlan through waivers, would give the Golden Knights a 21-man roster (12 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies) with a combined cap hit of $80.98 million.

That would give them a little over $1.5 million in cap space, but clearly not enough to fit an extension for Smith, so Vegas will still have more work to do. So, which players carry a cap hit large enough to clear an additional $3.5 million?

Eichel, Stone and Pietrangelo are all locks to return, considering their contract status and no-movement clauses. It seems unlikely that Vegas would move Shea Theodore due to his age and team-friendly contract. The organization has shown overwhelming confidence in Robin Lehner as the starting goalie, even trading Marc-Andre Fleury away for no return following a Vezina Trophy-winning season, so he’s likely staying put as well.

That would leave four options: Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Alec Martinez and Jonathan Marchessault. Because of the Golden Knights’ precarious cap situation and lack of leverage, they’re unlikely to get much of a return for any of them. That means any decision likely would be based on which player’s departure they believe would damage the roster the least.

Martinez is the oldest of the group at 34, and the veteran defenseman played only 26 games in last year’s injury-riddled season. When healthy, he’s been a major contributor during his short time in Vegas, playing top-four minutes as well as on the power play and penalty kill. He’s easy to play with, as both Theodore and Pietrangelo seem to play their best hockey when paired with Martinez. The question is, does Hague’s development give Vegas enough confidence in him as a top-four option to move on from Martinez? This is what the Golden Knights could look like if they did.

The defensive group is still talented, but thin. If the Golden Knights feel a young defenseman such as Kaedan Korczak is ready to play NHL minutes, it would certainly make the decision easier, but there’s no doubt losing Martinez would hurt the blue line.

Similar to Martinez, when Pacioretty is healthy he’s a game-changer for the Golden Knights, but he’s struggled to stay on the ice lately. The 33-year-old scored the fourth-most goals on the team last season despite playing only 39 games. He has also been hampered by injuries in each of the last two playoff runs prior to last season and is showing the wear and tear of his 14-year NHL career.

Having said that, Pacioretty is unquestionably Vegas’ best pure scorer. He’s averaged 0.487 goals per game over the last three seasons, which is far and away the highest on the team.

Goals per game last 3 seasons

While there’s certainly some concern with Pacioretty’s health, replacing his production seems incredibly difficult. Here’s what Vegas’ potential lineup would look like without him.

 

Much of the same can be said for Marchessault, who led Vegas with 30 goals and 66 points last season. But unlike Martinez and Pacioretty, Marchessault hasn’t missed much time due to injury. His 197 games played over the last three seasons leads all Vegas forwards. If the Golden Knights were to trade him, the potential lineup would look identical to the one above, except with Pacioretty in Marchessault’s place.

Either of these moves would elevate a forward in the bottom six (likely Roy) into a top-six role. Not only is that asking a player not accustomed to that role to score more often, but because it would likely be one of the more offensively-adept players from the bottom six, it would also weaken depth scoring.

The final option would be trading Karlsson. With the addition of Eichel and the emergence of Chandler Stephenson and Roy as solid middle-six center options, Karlsson’s place in the lineup isn’t as concrete as in years past. His goal totals have slowly dwindled every year since his 43-goal explosion in 2017-18. With Karlsson, Vegas has one of the best four-deep center depth charts in the NHL. Without him, here’s what the lineup could potentially look like.

This move would allow Vegas to remain strong on the outside, with four legitimate top-six wingers to fill out the top two lines. But the third and fourth lines also look incredibly thin offensively. Can the Golden Knights rely on a third line with some combination of Roy, Kolesar, Howden, Michael Amadio and Nolan Patrick to produce offense? Long gone are the days of a dynamic player such as Alex Tuch on the third line.

With Karlsson on the roster, it means Vegas would likely have a third line centered by him or Stephenson, which is a big matchup advantage. Without him, the Golden Knights would be putting a lot of pressure on the top two lines to carry the offensive load.

There is one more option that doesn’t require trading any of the players above, and it’s a strategy the Golden Knights recently employed. What if Vegas decides to play the LTIR game again?

Lehner underwent shoulder surgery on May 4, and his timeline for recovery is unclear. Last offseason, Tuch had a similar surgery on his shoulder that held him out 155 days before he returned to play on Dec. 29, 2021. Lehner’s surgery was exactly 161 days before Oct. 12, which is the expected opening night date for Vegas.

Lehner could be ready in time for the regular season, but if he isn’t, Vegas could place him on LTIR to open up the required $5 million in cap space. That would buy time to decide on a cap-clearing move, or if another player goes down during Lehner’s recovery time, the Golden Knights could try to make it through the entire season with LTIR relief as they did in 2021-22.

General Manager Kelly McCrimmon blamed a lack of continuity in the lineup for the team’s failure to qualify for the postseason, and that was largely due to the fact that their roster was over the salary cap and required injuries to remain compliant. Trying that same strategy again seems dangerous, but it could be an option depending on the team’s health on opening night.

(Photo of Reilly Smith: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

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