The Vegas Golden Knights have the opportunity to start their inaugural season with the strongest roster any expansion franchise has ever iced in its first year. Much of that is due to the rules surrounding the expansion draft, which will allow Vegas to select a number of NHL-ready talents from the league’s 30 clubs. But one of the biggest opportunities for the Golden Knights will come in their exclusive free agency window.
By June 17, all 30 teams will be required to submit their list of players who’ve been protected ahead of the expansion draft. And come June 18, three days before the draft is set to be broadcast, Vegas will have a 72-hour window to speak with any restricted or unrestricted free agents who are left without protection. The open negotiation Golden Knights GM George McPhee can have with those free agents will give him the chance to potentially change some minds about Vegas, get them to ink a deal and join the expansion franchise for its first foray into the NHL. And don’t go thinking McPhee won’t be able to throw a bit of money their way, either.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Steve Carp, McPhee said Vegas owner Bill Foley “is not afraid to spend” to get players who can be integral to the organization. McPhee said it will be up to he and his staff to identify which players are worth spending the extra coin on, but should they find one player worth shelling out big bucks for, and one who can be convinced that Vegas is the right choice, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a potential UFA head to the Golden Knights before the July 1 free agency window opens.
It’s not an impossible scenario, either. Consider Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski, two potential top UFAs this past off-season who had their rights traded ahead of free agency. Yandle, who was dealt to Florida, forewent the open market to sign a seven-year, $44.45-million deal. Likewise, Goligoski, who ended up in Arizona ahead of July 1, inked a five-year, $27.375-million contract.
There is a catch when it comes to Vegas free agent signees ahead of the expansion draft, though. Any player with an expiring contract signed off the roster of any of the 30 teams will count as the Golden Knights’ selection from said team. So, when it comes to inking free agents, McPhee not only has to decide if he can make the money or term work, but whether signing the free agent is a better short- and long-term move than picking an unprotected roster player with an existing deal.
With all that in mind, here are five potentially exposed free agents Vegas could — and should — pursue:
Radim Vrbata, Arizona Coyotes
Vrbata’s a tough one in that he seems to love being in Arizona. After making his debut as a Coyote back in 2007-08, Vrbata has signed with the franchise on two occasions and was once returned to the Coyotes via trade. He always seems to fit the team’s style, too, with all but one of his best campaigns coming while he was a member of the Coyotes. This season, he’s having somewhat of a resurgence, with 18 goals and 52 points on the heels of a disappointing 27-point season.
So, prying him out of Arizona might be tough, but he’s going to be a UFA at season’s end, has had a solid season and is probably the best option for Vegas to select off of the Coyotes’ roster. The best thing is that acquiring a veteran winger who can play power play minutes and make an impact at 5-on-5 might not even cost the Golden Knights all that much.
Vrbata is on a one-year, $1-million deal that is loaded with bonuses that could have seen him earn up to $2.25-million in additional salary. Any deal that brings him to Vegas might need a bit more juice in terms of base salary, but it shouldn’t be an exorbitant price to bring Vrbata to the expansion club.
Cody Franson, Buffalo Sabres
The thought was Franson would be moved out by the deadline, but he ended up sticking around in Buffalo. It’d be hard to see him doing so beyond this off-season, however. Looking at the Sabres’ potential availability at the expansion draft, it’s hard to see who else would be worth selecting. Putting up big coin to pick Matt Moulson seems unadvisable, and the same goes for Tyler Ennis. That leaves defensive options, and Franson stands to come cheaper than either Dmitry Kulikov and Josh Gorges.
That Franson’s probably not in line to make a ton of money means Vegas can conduct a much easier negotiation with the defender, and it will help the team keep its cap hit down in its first season. And it’s not as if signing him is that risky a move. With Franson, you know almost exactly what to expect: he’s a puck-moving defenseman with a good shot who can log middle-pairing minutes. Not only that, but the analytics favor his ability to be a positive possession player. That’s an added bonus.
Franson was on the open market for almost an entire summer before the Sabres stepped up to sign him ahead of 2015-16. Instead of sweating it out this time around, inking a deal with the Golden Knights would let Franson know he’s got a spot in the NHL before training camps are even close to getting underway.
Malcolm Subban, Boston Bruins
Unfortunately for Subban, things simply haven’t worked out for him in Boston. The 23-year-old was a first-round selection, 24th overall, of the Bruins in 2012, but he hasn’t panned out thus far as an NHL-calibre netminder. A change of scenery would do him well, and it seems as though he’d be the perfect option for Vegas to take on as a project goaltender. There’s boom or bust potential here.
Subban has only seen two games in the NHL in his career, and both have been ugly. Overall, he has a 5.81 goals-against average, .727 save percentage and given the chance to start in the Bruins crease earlier this season, Subban allowed three goals on 16 shots. That was it for him, too, as he was demoted to the AHL days later and he hasn’t been back since.
With things going sideways in Boston, it’d make sense for Subban to take a look at heading to Vegas. He’d get a change of scenery, the chance to get in some games as a backup and, even if he’s not in the NHL, there can be more attention paid to Subban given he’ll be one prospect on a roster that doesn’t have much in the way of goaltending prospects to look out for. The potential is there, it’s just a matter of finding a way to have Subban reach it.
Ben Bishop, Los Angeles Kings
In THN’s Future Watch 2017, the Kings had the worst ranked group of prospects in the league. That should tell you something about the level of player the Golden Knights stand to get from Los Angeles at the expansion draft. Nic Dowd is certainly an option, but if Bishop remains on the Kings’ roster come June 18, McPhee shouldn’t waste his time thinking about anything other than signing Bishop as the team’s starting goaltender.
Bishop has struggled this year, no doubt, but he’s still among the best netminders available on the open market. Realistically, there will not be a better goaltender who’s available come July 1 and it could be a few years before another netminder of Bishop’s calibre hits free agency. That’s why the Golden Knights scooping him up when they have the chance would be advisable. And this could be the time when Foley really has to open his pocketbook, as Bishop could land himself a deal worth north of $6 million per season.
There is one catch, though: The Kings certainly realize how valuable Bishop is as an asset. There are a few teams — Vegas, Calgary and Dallas, let’s say — who will want him. The interest in Bishop could see his rights traded before June 18, and that could mean the Golden Knights have no shot at landing him. That is unless they're the team who deals for Bishops rights.
Kevin Shattenkirk (or Karl Alzner or T.J. Oshie), Washington Capitals
The Capitals have one of the trickiest situations heading into the expansion draft and there’s a good chance at least two of the three players listed above are going to see themselves available heading into July 1.
Shattenkirk is the only no-doubter of the bunch, though, and he’s going to find himself on the open market with the chance to cash in big time. The question then becomes how much he’s after and what exactly it’s going to take concerning term in order to get Shattenkirk under contract. If Shattenkirk is after $7 million per season over a seven-year deal, would the Golden Knights pull the trigger it in order to land the top UFA defender? That’s a lot of cash to shell out before even playing a single game.
In that regard, chasing either Alzner or Oshie off of the Capitals’ roster might be more appealing, but either being available comes down to what Capitals GM Brian MacLellan chooses to do. Both could potentially be protected, but that would mean the Capitals would likely have to expose Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. All but Connolly and Schmidt have deals for the 2017 campaign. If two of those four are protected — for arguments sake, say Eller and Orlov — that would leave the door wide open for Vegas to chase Oshie or Alzner.
Alzner would be appealing in that he’s steady on the back end and an iron man. There’s little concern he’s going to be missing any time, and he can instantly come in and be a second-pairing guy for Vegas. However, Oshie is having the best offensive season of his career and would give the Golden Knights an instant top-line winger. That said, he’s probably going to cost Vegas a lot more than Alzner would.
It all comes down to choice for Vegas, though, and whether they can make the opportunity with the expansion franchise appealing enough to the free agents to get them to sign on the dotted line. Luckily for McPhee, even if he can’t convince free agents that the Golden Knights are the right choice, he still gets a chance to land something off of each roster. Any swing-and-a-miss comes with cushion that no other GM will have.
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