Depending who you ask, the Golden Knights are either in or they’re out on John Tavares, because while there’s been no indication Vegas is one of the several teams lined up to have a sit-down chat with the superstar center before his interview window expires, there’s chatter that GM George McPhee could be among those to at least pitch to Tavares over the phone.
But land Tavares or not, pitch to him or don’t, this several-day period during which the current — and maybe soon-to-be former — Islanders captain is hearing offers from his most serious suitors is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to off-season intrigue in Sin City. In fact, on the heels of a Western Conference championship and trip to the Stanley Cup final, the most fascinating thing about the early off-season for the Golden Knights might not be who they bring in, but rather who they let go.
While nothing is set in stone and reports are just that, it appears two of Vegas’ key unrestricted free agents, James Neal and David Perron, could be on their way out of town after helping guide the Golden Knights as two of the upstart franchise’s veteran on- and off-ice leaders over the past season. Sunday night, the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s David Schoen reported Neal and Perron have, much like Tavares, begun listening to offers from outside suitors during the NHL’s interview period. And with Neal and Perron arguably two of the five- or six-best free agents available on the market, you can rest assured the offers are serious.
This past season, Perron in particular was a revelation in Vegas. Consistently a 45-point threat for the duration of his 11-season career, the 30-year-old caught fire early and seemed built for coach Gerard Gallant’s up-tempo play style. And though his goal total didn’t reach career heights — his 16 tallies were 12 fewer than his best lamp-lighting year — Perron set a new career-best with 66 points, blowing away his previous high of 57 despite playing in 70 games over the course of the campaign. As for Neal, while there wasn’t a single Golden Knight wearing the ‘C’ this past season, and while it could be argued that if any Vegas skater were to have worn the letter it would have been defenseman Deryk Engelland, the veteran winger was tremendous as part of the Golden Knights’ top six. He had a 25-goal season, accumulated 44 points and chipped in another six goals and 11 points during Vegas’ playoff run.
That said, there may be some semblance of sense in allow Perron to walk given his asking price could, and probably should, be inflated given the current free agent market and his career year. Additionally, he found himself out of the lineup at times during the playoffs, including one apparent healthy scratch in the final. As for Neal, though, the move is somewhat puzzling given his track record of success and that he was the fourth-best producer in the playoffs and one of only four Golden Knights with more than five goals during the run to the final. It’s difficult to posit there’s really a cap-crunch or money-saving element to either decision, either, given Vegas has nearly $31 million in cap space with which to work this summer.
That’s not to say the Golden Knights don’t have any upcoming cap concerns, though, because they most certainly do. This off-season, Vegas will need to take care of a few key restricted free agents. That will no doubt include defensemen Shea Theodore, who is due a sizeable raise after his breakout performance this season, and Colin Miller, who led all Golden Knights rearguards with 10 goals and 41 point this past campaign. Additionally, Tomas Nosek, William Carrier, Oscar Dansk and Teemu Pulkkinen will need new deals if they’re to stick around. The biggest RFA fish to fry, though, is William Karlsson, who is fresh off of a mind-boggling 43-goal, 78-point season and due a healthy pay hike on the $1 million he earned this past campaign.
Karlsson is an interesting case, too, because it’s not some cut-and-dry, pay-him-and-move-on situation. While Vegas could no doubt go long term and sign the 25-year-old to a lengthy deal worth $5 million-plus, there has to be at least some consideration given to the fact that Karlsson could have been a flash in the pan. That’s not say he’s not a capable scorer or even a top-line center. Rather, it’s to suggest that 43 goals and 78 points may have been an aberration for a player that’s more likely to float around the 25-goal and 60-point plateaus in coming seasons. But trying to hammer out a pseudo bridge deal now — Karlsson would become a UFA at the end of any reasonable short-term contract — could backfire in a costly fashion if he proves the naysayers wrong with another 35-goal, 70-point campaign.
There’s no good comparable for a player such as Karlsson, either. Who else can you think of who had scored 18 goals in three seasons prior only to break out for 40-plus when he was about to become a free agent? This isn’t NHL 18, and single-season statistical improvement such as Karlsson’s don’t come about often or, frankly, ever. It’s a tricky deal to figure out and one that will likely take some time to iron out.
Truth be told, though, Vegas may want to save some money and put the brakes on one Karlsson’s contract until they find out about another Karlsson. And, yes, we’re talking Erik. Dating back to the trade deadline, it has been reported that Vegas is interested in acquiring the current Ottawa Senators captain, which would almost certainly be followed by a long-term, big-money extension that is all but certain to exceed $10-million annually with some projected a contract worth more than $11-million per season. But landing the superstar, two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman comes at a price beyond his own current and future cap hit.
All indications are Ottawa wants to rid itself of Bobby Ryan and the final four years of his contract, which pays him $7.25 million each season, as part of any Karlsson trade. That’s a hefty salary to take on, particularly for a winger who has seen his goal and point totals diminish greatly from his first five full seasons as an Anaheim Duck to his past five campaigns as a Senator. Case in point: he scored the same amount of goals (11) and only three more points (33) in 62 games this past season than he did in 46 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. But if we want to tie it all together, maybe there’s a contract Connect The Dots here, one that sees the Golden Knights say goodbye to higher-priced free agent versions of Neal and Perron in favor of saddling themselves with Ryan in order to land Karlsson. That is nothing but speculation, of course.
No matter how Vegas approaches this summer, though, it stands to be one of the league’s most interesting, if not at the top of the heap. From Neal and Perron potentially — or probably — walking to cornering the market on the stud Karlssons, the Golden Knights have a lot to consider.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.