They reached the Stanley Cup final as a first year expansion team. Now comes the bigger challenge: doing it again or, at the very least, not taking a major step backwards.
In other words, how does George McPhee avoid having his carriage turn into a pumpkin?
That’s the million-dollar question facing the Vegas Golden Knights GM, who after enjoying a storybook season in his first year of existence, will look to build upon the momentum in Year 2. In order to do that, Cinderella might have to reach into her pockets and actually buy the carriage this time around.
That means trying to attract free agents beginning Sunday. Luckily for McPhee, he’s got a new set of so-called ‘Golden Misfits’ already lining up to sign on the dotted line.
“Of all of my clients who are approaching free agency, all but one have put Las Vegas in the top-5 for desirable destinations,” said player agent Dan Millstein, who represents Columbus Blue Jackets’ Artemi Panarin and Tampa Bay Lightning Nikita Kucherov among others. “Everybody wants to win and Vegas has shown that they can win.”
Rick Curran, a player agent with the Orr Hockey Group, can relate to what Millstein is saying. “I can tell you that they are at the top of my guys’ lists and it’s not because they want to gamble,” said Curran. His group represents free agents such as Cam Ward and Tomas Plekanec. “With the success they (Golden Knights) enjoyed, the interest has jumped up another level.”
This is not exactly surprising. Even before Vegas played a single game, the desert was considered a favourable destination among players because of its warm climate and entertainment options, not to mention the fact that Nevada has no state income tax. But sunny weather and free tickets for Cirque Du Soleil only go so far in attracting free agents.
The real reason why Vegas might have an advantage over other markets is because of what happened last season and what potentially lies ahead.
In winning the Pacific Division with 109 points and then advancing to the Cup final — where they lost 4-1 to the Washington Capitals — the Golden Knights proved they are legitimate contenders. That they did it with a roster of rejects, many of whom were on bargain-basement contracts, proved that you don’t have to spend big money for big results.
At the same time, with $31-million in available cap space and 17 players already under contract, the Golden Knights have money to burn on the next band of misfits.
“We’ll explore it,” McPhee said at last week’s NHL entry draft when asked about free agency. “I don’t know how things will go. You just never know with these things and whether we’ll do anything at all or do something, I’m not sure. You’re sort of venturing into an area where there’s all kinds of things going on and you don’t know how it’s going to go.
“There’s no urgency for us to do anything. We like the team we have. We like the model we have. If we can make it better by doing something that makes sense, then we’ll do it.”
First up for McPhee is re-signing restricted free agent William Karlsson, who after scoring 43 goals is due for a hefty raise from the $1-million he earned last season. After that, the Golden Knights could try and sign Leafs’ winger James van Riemsdyk or Red Wings’ defenceman Mike Green or even swing a trade for Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson.
By doing so, a team that arguably overachieved last season could much pretty guarantee it won’t be missing the playoffs. That is, if McPhee doesn’t ruin what made the Golden Knights so successful to begin with.
Part of Vegas’ magic was in bringing together a group of castoffs who adopted an us-against-the-world mantra after being unprotected in the expansion draft. Even McPhee and Jack Adams-winning coach Gerard Gallant were kicked to the curb by previous teams.
“I kind of put myself right in there with them, because I got traded twice in six months after playing on the same team for five years,” forward Ryan Reaves, a pending UFA, said Friday. “When that happens, you’ve got something to prove. It puts a chip on your shoulder.”
Is there a risk that the Golden Knights could lose their identity in free agency?
After all, it’s hard to have a chip on your shoulder — much less call yourself a misfit — when you’re signing a multi-year contract worth tens of millions of dollars.
“I’m sure everybody is skeptical whether everyone on the team is going to be hungry enough to do what we did again,” said Reaves. “Time will tell, obviously. But I think having a taste of almost winning the Stanley Cup is going to make everyone hungry again.”
Vegas is still a gamble. Few believe Karlsson will reach 40 goals again or that pretty everyone on the team will enjoy another career year now that the buzz has worn off. But with a young core group and Marc-Andre Fleury in net, few also believe they will be a one-hit wonder.
And plus, if you’re going to gamble, you might as well do it in a city famous for it.
“Every guy wants a chance to win,” said Curran. “I think everybody recognizes that there’s no slam dunks anymore. All you have to do is make the playoffs and you’ve got a chance. They know that they’re going to build a competitive team out there.
“No one thinks they’re going to duplicate that success. But they have a shot.”