The Vegas Golden Knights are gearing up for their inaugural season. As a new team, a number of offseason questions surround the Golden Knights, since they have only just assembled their first iteration of a roster, have yet to create an identity, and have no on-ice history or experience as a team.
Since March 1, when they were formally granted the ability to operate as the NHL’s 31st team, the Golden Knights have begun to take shape. General manager George McPhee hired a coach in Gerard Gallant, made their first official signing in Reid Duke, and began building a team through the expansion draft, the entry draft and free agency.
As a new franchise, expectations for the Golden Knights vary, and a number of questions loom leading up to their first season.
Can Vadim Shipachyov Thrive in Vegas?
Signing Shipachyov was a major accomplishment for the Golden Knights, as he joined the team as their second player ever. The 30-year-old Russian left winger made for an intriguing addition, as he has yet to play North American hockey. A number of teams noted his skilled play – as demonstrated by his 412 points (137 goals, 275 assists) in 445 career KHL games – and subsequently expressed their interest. But it was McPhee and the Golden Knights who were able to finally lure him over to the NHL.
As exciting as Shipachyov’s signing may be for Vegas, the question remains if he will continue his strong play in North America, as players have struggled adjusting from the international game to the NHL. Joining a team as inexperienced as the Golden Knights could give Shipachyov the ice time and space to grow into the North American style. On the other hand, without an established team and star linemates, he may find the adjustment even more challenging.
If Shipachyov does shine, McPhee could use him as a trade chip instead of a long-term cog in the Golden Knights’ lineup, since it is unlikely that they are competitive immediately, and he could be a game-changer to a win-now team. Plus, his favorable two-year contract that features a $4.5 million cap hit could bring in a valuable return. But all of that is contingent on how he performs in his first NHL experience.
Can Reilly Smith prove the Florida Panthers wrong?
Jonathan Marchessault was the official draft selection from the Florida Panthers, but not the only return. The Panthers originally were hesitant to expose Marchessault, but when they realized they simply could not protect him, and his transfer to Vegas was inevitable, they offered Smith, and his $5 million cap hit, in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
Of the Golden Knights’ acquisitions through the expansion draft, Smith was the most surprising – especially because he only signed a long-term extension with the Panthers last season (five years, $25 million). But after a 50-point 2015-16 season, he only put up 37 points this past season. While it may have been a down year offensively for Smith, the team’s season was disappointing and influenced by a number of injuries. Still, the Panthers, in their most recent organizational overhaul, in an effort to limit their cumulative salary cap hit, unloaded Smith on Vegas.
Smith’s productive 50-point season in Florida was under Gallant, which is why the Golden Knights may have been even more willing to acquire Smith. The overall hope from Vegas and Smith is a bounce-back season, closer to the 50 points earned in 2013-14 and 2015-16. A productive season for the 26-year-old winger could prove the Panthers wrong for being willing to part with him at such a low cost.
Who will emerge as a leader in Vegas?
Leadership will be crucial for a team that has yet to create its identity. However, it has not yet been established who will be a voice of leadership for this group of players collected from around the league. Many of the players on the Golden Knights were not the dominant voices or players on their respective teams, which is why many will experience a more expanded role in Vegas – possibly inspiring some to emerge as leaders.
In order to unite this group that was put together in a single offseason, and to help them blend as a team, a strong voice may be needed in this locker room – but who?
Most arrows point toward goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – an experienced Stanley Cup winner known around the NHL for being a stellar teammate. Fleury has experienced the greatest accomplishment for a hockey player, hoisting the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. And on the other side of the spectrum, he’s experienced disappointment in being replaced as the starter by Matt Murray in the regular season, and losing the starting role that he regained in the postseason after one poor showing.
Because of his success and popularity, he’s already being considered the face of this franchise. Due to his locker room presence and overall positive attitude, he could emerge as the team’s leader this season.
How different will this team look from season’s start to finish?
Currently, the Golden Knights have 13 forwards (two on long-term injured reserve), nine defensemen (plus two restricted free agents), and two goaltenders signed. Additionally, 13 non-roster players (most of which will play on their minor-league affiliates next season) are under contract. McPhee still has work to do to complete this roster for their opening game of the season, but it seems unlikely that it drastically transforms before the start of the season.
As the season progresses, though, this team is more than likely to change – especially since the Golden Knights will likely not be particularly competitive, nor headed for the playoffs closer to the deadline. Four forwards and five defensemen will be unrestricted free agents when next season concludes, making them options for the Golden Knights to trade as playoff rentals to more competitive teams. Even players with more extensive contracts may be traded during the regular season in an effort to accumulate draft picks and prospects for the future. Because of that, it is unlikely that this roster remains intact from the start of the season to the end.
Will this team succeed off the ice if it struggles on the ice?
Vegas is an unconventional market that has yet to have a successful major-league franchise, which makes the Golden Knights inaugural season groundbreaking. But with an unconventional market comes challenges – especially for hockey.
Since the Golden Knights have embraced their untraditional market and actively found ways to connect with their community, the team should be successful off the ice. However, when a team does not succeed on the ice, particularly in a market that is not as innately enthusiastic about hockey, it can reflect off the ice as well. Other Southern markets, such as the Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers, have experienced off-ice instabilities that have occasionally improved after their on-ice product improved.
It's not great when Perron rates as your best. It's easy to imagine 5v5 defense being passable but PP and penalty draws will be issues. pic.twitter.com/nwbzDSS1wZ
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 14, 2017
Moving into next season, the Golden Knights do not have the most impressive roster. If anything, McPhee may have been able to build a better team for right now, and the future, than what he originally assembled. Because of that, the team’s on-ice and off-ice success could be at risk.
Since their inception, the Golden Knights have promoted an idea of building for long-term future success. In order to achieve that and have a stable franchise to start, Vegas will have to stay committed to its new team, despite its struggles. If the team begins struggling on the business side, it could feel the pressure to immediately improve to facilitate off-ice success. A drastic change from the original strategy could prove costly, and risk its long-term future.
Also, this is the first NHL expansion since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets joined the league in 2000. If the Golden Knights stumble there are more implications, including on future expansion, specifically in unconventional markets.