Why the Golden Knights Aren’t Leaving Playoff Contention for Years to Come

If you’re a fan of an NHL team that doesn’t call Nevada home, then it’s easy to feel salty towards the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas created for themselves one of the best storylines in all of sports, by becoming the first expansion team (St. Louis you don’t count and you know it) to make it to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural year. Going into this season however, Vegas set out to prove that last year’s playoff appearance was not a one-off.

The Golden Knights clinched 3rd place in the Pacific Division and earned themselves a comfortable playoff spot. These results made it even more ridiculous to assume that there was any kind of luck involved with the team’s success. Most analysts and NHL teams stopped doubting the Vegas Golden Knights before last year’s playoffs even began. With the consistency of the team’s performance no longer a topic for debate, it made their second playoff appearance even more impressive. The Golden Knights cracked another playoff berth without any of last years underestimation. Their performance this season, along with a few other factors, is why the Vegas Golden Knights are going to continue to appear in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for years to come.

Know Thyself

It’s evident how well the Golden Knights drafted in the expansion draft a few years ago. They picked up untapped potential in William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault, as well as a veteran presence in net with Marc-Andre Fleury. Even players like James Neal, who has since left the team, performed well for the club in its first year.

James Neal has recently become a different kind of example for Vegas’ potential long term success. Neal appears to be evidence that Golden Knights GM George McPhee, knows when it’s best to let go. The Golden Knights opted not to fight for Neal, who signed a five-year contract with the Calgary Flames last offseason. Neal walked into the Saddledome with a $750,000 raise from his previous contract and contributed less than half the points per game as he did during his time with Vegas.

james neal 1
James Neal attempting to defend against Matt Duchene.

Neal had his lowest points production season this year with only 19 points. His second lowest was with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2012-13 season, where Neal earned only 36 points. That was the year of the half lockout, where the season was only 48 games long and Neal played 40 of them. Neal’s new team finished 1st in the same division he played in last year, so his huge slump is hard to find a good reason for. If James Neal at 31 years old, is going to continue on this spiral, then Vegas looks like they’ve dodged a huge bullet.

Getting the Most out of Their Picks

The Golden Knights have also drafted well in the two entry drafts they’ve been a part of. Cody Glass remains the most promising prospect they’ve held onto, as Vegas hasn’t been afraid to use their top drafted prospects in deals for currently established players. Defensive prospect Erik Brannstrom went to Ottawa as a part of the Mark Stone deal, and Nick Suzuki was sent to Montreal as part of the Max Pacioretty trade.

The reason Vegas may seem so quick to sell some of their best prospects, could be a result of the picks they hold in future drafts. In this year’s draft, they have four extra picks in the top five rounds, as well as an additional second-round pick in 2020. This sets Vegas up to have their cake and eat it too. They may have given up some great future NHLers, but in exchange, they’ve gotten tried and true players, while staying in a position to recoup young talent in future drafts.

Playing with House Money

Now having talent is great, but the problem with having it is that at some point you have to pay for it. Thankfully for Vegas, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Vegas is currently $2.4 million below the cap and going into next season there are not a lot of contracts they need to sign that could potentially make this an issue.

William Karlsson will be an RFA next season as Karlsson signed a one-year extension with Vegas last year after his remarkable 78 point season. Karlsson only earned 25 points with the Columbus Blue Jackets the year prior, so this short extension by Vegas was an invitation for him to prove himself. Karlsson needed to show that his drastic +53 points differential from one season to the next, was not just a happy accident. Karlsson ended up earning 56 points by the end of the 2018-19 campaign. Although he fell short of his previous season’s record, he still earned more points this season, then in his last two seasons with the Blue Jackets combined.

William Karlsson Points-01

William Karlsson’s overall growth is still very evident and it’s likely his new contract will reflect that. Had Karlsson surpassed his 2017-18 points total then perhaps his asking price would be much more costly. It’s likely though that Karlsson will cost the Golden Knights around $6 Million per year, which is still a very comfortable amount for them to pay.

Now Let us Compare

Vegas’ other stars like Marchessault, Stone, Pacioretty, and Fleury already have contracts shored up for years to come. Compare Vegas’ cap situation to that of their first-round rivals the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are currently working with the Hockey equivalent of two quarters they can rub together, sitting at just $371,747 below the cap. Half of their current forward roster is in need of new contracts next year, with the big ones being the two Joes.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks
Joe Thornton and Ryan Reaves battle for the puck.

Joe Thorton isn’t getting any younger; despite his points showing no evidence of that fact. Hopefully for the Sharks though, Jumbo will be willing to cut them a deal so they have more money to work with, as he currently has a $5 million cap hit. Joe Pavelski the team’s captain, will certainly be asking for something similar to his current $6 million per year price tag. Additionally, their big new star Erik Karlsson will also be a free agent come July 1st. This Karlsson currently plays the blue line for $6.5 million and if he does try to ask for Drew Doughty money, then the Sharks would need to add another $500,000 to his current per year price tag.

The Sharks could very well be a totally new team when they step on the ice next year, but if they do keep their big players, then their wallet sure won’t be any lighter. A final stressor the Sharks have that Vegas doesn’t, is that San Jose is left without a pick until the third round this year, and won’t have a first round pick again until 2021. Vegas on the complete other hand has an excess of picks this year and next, minimal contract stress ahead, and a solid foundation of firepower signed up for years to come.

Promise for the Future

Anything can happen from one season to the next, and it’s never a good idea to be overconfident in any position. Vegas though has shown little reason to place doubt on their decision-making abilities.

Appearing consecutively in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not unusual; many teams become playoff regulars in some capacity before ever falling from grace. However, appearing many years in a row, and staying as a top contending team is where the real challenge lies. The Golden Knights appear to be ready for that challenge. With the way Vegas has set themselves up for prolonged success, it seems like a safer bet to assume that Seattle will miss their first playoff appearance, before Vegas ever does.

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