When it was announced that the Vegas Golden Knights would be given a window to negotiate with both restricted and unrestricted free agents before choosing their expansion roster, the immediate impression for some was that this would be their best shot to realize swift integration.
Yet now, months later, with the protected lists now constructed and made available for your mock drafts, it’s apparent that this won’t be George McPhee’s primary means to building a competitive roster.
There are a few reasons for this, one being that the Golden Knights staff has its hands full negotiating with the other 30 clubs, not specific players. But even beyond that, rushing to sign players is a limiting strategy for the Golden Knights. They can secure the rights of restricted free agents without having to broker a deal, while any player from the unrestricted class signed inside the window would count as their selection from a team that could very well lose that player on July 1 anyway.
It’s best they let things unfold. But this is still an incredibly unique opportunity, to have full control of the board as the rest of the league ceases operations.
Here are a few free agents they should carve out some time to pursue:
It wouldn’t surprise many if Alexander Radulov signs a long-term extension with the Montreal Canadiens the moment the Golden Knights announce their roster (holding off on the signature means Montreal doesn’t have to waste a protected spot). But if Marc Bergevin hasn’t already reached a deal with the magnetic unrestricted free agent, McPhee should try to entice him into a cross-continent move.
McPhee’s first significant player investment was in Radulov’s former KHL teammate Vadim Shipachyov, who signed a two-year $9-million contract early last month. Together, the Russians could offer instant chemistry on a legitimate top-six scoring line to built around. (Vegas is also reportedly courting Evgeny Dadonov, a 30-goal scorer for SKA St. Petersburg this past season).
But on top of that Radulov is a fireball on the ice, and could not only be their most entertaining player, but their best as well. His energy would come as a useful diversion to what could be a lean on-ice product for several seasons.
It may not be in McPhee’s best interest to sign unrestricted free agents during this window, but in the case of Radulov, the cost (a player from Montreal’s limited non-protected list) isn’t massive.
One of the interesting developments through the expansion process was the sudden irreplaceability of Nate Schmidt, the so-called seventh defenseman on the Washington Capitals (who out-performed most in his limited minutes).
Schmidt has always had the speed and puck-moving capabilities that quality transition defenders possess, but it wasn’t until he put them on display in the Stanley Cup Playoffs – keeping Karl Alzner, who’s expected to net a fat contract in free agency, in the press box – did it become apparent across league circles that he could be one of the jewels of the expansion draft.
It wouldn’t hurt to just select Schmidt, and negotiate later in the summer. But making a commitment now might be the best way to keep the cost down on a defender with top-four potential for years to come.
A week ago it would have been absurd to suggest the Golden Knights take a player with 22 games of NHL experience from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then Steve Yzerman went ahead and expertly redistributed the talent on his roster with the Jonathan Drouin trade.
Now it’s pretty barren for George McPhee, who, if set on acquiring proven NHL talent, would now have to settle for a modest-earning bottom-six contributor or an overpriced veteran defender. Instead, why not table an offer to unrestricted free agent forward Yanni Gourde, who impressed as a fill-in late last season for the injury-riddled Lightning with six goals in 20 games?
The 25-year-old dressed 76 times for the Syracuse Crunch in addition to a late-season assignment with the Bolts, scoring 31 goals and 75 points, 27 of which came in the postseason.
The Buffalo Sabres really don’t have much to dangle in the expansion draft, which is all the reason unrestricted free agent defenseman Cody Franson is an intriguing option for the Golden Knights.
Franson’s value has sunk at a rapid rate since the Toronto Maple Leafs sold him at the trade deadline a few years back. He failed to secure the lucrative long-term contract many expected him to sign that summer and instead settled for a two-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. This ended up being a pretty terrible business decision, of course, as he failed to recoup his value as his production bottomed out in two injury-affected seasons on a bad team.
But despite what many would make from his career trajectory, Franson is still capable of good things, and will offer value wherever he ends up this summer. Vegas shouldn’t waste the opportunity to knock on his door first.
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