The Golden Knights signed their final outstanding free agent, locking up Nate Schmidt to a two-year deal, but now Vegas needs to get to work on clearing up the considerable logjam on the blueline.
As far as outstanding contracts go, the Vegas Golden Knights took care of the lone piece of summer business left on the docket this past weekend when they locked up Nate Schmidt to a two-year, $4.45-million contract.
The contract comes Schmidt’s way after one of the most successful seasons of his career, one in which he posted three goals and 17 points in 60 games for the Capitals, but it wasn’t a deal that was exactly easy to get done. Rather, it was arguably the toughest of any restricted free agent this off-season. Of the 30 cases that were scheduled to take place across the NHL’s two-week RFA arbitration period, Schmidt and the Golden Knights were the only two parties that actually required an arbitration hearing. But, when the dust settled, both got what they wanted.
For Schmidt, the deal provides him with a sizeable raise — from $875,000 in 2016-17 to an average of $2.25 million in each of the next two seasons — that’s going to come ahead of a campaign in which his role is sure to increase. He was an 18-plus minute defenseman in 2015-16, proof of his capabilities, and despite seeing his average ice time dip more than two minutes this past season, he’s a near lock for a bigger role with the Golden Knights when the team debuts this coming campaign. And the two-year contract gives Vegas some security. They know the 26-year-old is signed for two seasons, and should he stand out in Vegas, the Golden Knights can go ahead and extend him come July 1, 2018.
But, in the bigger picture, taking care of Schmidt’s contract really only means the Golden Knights have locked up an RFA who was yet to sign for the upcoming season. What it doesn’t do is give Vegas one thing they’re in dire need of in the coming months, and that’s some clarity on a blueline that has a greater logjam than any other in the NHL.
With Schmidt locked up, the Golden Knights now have 11 — count ‘em, 11 — defensemen under contract, nearly all of whom were acquired on the evening of the expansion draft. The list of rearguards runs the gamut from young, fresh-faced, potential studs such as Shea Theodore to veteran, crash-and-bang, enforcer types such as Deryk Engelland, with a bit of everything in between. The problem, though, is there simply isn’t room for everyone on the roster.
Sure, financially, there’s no issue with carrying all 11 defensemen as they earn a combined $20.825 million and Vegas remains under the cap by upwards of $5.6 million, but with only six or seven nightly spots available and a maximum roster size of 23, Vegas needs to do some trimming in time for opening night. And doing so isn’t as easy as shuffling some bodies to the AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves.
Matter of fact, as it stands, only one Golden Knights defenseman, Theodore, is available to be sent to the minors without hitting the waiver wire, and that can complicate things for Vegas GM George McPhee. In a perfect world, he would be able to whittle down his defense to his six or seven best and store a few NHL-ready hands in the AHL, but the lack of waiver-exempt defensemen won’t allow that to be the case. That could mean one or more of the defensemen Vegas selected, traded for or acquired via free agency could be lost for nothing.
Going down the roster, it seems to be clear who could be among those available, too. Schmidt, Theodore, Engelland, Jason Garrison, Luca Sbisa, Clayton Stoner, Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller seem the most likely candidates to stay in the big league, if only because the Golden Knights will be looking for those with NHL experience and may not want to start their NHL tenure by burying millions of dollars in the minors. That does, however, open up the possibility for Jon Merrill, Griffin Reinhart and Brad Hunt to hit waivers. And while losing Hunt, nabbed in free agency on a two-year deal, may not be the biggest concern, the losses of Merrill or Reinhart would actually be somewhat significant.
Merrill, selected in expansion from the New Jersey Devils, may not be the biggest name on the back end in Vegas, but the 25-year-old was a second-round pick in 2010 and has developed into a useful second- or third-pairing defenseman over the past few seasons. In 2014-15, as a 22-year-old, Merrill was a 20-minute per night rearguard, and has averaged nearly 18 minutes per night over the past two seasons. While that may not mean much coming from a Devils defense that has been mediocre at best in recent years, it still points to his usefulness and there’s potential there.
As for Reinhart, he’s an interesting case of a defenseman with intriguing potential who has yet to really meet expectations. Since being selected fourth overall in 2012 by the New York Islanders, Reinhart, who was plucked off of the Oilers’ roster at the expansion draft, has skated in just 37 NHL contests. That said, there were some who saw him as a candidate to make the jump to the NHL this coming campaign in Edmonton, but that may not be the case now with the logjam in Vegas. And if Reinhart hits waivers, he could be highly sought after as a big body with skills at both ends of the ice and room to grow, which opens up the possibility of an asset with upside being lost for nothing.
It increasingly seems as though, in one way or another, losing a player for nothing is what’s going to come to pass for the Golden Knights, too. Because while it at one time seemed as though Vegas would ship out a rearguard or two in order to get their roster ready for the season, the doldrums of the NHL off-season are upon us with no sign that there’s any imminent trade action coming out of Sin City.
McPhee and Co. gambled at the expansion draft by going defense-heavy and hoping to flip a handful in order to bring back picks, prospects and players who can help as the Golden Knights look to get settled in the NHL. And though Vegas did pull off a few moves, shipping out defensemen Marc Methot, Alexei Emelin, David Schlemko and Trevor van Riemsdyk, there’s still some important work to be done if the Golden Knights are going to clear up a bloated defense and get something, anything, in return.
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