What Will the Golden Knights Do For An Encore?
The Vegas Golden Knights came up short in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, but they have nothing to hang their heads over. They confounded the odds and the experts on route to the greatest inaugural campaign in the history of North American professional sports. They are certainly the leading contender for feel-good sports story of the year.
Which begs the question, where do they go from here?
While the Golden Knights enjoyed an wonderful debut season, they’ve also set a very high bar for themselves going forward.
As I pointed out late last month in a piece for Featurd.io (“Golden Knights Success Will Have Repercussions Around The NHL”), several of their notable players will face a much brighter spotlight than they’re used to.
William Karlsson rose from an obscure former third-line center with the Columbus Blue Jackets to the NHL’s third-leading goal scorer (43) this season.
Winger Jonathan Marchessault was a late-blossoming 30-goal scorer with the Florida Panthers in 2016-17. With 75 points in 77 games, he was a nearly a point-per-game player.
With 55 points, center Erik Haula more than doubled his production from the previous year with the Minnesota Wild.
Defenseman Colin Miller‘s 41 points were more than twice his career totals in his two previous seasons with the Boston Bruins.
Entering this season, no one expected much from from the Golden Knights. Their players could relax and play their game. In 2018-19, however, they’ll feel the pressure to play up to much higher expectations. Some could rise to the challenge, others might not.
I also observed the Golden Knights’ success this season resulted in a season-ticket sellout for 2018-19. Most of their fans realize their team won’t have an easy time returning to the Cup Final, but some could have their hopes raised to unrealistic levels. If the Golden Knights stumble next season, it could hurt them at the box office in 2019-20.
In an earlier Featurd piece, I touched on the busy summer that awaits Golden Knights general manager George McPhee.
Karlsson, Theodore and Miller are among Vegas’ restricted free agents this summer. Forwards James Neal and David Perron are their notable unrestricted free agents.
McPhee has just over $48.5 million invested in 17 players. If the salary cap reaches $80 million, he’ll have nearly $31.5 million to work with, assuming team owner Bill Foley is willing to spend to the cap ceiling.
While McPhee should have plenty of salary-cap dollars to re-sign those players, he must avoid overpaying for their services. If, for example, he ends up handing Karlsson an expensive long-term deal and the center consistently struggles to match this season’s numbers, that contract could handcuff McPhee in a couple of years, when cap space might not be so plentiful.
McPhee could continue playing the long game. He could keep an emphasis on drafting and developing his own talent, making affordable depth acquisitions and relying on his current core to maintain a reasonable level of competitiveness as they build toward long-term success.
But having come so tantalizingly close to the Stanley Cup this year, maybe McPhee’s appetite is whetted for faster results. Maybe Foley will push him to pursue high-priced help this summer. Perhaps he’ll attempt to parlay some of his stockpile of draft picks and young assets for an established star or two in hopes of making another run for the Cup next season.
In recent weeks, there’s been speculation suggesting McPhee could “weaponize” his cap space to pursue a true franchise player for his club. The obvious free-agent target would be New York Islanders center John Tavares. Many also point to McPhee’s attempt to pry Erik Karlsson away from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline and wonder if he might revisit his interest this summer.
Tavares and Karlsson would be expensive acquisitions salary-wise. There’s also the high asking price the Senators will set for their captain as part of a trade.
Most knowledgeable hockey fans and pundits don’t expect the Golden Knights to be as successful next season. They should remain a competitive playoff contender, but they will be hard-pressed to match or exceed this season’s impressive performance.
The Golden Knights certainly surprised hockey fans in their maiden season. Whether they’ll have more surprises up their sleeve, and whether they’ll be pleasant ones, remains to be seen.