The Vegas Golden Knights did everything in their power during their inaugural NHL season to set the bar impossibly high. Winning the Pacific Division and making a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final was an astonishing introduction to the league. With all of the pomp and circumstance of the first season now in the rear-view, there’s only one thing left to find out. What’s next?
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While the road back to the final could be difficult, and expecting a repeat bid of last season might be overly optimistic, the Golden Knights never planned for a season like they just had. As a result, they’re in solid shape with a foundation that had a longer-term vision in mind. While the organization may have enjoyed the most favorable expansion draft rules the NHL has ever afforded a new club, they didn’t use that to simply put a team on the ice for 2017-18; they put a competitive team on the ice.
Starting in 2018-19, Vegas is likely to resemble a more traditional NHL team, with some homegrown players in the mix to make the final roster, their first splashy free-agent signing in veteran center Paul Stastny and a minor league system that is, for the first time, wholly their own and stocked with their own prospects and minor league players.
Some teams take years to build a foundation similar to what the Knights already have after the expansion draft, two entry drafts and a host of trades. Here’s a look at how they got there and where things might be headed next for this franchise.
One of the Golden Knights’ big strategic plays heading into the expansion draft was to not only select players for their roster, but to also collect as many additional assets as they could. There was a premium placed on acquiring extra draft picks to give their talented scouting staff a chance to build more of a foundation of prospects.
That first NHL draft in June 2017 saw Vegas select 12 players, including three picks in the top 15 and two more in the second round. They selected Cody Glass at No. 6, then picked up Nick Suzuki at No. 12 and Erik Brannstrom at No. 15. Nic Hague, the team’s pick at No. 34, looks like another potential core player.
“We look at our 2017 draft as effectively having four first-round picks with Nic Hague being available in the second round,” said Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon. “We had him projected to go much higher, but the season he had [in 2017-18] we feel puts him right into the discussion with Brannstrom, Glass and Suzuki.”
Hague was the OHL’s defenseman of the year in 2017-18 after putting up 35 goals and 78 points for the Mississauga Steelheads. The Golden Knights’ first two picks also had massive “draft-plus-1″ seasons, showcasing themselves among the best playmaking centers in Canadian junior. Suzuki was the OHL’s fourth leading scorer with 100 points, while Glass had 102 points to finish seventh in the WHL. Meanwhile, shifty offensive-defenseman Brannstrom averaged top-four minutes as an 18-year-old in Sweden’s top pro league. Each has shown incredible potential to be a significant prospect, with Glass appearing to have the highest ceiling of the bunch.
In 2018, Vegas made eight more selections but had no first-round picks after trading theirs away to acquire Tomas Tatar in a trade-deadline deal with the Detroit Red Wings. It may be a little more difficult to mine some diamonds out of that crop compared with the huge haul in 2017, but the Golden Knights did well with what they had to work with in terms of draft picks. The club now has 20 prospects in the pipeline, with a smattering of UFA signings and players acquired via expansion draft trades that will help them fill out their organization.
Building a farm system on the fly
One of the more under-appreciated aspects of the way the expansion draft was set up is that it favored a team building an NHL roster, rather than a team trying to build an organization top to bottom.
The expansion draft rules didn’t really allow for the Golden Knights to select players who would not require waivers if they were to send them to the minors, which could have made a shallow player pool weaker in the event those players got claimed. As a result, Vegas didn’t have enough of their own players to fill out a farm team. They shared the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves with the St. Louis Blues, which had to split its prospects between Chicago and the San Antonio Rampage. With the Wolves technically being Vegas’ AHL partner, Vegas-hired Rocky Thompson was at the helm in a very difficult situation with players for two franchises on the same team.
“At the beginning it took some time,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to earn your players’ trust. I think there was a little bit of hesitation from the Blues’ players. We were in last place in December and the guys had to realize it isn’t the Blues or Golden Knights, it’s the Chicago Wolves, that’s what we’re here for.”
The Wolves turned things around, bouncing back from that last-place quagmire to win the division by the end of the season with several Golden Knights-controlled players stepping up in a big way. Thompson cited the speedy winger Tomas Hyka, defenseman Jake Bischoff and rugged forward Keegan Kolesaar as such players.
Vegas spent a lot of this offseason adding more players via free agency to help fill out the roster. It started last spring with the addition of top college free agent defenseman Zach Whitecloud, who could compete for a NHL spot but is more likely to be with the Wolves for a good chunk of next season. All of the players in Chicago next season will be under contract with Vegas either on an NHL deal or an AHL-only deal.
Hyka, who was initially drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 but never signed, is one of the more likely candidates from the AHL roster to make the jump to the big club. The 25-year-old put up 48 points in 50 games for the Wolves and managed to appear in 10 games for the Golden Knights.
“The first thing you’ll notice is how fast he is,” said Thompson. “He’s got elite speed to turn a corner on guys. To get him to play with that type of pace, he needed to learn at the beginning. He started to figure that out and then his stats jumped off the page. He’s got an opportunity.”
Balancing the future with an eye on contending
When the Golden Knights traded for Tatar, it showed that even though there is a long-term vision, they’re not afraid to do what they think is necessary to be a contending team. Vegas has also been among the rumored teams to be in the mix for Ottawa Senators star Erik Karlsson. A trade like that would undoubtedly require them to dip into their prospect pool to make it happen. Having a farm system in its infancy makes those kinds of decisions a bit more difficult.
“When I look at the teams that have done a very good drafting, developing, acquiring prospects or additional draft picks, we’ll need time to build our organization to that level,” said McCrimmon, citing the Tampa Bay Lightning, Blues and Winnipeg Jets as examples.
“With our team, where it becomes an interesting discussion is that we exceeded expectations in Year 1. That makes you anxious to maybe make that one or two moves that continue to allow you to be a really strong team that has a chance to be successful at playoff time. You’re balancing different agendas, all under the umbrella of doing what’s best for the organization.”
Vegas could certainly try to go for the big fish, but even if it doesn’t there’s a growing comfort level for where it can be based on what it’s already done.
The Golden Knights could see NHL-level impact from some of their top prospects as early as next season. There are six players age 25 or younger on the NHL roster already, with more likely on the way next season. Additionally, Vegas doesn’t have too many veterans locked up to long-term commitments, meaning there will be more opportunities for the younger players with each passing year.
Each of the team’s top four picks from 2017 will be given a chance to make the 2018-19 roster. Hague and Brannstrom will be eligible to be sent to the team’s AHL affiliate, while it would be the NHL or back to junior for Glass and Suzuki. Brannstrom could also potentially be loaned to the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, as he was recently selected in the CHL import draft by the club McCrimmon ran for 28 years before joining the Golden Knights. The team isn’t afraid to send players back to junior, but it wants to give them an honest look, too.
“We’re never going to take away the goal for a young player to come in and make our team,” says McCrimmon. “What we want to do is make the best decisions with our young players that enables them to continue to improve, continue to evolve into the player we want them to be.”
McCrimmon noted that it might be better for some of their prospects to play at a level where they can get first-line minutes and play in key situations. Glass, the team’s first-ever draft pick and top prospect, has his eyes only on the NHL, though.
“Summer’s been busy,” said the crafty 19-year-old center. “I’m just focusing on getting stronger and faster, gaining a little weight. My ultimate goal is to make the NHL this year.”
Glass has spent the summer training with Gary Roberts, the former NHLer who has become a sought-after offseason trainer for many top talents in the NHL. Tall and lanky, the teenage center still has a great opportunity to make the final roster and would likely get a long look, but the team isn’t going to hand him a spot. He’s arguably the most important player in the organization right now.
“[Vegas] gave me a huge opportunity as the sixth overall pick, and they expect a lot out of me,” Glass said. “I just want to prove them right.”
Beyond the young core led by Glass, there is also another potential key player looming in the background. Nikita Gusev, the star KHL winger the team acquired from the Lightning as part of the deal to select Jason Garrison in the expansion draft, has one year left on his contract after leading both the 2018 Olympics in scoring and finishing second in the KHL behind SKA teammate Ilya Kovalchuk with 62 points last season. It is unclear at this point when — or even if — he’ll ever come to North America, but he just turned 26 and could conceivably be an impact player given his advanced playmaking skills. There is no doubt the Golden Knights want him to be part of their future.
“He’s developed into one of the top prospects outside of the NHL, I think,” said McCrimmon, who noted he is hopeful Gusev will want to come to Vegas after his KHL contract ends with SKA St. Petersburg. “We’re excited by his skill level and enjoyed monitoring his progress over last season. We’ll continue to pay attention to where he’s at with his contract, his development and his interest in where he wants to play.”
Adding Gusev around the time Glass, Suzuki, Hague and Brannstrom may be prepared to step into bigger roles at the NHL level could be perfect timing for the Golden Knights to be an even stronger contender. That is, if they don’t go and shock the entire hockey world two years in a row.