Sharks

NHL free-agency review: How Vegas Golden Knights stack up in Pacific Division

sharksvegasusatsi.jpg
USATSI

NHL free-agency review: How Vegas Golden Knights stack up in Pacific Division

Editor’s note: NHL free agency was fast and furious, and the moves that teams did (and did not) make set the tone for next season. All week, we’ll examine the Sharks’ Pacific Division rivals, and whether their free-agency approach put them in better, worse or the same position. Today, we dive into the Vegas Golden Knights.

The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs can't be talked about without Game 7 between the Sharks and the Golden Knights in the Western Conference first round

In addition to being the ultimate edge-of-your-seat viewing experience, it gave the rest of the hockey world a glimpse into the bitter rivalry that has very quickly manifested between these two teams.

Despite being around for only two seasons, the Golden Knights have become a force to be reckoned with. And with most of the Pacific Division teams having down seasons, Vegas has emerged as San Jose's biggest competition on the West Coast.

So while the Sharks have a lot to focus on this offseason in terms of their own roster, it doesn't hurt to take a peek at what the opposition is up to, especially a team with no cap space to work with.

Here's a look at what Vegas has been up to since the free-agent market opened up.

Players who stayed

Vegas has been incredibly busy getting its players signed to deals this offseason, keeping important pieces of its roster together. They made the most noise in late June when they signed high-scoring center William Karlsson to an eight-year deal. The top-line pivot ranked second on the team last year with 56 regular-season points.

Vegas also kept some of their depth from last season, locking up forwards Tomas Nosek and Brandon Pirri, and backup goalie Malcolm Subban. 

The Golden Knights still have a couple of players hanging out as free agents. But given they currently have zero room under the salary cap, according to CapFriendly, there will be moves made before anyone else gets signed.

Players who left

The lack of breathing room under the salary cap has, as expected, signaled the exit of a handful of players Vegas had on its roster last season.

Defenseman Colin Miller was traded to the Buffalo Sabres and forward Erik Haula was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes ahead of free agency. Center Ryan Carpenter signed a three-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in the first couple hours of free agency, and French forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare became one of many players scooped up by the Colorado Avalanche that same day.

Rumors have also been swirling that RFA Nikita Gusev could be headed to another team given Vegas doesn't have any room left under the cap, but there could also be another trade in the works to free up some money.

While the moves leave roles to be filled on Vegas' roster, it allows some of its promising young prospects to step up. The Golden Knights likely aren't done making moves this summer.

Better, worse, or the same?

Even with some pieces being moved around this offseason, the core of the Golden Knights is still intact.

With no cap space to work with, Vegas probably will make more moves this offseason. The Knights still, however, look like they're going to be the Sharks' toughest division rival for another season.

Sharks' Erik Karlsson ranked No. 24 player in league by NHL Network

Sharks' Erik Karlsson ranked No. 24 player in league by NHL Network

Erik Karlsson is arguably the best player on the Sharks. According to NHL Network, San Jose's defenseman is the 24th-best player in the league.

In counting down the best players in the current NHL, the league's network placed Karlsson in between 25th-ranked David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, and 23rd-rank Mark Giordano, the Flames' reigning Norris Trophy winner.

"We know that he can put the puck just about anywhere, he can skate himself out of trouble, he can pass himself out of trouble, he can do just about anything," NHL Network's Brian Lawton said of Karlsson. "For a defenseman in today's game that played on one leg basically last year … he did have 16 points in 19 playoff games and it wasn't quite enough, but it was pretty darn heroic if you ask me."

Karlsson totaled 45 points in 53 regular-season games with the Sharks after arriving in San Jose at the start of training camp last year. The Sharks had their best stretch of the season once he found his groove in early December, and if not for a troublesome groin injury, there's no telling how far San Jose could have gone.

The two-time Norris Trophy winner still managed to appear in the All-Star Game, and signed a lucrative eight-year extension with San Jose at the start of free agency. He tallied at least 62 points in each of the previous five seasons, and his 563 points since making his NHL debut are the most among all NHL defenseman, ahead of fellow Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (532).

[RELATED: Listen to Jumbo Joe mic'd up at a recent Sharks practice]

Karlsson will be an alternate captain in his second season with the franchise, and one would naturally expect him to benefit from having played a year in the system. He ranked sixth among NHL defensemen in points per game (0.85) last year, and with the departures San Jose suffered in free agency, it wouldn't be surprising to see that rate increase in the season ahead, particularly considering Karlsson says he feels "back to normal" after offseason surgery to address the injury that hampered him a year ago.

Assuming Karlsson stays healthy this coming season, you can expect him to be ranked even higher a year from now.

Mic'd-up Joe Thornton's youthful energy on display at Sharks practice

Mic'd-up Joe Thornton's youthful energy on display at Sharks practice

Whether or not Joe Thornton is a national treasure is debatable, but he's certainly a regional one.

The future Hall of Famer was mic'd up at a recent Sharks' practice, and he put that quality on display. The 40-year-old didn't appear as if his age has caught up to him, as he was quite talkative and involved throughout.

Just watch for yourself:

Whether it was chasing on the forecheck or missing an empty net, the eldest member of the Sharks looked anything but. Enjoying his first healthy offseason in recent memory, Thornton's energy is certainly palpable, and that bodes well for the Sharks as they attempt to get back to the playoffs for the 20th time in the last 22 seasons.

Thornton signed a one-year contract at the beginning of the month to return to the Sharks for his 15th season in San Jose. He'll be one of four alternate captains on the team, after Logan Couture was named the 10th full-time captain in franchise history, taking over for the departed Joe Pavelski.

With Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist leaving in free agency during the offseason, the Sharks are counting on several prospects to take a step forward this coming season -- and on Thornton to help them succeed at the NHL level. While line pairings are still in flux, it wouldn't be shocking whatsoever to see Thornton paired with one of those prospects on his wing.

[RELATED: Sharks' roster hopefuls still 'auditioning' as season nears]

Based on Thornton's mic'd up session, he'll be talking that prospects' ear off all game long.