Golden Knights have questions to answer before Eichel debut
The Vegas Golden Knights and Jack Eichel always seemed like a perfect match. It all added up perfectly.
The Golden Knights are the most aggressive team in the league with roster moves, never meeting a blockbuster trade or free agent signing they did not like. They have set the bar at a Stanley Cup and are willing to do whatever they have to do, no matter how cutthroat it is, to get there.
They also needed an impact player at center, probably the one weakness they have had during their first four years in the league.
Eichel, meanwhile, was desperate to get out of Buffalo, get to a contender and a team that would let him have his desired surgery.
On Thursday, after months of rumors and speculation and questions, the Sabres finally moved Eichel to the Golden Knights for Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch, and two draft picks.
We still do not know when Eichel will make his debut (he still needs to actually have the disk replacement surgery and recover) but there is hope that it could be sometime later this season. Before that can happen the Golden Knights have a few questions to answer.
What do they do about the salary cap when Eichel does return?
This is the elephant in the room here. The thing about blockbuster trades and free agent signings is that those players tend to make a lot of money, and salary cap space will disappear. Quickly. The Golden Knights are able to manage right now because Eichel ($10M cap hit), Mark Stone ($9.5M cap hit), and Max Pacioretty ($7M cap hit) are all on long-term injured reserve and out of the lineup. William Karlsson ($5M cap hit) is also sidelined for a few weeks.
If and when they all return that will put them well over the league’s $81.5M salary cap ceiling (by about $10M), per Cap Friendly, later this season.
That will not exactly work during the regular season.
Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon acknowledged on Thursday after the trade that it is an “ongoing dance” and that sometimes you never return to full health. He added that if the Golden Knights do return to full health they will address it at that time.
[Related: Jack Eichel saga ends as Sabres trade forward to Golden Knights]
So let us be optimistic here and assume Eichel, Stone, Pacioretty, and Karlsson are all back at the same time, and that none of their other big contracts (Alex Pietrangelo, Robin Lehner, Shea Theodore) exit the lineup.
Somebody else is going to have to go.
The obvious candidates for that are forwards Reilly Smith and Evgenii Dadonov, both counting $5M against the cap.
With Eichel in the mix and the return of a healthy Karlsson they would not really have as much of a need for Dadonov, who has not really been the player they hoped yet. He would be expendable.
Smith would be a little more difficult to part with given how big of a role he has played in Vegas from the very beginning, but there are not really any other options that can easily be moved.
That is a lot of moving parts to land one player, but the Golden Knights obviously believe Eichel is the missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle.
One thing is for sure here, and we saw this a year ago with the Tampa Bay Lighting: Never let the salary cap play a role in your hypothetical trade discussions or free agent signings. Teams will always -- always -- find a way to get the player they want.
How do they stay competitive until Eichel returns?
The other big issue here for Vegas is the fact it has to actually remain competitive and put a team on the ice until Eichel makes his debut.
Right now that is a little problematic.
Not only are the Golden Knights dealing with a growing injury situation with Eichel, Stone, Pacioretty, Karlsson, and Nolan Patrick all sidelined, they are also off to a disappointing 4-5-0 start with some ugly underlying numbers. A significant part of that slow start is definitely a result of the injuries. Stone and Pacioretty have only played in two of the nine games, Tuch had not played in a game this season before he was traded, and now Karlsson and Patrick are sidelined on top of that.
Several those injuries are significant and will still result in a lot more time missed.
The remaining lineup right now is a fraction of what the Golden Knights expect it to be.
Adding somebody via trade is always an option, but it would further complicate that salary cap dance. The best hope might be for the players that are still in the lineup to play to their expected level. Theodore, Pietrangelo, Smith, Lehner, and Jonathan Marchessault are all off to slow starts by their standards. That is going to have to change quite rapidly.
Even though a couple of teams have exceeded expectations so far the Golden Knights are still playing in what is probably the weakest division in the NHL. They will also eventually get players back. They should still be considered a threat in the Western Conference. It is just going to be a bit of a complicated -- and maybe more difficult -- journey to get there than they expected at the start of the season.