November 31-in-31: Vegas Golden Knights

Jack Manning

2020-11-28

The Vegas Golden Knights have been among the busiest teams in the NHL since a disappointing finish against the Dallas Stars in the playoff bubble.  While they added one of the best defenders in the league and re-signed a 2019 Vezina nominee, the era of the Golden Misfits is squarely in the rearview mirror.  Yet, despite being pressed firmly against (and at times, beyond) the cap ceiling, the Knights found ways to improve their lineup and prospect pool.

 

Offseason Moves

Shortly after the 2019-20 NHL season came to a close, the Vegas Golden Knights unveiled the worst-kept secret in the league when they announced that they had inked Robin Lehner to a 5-year, 25-million dollar contract after he claimed Marc-Andre Fleury’s role as the starter in the bubble.  While Lehner had struggled to find a long-term home up until this point in his career, the trade deadline acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks is expected to provide stability in net for the foreseeable future.

In a normal year without a flat cap and an omnipresent pandemic, the acquisition of Robin Lehner would have virtually guaranteed the departure of Marc-Andre Fleury, who enjoys a 10-team no-trade list.  However, with a glut of goalies available by trade and through free agency, Fleury’s $7 million cap hit proved too big of an anchor to drag out of the dry lakebed that is home to T-Mobile arena.  Insider reports and rumors of all degrees of reliability suggested that the cost to move half of Fleury’s cap hit would be no less than a first-round pick and a good young prospect.  

For a team that has traded away three first-round picks, and eight second-round picks in their short history, the cost of moving the future Hall of Famer proved to be too much to bear.  If the Knights planned to make any additional off-season acquisitions (and they certainly did) they would be required to export another high-salary player from the top of the VGK lineup.

Outside of a few glaring missteps (paying $7 million/year to a goalie on the wrong side of 30, acquiring Tomas Tatar for a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, at the 2018 trade deadline only to trade him away with salary retained 5 months later), the Knights have been judicious with the salary cap.  Having locked up young players like Alex Tuch ($4.75m AAV through 25-26) and Shea Theodore (5.2m AAV through 24-25), and extended William Karlsson (5.9 AAV through 26-27) and Jonathan Marchessault (5.0m AAV through 23-24) the core the Golden Knights’  core was among the most cost-effective in the league, even as Vegas was scraping the salary cap ceiling. Nonetheless, when it appeared likely that one of the league’s best defensemen, Alex Pietrangelo, looked destined for free agency, Vegas was widely billed as the front-runner to sign the 30-year old. 

Whether it’s the weather, the favorable tax climate, or the unwavering pursuit of a championship, the Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the top free agent/trade destinations since their historic Stanley Cup run to the 2018 Stanley cup final in their inaugural season.  No team has been more aggressive in acquiring elite talent since the Knights joined the league. Although Vegas traded significant assets for the opportunity to sign Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Robin Lehner, Alex Pietrangelo was the first elite talent that Vegas would be able to sign for nothing more than cash and cap space. Vegas is rich in the former but was desperately lacking in the latter.

Nonetheless, on October 12, 2020, Vegas signed Alex Pietrangelo to a 7-year deal with an average annual value of $8.8 million.  This deal would make Pietrangelo the second-highest-paid Golden Knight, behind only presumptive captain, Mark Stone.  With this contract pushing Vegas far above the salary cap, they were forced to trade original Golden Misfit, Nate Schmidt and his 5.95m AAV to Vancouver for the discounted price of a 2022 3rd round pick.  Schmidt had been the Golden Knights’ top defensemen for most of their existence and had just completed the first year of his 6-year contract.  Vegas also traded the final year of Paul Stastny’s $6.5m contract to Winnipeg in exchange for a conditional 4th round pick and depth defenseman, Carl Dahlstrom.  The departure of Paul Stastny puts the spotlight on Vegas’ first-ever pick, Cody Glass, who will be expected to assume 2nd-line center duties.

In addition to the Knights’ marquis moves, the Knights allowed Jon Merrill (D), Nick Cousins (F), Valentin Zykov (F), Garrett Sparks (G), and Deryk Engelland (D) to move on.  As an apparent favor to the player, following Vegas’s dissociation with the AHL Chicago Wolves, Brandon Pirri was moved to the Chicago Blackhawks organization to allow him to live with his young family. Vegas re-signed Chandler Stephenson ($2.75m x 4), Jimmy Schuldt ($700k x 1), Thomas Nosek (1.25 m x 1) and signed undrafted free agent goaltender, Logan Thompson.

 

The Draft

The Vegas Golden Knights entered the 2020 NHL draft with 5 picks, after moving 3 2nd round picks at the 2020 trade deadline to acquire Robin Lehner and Alec Martinez.  During the course of the draft, they moved a 2022 4th round pick to acquire the first pick in the 5th round.  While the Golden Knights have a healthy prospect pipeline, the majority of their high-end picks have been traded, graduated to the professional ranks, or are knocking on the door to the NHL.  To that end, the Knights made some big swings on potential that are already showing some early dividends.

 

Brendan Brisson, C – 1st Round – 29th Overall

Brendan Brisson, son of NHL-super agent, Pat Brisson, is a skilled forward with underrated playmaking abilities and an elite one-timer from below the right dot.  

Brisson is off to a hot start as the 1st line left wing on a stacked University of Michigan team that boasts more than half a dozen former or future first-round picks, including two potential 2021 top-10 picks in Owen Power and Kent Johnson.  Through 4 games, Brisson has 4 points in 4 games, and has been on the wrong side of puck luck for several more near-goals.


Although Brisson was billed by many as a two-way forward while playing for the Chicago Steel of the USHL, he will need to continue to develop his defensive game and straight-line speed to realize his full potential.  As with virtually all draft prospects, he’ll also need to put some additional muscle on his 6’00”, 185 lb frame to compete at the pro level.  Brisson is expected to make a strong push for a USA roster spot at the World Junior Championship this winter.

 

Lukas Cormier, D – 3rd Round – 68th Overall

Cormier, a 5’10”, 176 lb defender was off to a lightning-quick start for the Charlottetown Islanders of the QMJHL before being selected to attend Canada’s lengthy World Junior Championship training camp, which began in mid-November.  Built much like a fire-hydrant, Cormier plays a much bigger game than you might expect from a defensemen of his height.  Unafraid to engage physically, Cormier is often in the corners at both ends of the ice to retrieve the puck.  While Cormier is often successful in generating offense when joining the rush, he is just as likely to generate points by way of a shot that has a knack for reaching the net for a goal, tip-in, or rebound.  The points have been abundant this year with 21 points through 13 games.  While Cormier plays at a strong pace, his footspeed is lacking, especially for a defender of limited stature.  However, his skating mechanics are strong, so he should be able to improve this weaker area of his game with improved lower-body strength.

 

Jackson Hallum, F – 3rd Round – 91st Overall

Hallum is likely the most “off the board” pick the Golden Knights have made in their short history, but his raw skills proved too enticing for George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon to pass up.  Unranked by virtually every major scouting service prior to the draft, when his name was announced at the draft, you could almost hear the scouting world let out a collective “who?” 

Passed over in his first-year of USHL draft-eligibility and selected late in his second year, many would have argued that a third-round pick was a steep price to pay for Hallum.  At the time of the draft, Hallum had yet to play in any high-end junior leagues.  Instead, he had been playing in the Minnesota high school leagues for St. Thomas Academy – a private military school.  Yet, as one of the youngest players selected in the 2020 NHL draft, his explosive skating and his ability to handle the puck at speeds proved to be too enticing of a package to pass up for a Golden Knights organization that lacked a 4th round pick.  

Not many players can credibly claim that they model their game after Connor McDavid, but from a style perspective, the comparison is apt.  In his first-ever USHL game on November 25, 2020, Hallum put up a hat trick, including two virtually identical breakaway goals that were only possible with elite skating.

Hallum is expected to join fellow VGK prospect, Brendan Brisson, at the University of Michigan next year after he completes his senior year of high school.  While he will gain valuable experience in the USHL this year, he will inevitably have some stumbles in his path to the pro ranks.  The lack of high-end competition has allowed some bad habits to sneak into his game which will need to be ironed out sooner than later.  While Hallum commits himself to the forecheck and backcheck, his elite speed masks some of the deficiencies which will present themselves against tougher opponents.

 

Jesper Vikman, G – 5th Round – 125th Overall

The Golden Knights traded a 2022 fourth-round pick for the first pick in the 2020 fifth round to select goaltender Jesper Vikman.  Although Vikaman has nice size and athleticism, his on-ice results have been less than impressive in Sweden’s J20 league.  In 2019-20, Vikman put up an uninspiring .902 save percentage and 3.35 GAA on a dismal AIK J20 team that concluded its season with a dismal 5W-16L record.  Unfortunately, results have not improved in 9 games in 20-21, where Vikman’s save percentage has dropped to .851 and his GAA has risen to 4.10 through nine games.

Like most goalies selected late in the draft, Vikman should be considered a long-term project.

 

Noah Ellis, D – 6th Round – 184th Overall

With their penultimate selection, the Golden Knights selected USHL defender, 6’2”, 192 lb defender,  Noah Ellis.  Ellis is a responsible defender with a nice passing game that has allowed him to generate 4 points in 4 games in 20-21 after amassing only 11 points in 47 games in the year prior.  Ellis is another longer-term project who will continue to develop at U-Mass Amherst in the NCAA. 

 

Max Marushev, C – 7th Round – 215th Overall

With one of the last picks of the 2020 draft, the Golden Knights selected Maxim Marushev, a 6’1” forward who put up 23 goals and 17 assists for 40 points as a 20-year-old in the VHL, Russia’s 2nd tier pro league.  Despite being a double-overager, the Knights saw fit to take a flyer on the VHL’s scoring leader.  Marushev is a puck hound who is willing to go to difficult areas of the ice to create scoring chances from in close, whether it be from a tip-in, rebound, or by driving the net.  

Unfortunately, Marushev hasn’t maintained the same scoring pace in the 20-21 season, accumulating only 1 assist through 7 KHL games, and 3 points in 11 VHL games.  It has been suggested by Vegas’ General Manager, Kelly McCrimmon, that Marushev may join the Henderson Silver Knights as early as May 2021, as his Russian contract will expire on April 30.

 Early Returns

While the Golden Knights don’t have many prospects in overseas leagues, the preliminary results in Russia and NCAA  have been largely encouraging.  With the Henderson Silver Knights expected to their AHL debut sometime in 2021, they declined to loan some of their most promising prospects to European leagues like the SHL that would require a full-season commitment.  Lucas Elvenes (VGK 2017 5th round) has been training—but not playing– with Rogle BK and Jonas Rondbjerg (VGK 2017 3rd) has been sidelined since the first game of the 2019-20 AHL season in which he suffered a broken arm. 

 

Ivan Morozov

Along with fellow top-prospects Kirill Marchenko (CBJ) and Vasily Podkolzin (VAN), the story of Morozov’s 2020-21 season has been one which depends on the ice-time allowed to him.  With 11 points through 26 games in the KHL, Morozov trails only Marchenko and CBJ’s 2020 1st round pick, Yegor Chinakhov in KHL scoring for players under age 21.  When playing up the lineup (or with Marchenko and Podkolzin) Morozov scores at nearly a point-per-game pace.  However, when given only limited ice time or when playing with less-skilled linemates, his production has been stymied.  With adequate minutes and strong linemates, he demonstrates why he is one of Vegas’ most NHL-ready prospects. Morozov’s KHL contract expires on April 30, 2022.

 

Pavel Dorofeyev

Following an off-season trade between KHL teams, Pavel Dorofeyev is hoping to take one step back to take two steps forward.  After scoring 7 points in 48 KHL games last year, Dorofeyev is spending most of his time in the VHL this year, where he is being afforded 1st-line minutes in all situations, rather than the limited minutes in a sheltered KHL role.  While the points haven’t been overwhelming (4g, 3a, 21 gp), the skills that made him a 2019 3rd round pick are still there. Dorofeyev’s KHL contract will also expire on April 30, 2022.

 

Marcus Kallionkieli

Kallionkieli continues to struggle to put up points in the Finnish U20 league after a lackluster season with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL.  With five points through nine games, he’ll need to really step it up to regain the form he had in his draft year where he had 53 points in 58 games with the Sioux City Musketeers.

 

Brandon Kruse

Selected in his draft+1 year, Kruse is now an NCAA senior looking to prove himself to be worth an NHL contract.  After a drop in his production in his junior year, Kruse now has three points in four games for Bowling Green.

 

Ryder Donovan

Donovan notched only five points in 32 games during his freshman campaign for the University of Wisconsin but has already scored a pair of goals and an assist through six games as a sophomore.  His play away from the puck is much-improved and there is more potential to this speedy 6’4” player than point totals might suggest.

 

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