The Vegas Golden Knights had it all figured out. The plan from Day One was to build the team through the draft with a goal of reaching the playoffs in three years and winning a Stanley Cup in five. Evidently, the team did their math wrong. They won’t stop winning now in Year One.
However, despite the team’s success, they have done exactly as they’ve planned. The Golden Knights built their 2017 NHL draft based on multiple trades that came with the expansion draft as they picked up an extra two first-round picks in draft-day deals. They also added an extra second rounder as well as extra fifth and sixth round picks. That totaled 12 picks in that draft, or 13, if you add seventh-round pick Dylan Ferguson, who the team picked up in a trade after the draft.
The draft pick collecting didn’t stop just with the 2017 draft, however. They picked up quite a few for the 2019 NHL draft as well as they have seven picks in the first three rounds in that draft and 12 picks total. Even in 2020, the Golden Knights have four picks in the first two rounds. However, the one draft that Vegas hasn’t targeted is this upcoming draft, the 2018 NHL Draft. It’s obvious, the team’s plan was to accumulate picks at the trade deadline this year. The team has several top players in the last year of their deals that could be sold off for assets, players like James Neal, David Perron, Luca Sbisa and possibly even Jon Marchessault. That has always been the plan, until now.
The team had been winning quite a bit early on, but the team’s recent 8-0-1 run may have changed the outlook of many. Now at the holiday break, Vegas finds itself with a 23-9-2 record, good enough for a three-way tie for first place in the Western Conference. This team is for real, having pulled off victories in just the last week over the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals. Just a few days ago, NHL.com’s Gary Lawless said that he doesn’t expect Vegas to break up their team at the deadline.
But what do you do with Neal? While Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise, it’s Neal that has endeared himself to Vegas fans. The winger has 17 goals, which leads the team and fans would love to have him stay with the franchise. However, he will be 31 years old at the start of the season next year. This will be Neal’s last opportunity to cash in on a big contract, which he truly deserves. However, do you give a 31-year-old player a long-term contract? An six-year deal? Eight years? At what cost? Or do they just let him walk away next season and start all over again.
Perron and Sbisa are probably easy enough to let walk away at the end of the season. While they both have played extremely well this year, the team could probably find replacements at their positions quickly enough. Don’t forget they have two young first-round picks who are dominating their junior league in Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki and another first-rounder in Erik Brannstrom in Sweden waiting to come over. Even Marchessault’s situation is easier to predict as he’ll just be 27 next year. A long-term deal might not look too bad at his age. No matter how many years they sign him for, after two years he’d be 33 years old in a league that caters to young players and have started separating themselves from older ones. Is that what you want on a young expansion team? So, what should Vegas do with Neal?