What We Learned: Does Vegas actually have a plan?

Over the weekend, Nate Schmidt and the Vegas Golden Knights had their arbitration resolved: The defender got two years at $2.25 million AAV, about half a million less and a year more than Schmidt’s camp wanted.

But in getting Schmidt locked in for two more seasons at a reasonable rate, George McPhee also quickly ran into another problem, and it’s one that should have been evident to any observer the night of the expansion draft:

Vegas has too many NHL-level defensemen.

Currently, the team has more than $20.8 million committed to — get this — 11 defensemen. In a given NHL season, you need about seven or eight. So that’s a few too many.

The team doesn’t need to free up money, especially once it LTIRs David Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, but they currently have the same number of forwards on NHL deals as defenders. You’ll note you need 12 forwards on a given game-day roster, so obviously they want to go with some kids like Alex Tuch or Brendan Leipsic to fill those depth roles.

But they do need to figure out what the hell is going on at the back just in terms of who plays and who doesn’t.

Keep in mind, also, that McPhee already traded away one defenseman on the roster, sending Alexei Emelin off to Nashville to be a bottom-pairing guy, but retaining $1.1 million in salary in the process. So really, that’s $21.9-plus million committed to 11 defensemen currently on the team, but they have a little bit of cap room at this point even now.

The problem, of course, is that their blue line is mostly bad. Schmidt and Clayton Stoner might be their best two options to actually get things done without completely embarrassing themselves — obviously not so much for Jason Garrison or Luca Sbisa — but these are perhaps middle-pairing defenders who might soon find themselves in top-pairing roles. Not where you want to be, and certainly not the kind of situation where you want to put a more promising kid like Shea Theodore.

After that it’s a hodgepodge of guys whose roles are, shall we say, difficult to guess.

Brayden McNabb, probably an NHL player this season but to say he was gently used in LA is a major understatement: he only played about 15 minutes a night last year.

Jon Merrill, who knows what they see him as, but he strikes me as a barely serviceable lower-end guy. Colin Miller is definitely a good bottom-three defender, but he might not be the kind of player Vegas truly values. Brad Hunt played more games in the AHL than NHL last season. Griffin Reinhart just seems to be pretty bad, insofar as he couldn’t crack their Oilers blue line last season at age 23. Deryk Engelland is definitely pretty bad no matter what age he is.

That’s another issue entirely: Most of the guys Vegas has on the roster were signed by their previous teams. That’s not the case for Engelland and Reinhart, both of whom were actively detrimental to their previous teams, but both of whom Vegas re-signed instead of either letting them walk (which they allowed to happen with guys like Chris Thorburn and JF Berube, both of whom aren’t good and were surplus to their needs).

But if Vegas re-signed them, clearly they’re in the team’s plans for at least next season. Who knows why, really, but if you sign two guys you intend to use them, right? Same goes for Schmidt and his brand new contract. Gotta figure Theodore is also a lock to make the everyday roster. So that’s four guys out of the seven you’re carrying for the bulk of the season, barring injury.

Maybe they don’t want to use all three of Garrison, Sbisa, and Stoner — the team’s three highest-paid defenders at a combined $8.525 million — but you probably have to keep them just given the cost.

But that still leaves you McNabb, Merrill, Miller and Hunt as guys on one-way deals. You have to figure out what you’re doing with them, and one imagines you can’t necessarily trade or demote all four of them.

Now, part of it is a process that’s (probably) going to work itself out at least somewhat naturally. Some teams are likely to run into issues in camp where maybe a rookie they had eyes on didn’t really make the cut. Vegas can also send a few of its lower-end guys down to the minors without a cap penalty, although one wonders about the team’s appetite to eat a few hundred thousand dollars in minor-league salaries for what are ostensibly NHL players.

Vegas also only has two goalies right now, from what I can tell, unless you count Oskar Dansk, which given his Swedish league stats from the past two seasons, you probably shouldn’t.

So this quickly becomes a labyrinthine problem. You have too many contracts and probably can’t do much to get rid of more than two of them without just taking an L and getting little more than future considerations back, or something like that. And given the state of things right now, maybe that’s all you want. Vegas has only 43 contracts on the books right now, but so many of them are NHL-only deals (seriously, the number is currently 26!) that McPhee doesn’t have a lot of room to operate.

Even if you’re saying, “Well they’ll carry eight defensemen,” which is something most teams don’t want to do, that still means you have to figure out what you’re doing with three of those guys. It’s a significant problem, not least because there isn’t a lot of difference in quality to go around here. If you could say, “Well these six or seven guys are clearly the most valuable of the group,” clearing out the other four or five becomes much easier.

What, really is the difference in relative quality between Merrill and McNabb versus Engelland and Hunt? It’s not that significant. And more to the point, because this blue line is probably the worst in the league anyway, why would most NHL teams be looking to trade for a guy Vegas doesn’t even want.

Obviously they’re going to get this squared before the beginning of the season; you can’t have 26 guys on the roster and they need some cover for other positions, even if they plan on rolling an 11F-7D lineup most nights (which honestly might not be the worst idea). The three you get rid of basically have to be on the blue line.

The good news is any of the three defenders you jettison aren’t going to make a difference. If you pick the right ones, there’s no big difference between your 11th and seventh defensemen. But because they can’t do that due to the contracts signed this summer, the questions become very interesting.

But there probably aren’t any good answers.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: It’ll be all well and good for Max Jones to make the Ducks out of camp if he can, but whether that speaks well for him or badly for the team is a bit of a coin flip.

Arizona Coyotes: Yeah this seems bad.

Boston Bruins: The good news is lots of guys in their mid-30s with a lot of hard miles on them get faster in the summer. This David Backes contract is going to work out great, believe me.

Buffalo Sabres: You’re not gonna believe this but the Sabres and Jack Eichel want to sign an eight-year deal together. Crazy!

Calgary Flames: All three of these questions ought to be about goaltending.

Carolina Hurricanes: Man I hope this means Carolina is going to start spending money more seriously. As of right now they’re still third from the bottom in cap obligations, about $17 million below the ceiling.

Chicago: Ehhh, wrong.

Colorado Avalanche: Theory — Because they’re tanking for Rasmus Dahlin.

Columbus Blue Jackets: To answer your question, John Tortorella has to prove he’s the reason Columbus had a huge shooting percentage on the power play for 35 games, or the reason Sergei Bobrovsky won another Vezina. One of those two things.

Dallas Stars: The Stars are in a similar but much less dire defense situation as Vegas. Someone will probably want Jamie Oleksiak.

Detroit Red Wings: Alright, cool.

Edmonton Oilers: Never say Ryan Strome isn’t a student of the game: He knows who Connor McDavid is.

Florida Panthers: Using your two best offensive players on the PK would be an, umm, interesting choice.

Los Angeles Kings: Oh hell yeah, dude.

Minnesota Wild: Interesting time to remember the Wild have Mikko Koivu coming off the books next summer. Is there a team with a weirder roster in the league?

Montreal Canadiens: Next week’s What We Learned will be about NCAA UFA-to-be Will Butcher but I can tell you this for sure right now: He almost certainly won’t be a cornerstone of any NHL defense.

Nashville Predators: I’m trying to be more positive in life so I gotta just say here: These new road jerseys are, hmm, “not for me?” Sure. That works.

New Jersey Devils: You don’t want to know what it will take.

New York Islanders: I’m gonna take the over here, but not by much.

New York Rangers: Yeah I mean I’m not a Ranger fan but it will still be very weird to think of Derek Stepan as anything other than a Ranger.

Ottawa Senators: They’re getting rid of the weird, apocryphal Centurion logo! Heyyyy!

Philadelphia Flyers: I don’t think it would be a terrible idea to put Nolan Patrick at the wing as a teenage rookie who missed a big chunk of his draft year, versus putting him head-to-head against second- or even third-line centers in the NHL. But probably the Flyers won’t do that.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Hmm well, this sucks. Isn’t the whole point of Kraft Hockeyville that the rink needs upgrades and they get to host an NHL game?

San Jose Sharks: Tomas Hertl is one of those players I just will inexplicably love forever. Hope he’s the MVP next year. He’s my special guy!

St. Louis Blues: Trading Alex Steen these days probably doesn’t net you any sort of big return, y’know? I guess the point would be to clear his money, but what are you spending that money on? This is just one of those contracts that made practical sense at the time and you knew you’d have to take the L later, and now you’re taking the ‘L.’

Tampa Bay Lightning: A pissed-off-all-year Lightning team should be fun to watch.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Yeah Tavares might have made sense as a mid-term rental a year ago, but now that you’re only a year from having to give out huge contracts for a ton of good rookies, it doesn’t. Especially given this team’s existing center depth.

Vancouver Canucks: This is one of those “I’ll believe it when I see it” things.

Vegas Golden Knights: The practice rink should be good to go for rookie camp in early September, but it seems like they’ll be cutting it close.

Washington Capitals: Nice little thing here.

Winnipeg Jets: Yeah I know.

Gold Star Award

Bless up to the World Junior Evaluation Camp. Nice to have highlights in early August. Thank you!

Minus of the Weekend

Sign Jagr!!!!

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “PanarinBagel” is all over it.

To CBJ

Duchene, Compher

To AVS

Murray, Dubois, 2018 1st, Calvert

Signoff

It’s not Batman.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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