Little time for VGK brass to celebrate

With free agency beginning July 1, the Stanley Cup champion Golden Knights have some hard decisions to make in trying to keep their roster together for 2023-24.

LAS VEGAS — You’ve probably never heard of Andrew Lugerner and you may not know who Tom Poraszka is. But trust me, they are going to be very important in the coming weeks in crafting the future of the Vegas Golden Knights.

Free agency in the NHL begins July 1. Friday was the first day a player could be bought out by his team and that process runs through the end of the month. 

Lugerner, the team’s director of legal affairs and Poraszka, the director of hockey operations, are the overseers of the Knights’ salary cap. And with the cap expected to be $84.5 million in 2023-24 and the Knights already at $80,037,484, there’s not going to be a whole lot of wiggle room for the team, whether it’s signing its existing free agents or pursuing players from the other 31 NHL teams.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon admitted as much Friday when he addressed the media at City National Arena on the eve of Saturday night’s victory parade and rally on the Las Vegas Strip.

“Every team goes through it and we’ll deal with it over the next couple of weeks,” McCrimmon said of handling free agency. “We’re going to be able to keep the core of our Stanley Cup team together better than most teams that have won the Cup.”

For McCrimmon, team president of hockey operations George McPhee and the entire hockey staff, there wasn’t a lot of time to celebrate Tuesday’s Stanley Cup triumph. There’s free agency to deal with — the Knights have seven unrestricted free agents and seven restricted free agents to deal with, the most notable RFA being forward Brett Howden. 

There’s the upcoming NHL Entry Draft June 28-29 in Nashville — Vegas currently has five picks, including its first-round pick, and will select last in the first round. So there’s that.

The organization still has to hire a head coach for the Henderson Silver Knights to replace Manny Viveiros. 

Suffice to say, GMKM’s plate is plenty full.

“It’s still a bit surreal,” McCrimmon said of winning the Cup Tuesday and the subsequent celebrations that have followed. “You get to enjoy it for a little bit, but then reality hits you and it’s back to work.”

Bruce Cassidy, the team’s Cup-winning coach, said he would love to keep the band together. But he knows that’s not realistic. So whoever shows up to training camp at CNA in September, that’s who he’ll coach.

“I think the roster we had on the ice for Game 5 would be the group we’d like to have back,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ll do our best to make it work.”

The team has some obvious dilemmas facing it heading into free agency. Of their five goaltenders who played this past season, only one — Logan Thompson — is signed for 2023-24. Adin Hill, the Stanley Cup hero, Jonathan Quick and Laurent Brossoit are all UFAs. Jiri Patera is a RFA. Combined, the four goalies have a collective cap hit of $11,100,000, $5.8 million of which is Quick’s salary. Throw Robin Lehner and his $5 million into the mix along with Thompson’s bargain-basement salary of $766,667 and you’re talking over $16 million in goalies.

McCrimmon said Thompson’s rehab of his lower-body injury has progressed nicely and he is expected to be 100 percent for the start of training camp come September.  

For me, Lehner is the wild card in all this. It’s not a hard call to let Quick and Brossoit walk and test the free agent waters. But Lehner didn’t play the entire season and remains on LTIR. He’s got issues off the ice as he’s being sued left and right for business deals that didn’t work out. And it was telling that when the team celebrated Tuesday night, he was not on the ice while Brossoit and Thompson were despite both having been injured.

How do the Knights get out from under Lehner’s $5 million contract over the next two years? Do they find someone willing to take on that salary? Could they even swing a deal and get something tangible in return? Does Lehner still want to play? He’s going to be 32 next month and is coming off two hip surgeries and a shoulder procedure. Does he still want to play? Can he still be effective?

McCrimmon said he has been in contact with Lehner but he didn’t know the goalie’s status for next season or if he even plans on playing.

“He’s had major surgeries; he’s had three of them,” McCrimmon said. “It’s premature to suggest what you’re saying.”

Should Vegas be able to rid themselves of Lehner, it opens the door to re-sign Hill, who is 27, made $2.175 million this season. He’s going to want a significant bump in salary along with term, say four to six years. You’d like to think the Knights want to keep him. But can they meet what will likely be his lofty demands? Would Hill be willing to take a hometown haircut to stay in Vegas, where there’s no state income tax and translates to more money in his pocket?

But if Lehner holds firm and decides he wants to play and remain a Golden Knight, it may not be possible to bring Hill back. Or if some goalie-desperate team makes Hill an offer he can’t refuse, he may walk.

Of the other UFAs, I would like to think forward Ivan Barbashev is the one who the Knights would want to bring back. He did a tremendous job for Vegas after being acquired from St. Louis at the trade deadline for former first-round pick Zach Dean.

Not only is Barbashev versatile, being able to play wing or center and skate up and down the lineup, he brings a physical presence that Cassidy loves. He gets to the front of the net and wins battles in the corners. 

In 23 games with the Knights in the regular season, he had six goals and 10 assists. In the playoffs, he played in all 22 games and had seven goals and 11 assists, becoming a Stanley Cup winner for the second time in his career (he won a Cup with the Blues in 2019). He also played on the top line during the playoffs with Jonathan Marchessault, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs, and Jack Eichel, who had an excellent run in his first-ever trip to the postseason. 

Barbashev, who is also 27, made $2.25 million this year. He said he loves playing here and would like to stay. Like Hill, would he be willing to take a hometown haircut in salary for more term?

“His value to us is obvious,” McCrimmon said.”We’ll go through the process (with Barbashev) and see how it goes.

“Every one of these players deserves more money,” McCrimmon added in talking about the collective group of his UFAs and RFAs. “In the (salary) cap world, these are very valuable players. That’s why there’s always hard decisions to be made.” 

Which is why Lugerner and Poraszka are going to be so important. They are going to have to figure out how much the team can spend, where it may be able to make adjustments and in the end, be compliant come opening night in early October.

“We don’t make any hockey decisions without consulting them,” McCrimmon said of Lugerner and Poraszka, who’ve been with the team since the very beginning. “I think they do a tremendous job. We don’t have any dead money. They have been a big part of our cap management.” 

Cassidy said he doesn’t know where he fits in with free agency in terms of giving his two cents.

“If they ask my opinion, I’ll give it,” he said. “Then I’m going to go play golf.”