Marchessault at the top of McCrimmon’s off-season to-do list

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Marchessault is coming off a career-best season and will be an unrestricted free agent unless he can reach a contract agreement with the Golden Knights by July 1.

LAS VEGAS — For fans of the Vegas Golden Knights, they’re about to find out about the harsh, cruel side of professional sports.

If you thought losing by a goal in Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was tough to handle, watch what happens in the coming weeks as we approach July 1 and the start of free agency in the NHL. The spotlight will shift from coach Bruce Cassidy and his players to general manager Kelly McCrimmon, president George McPhee and the hockey operations staff.

Be prepared for changes to the roster. Your favorite Golden Knight may no longer be with the team. The reality of the salary cap is about to truly hit home.

McCrimmon said as much Tuesday at City National Arena as the players came back to collect their belongings and head out for the summer, much earlier than they had anticipated and hoped. For some, it could be the last time they visit the facility, some who have been there from the very beginning.

“We have talked to all the representatives and all the players who are pending unrestricted free agents,” McCrimmon said. “We have two months to work on this.

“There’s potentially more turnover this year. But our priority will be the players we now have.”

Six players are unrestricted free agents with Jonathan Marchessault at the top of the list. Pavel Dorofeyev is a restricted free agent. Combined, the seven players made over $19 million. The salary cap is going up from the current $83.5 million to a projected $87.7 million. It gives McCrimmon a little more room to maneuver. But he still faces challenges.

So what will McCrimmon do? He always plays his cards close to the vest and he rarely, if ever, discusses individual contract negotiations. But the team has to decide whether to keep Chandler Stephenson, William Carrier, Anthony Mantha, Michael Amadio and Alec Martinez, all UFAs, in addition to Marchessault, who is coming off a career year which saw him score a team-leading 42 goals that followed his great Stanley Cup Playoff run in 2023 where he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Final vs. Florida.

Marchessault, who is represented by Brendan Bisson’s father Pat, has said he wants to stay in Las Vegas. But he also said he wants to be treated fairly and compensated for what he has done on the ice. He’ll be 34 next season. He’s going to want long term as this is likely the final contract he’ll sign. I can’t see McCrimmon giving Marchessault five years along with a sizable raise from his current $5,000,000. If hits the open market come July 1, he may get both term and money but he’ll have to move.

“I’m happy being a Golden Knight,” said Marchessault, the only one of the UFAs to address the media Tuesday. “I would like to be one the rest of my life. But that’s not necessarily only in my control.”

William Karlsson, Marchessault’s closest friend on the team who played hurt during the playoffs with a hamstring injury, said he hopes things work out for his buddy and they remain together in Vegas.

“We all know what he can do on the ice and what a good guy he is in the locker room,” Karlsson said of Marchessault. “Hopefully he’ll be back with us.” 

Cassidy said: “I love coaching Jonathan Marchessault. It’s been one of the best progressives I’ve ever experienced as a coach. From becoming a 200-foot player, to helping lead us to the Cup and winning the Conn Smythe to having a career-high in goals this year. It’s been a pleasure to see.

“I enjoy my relationship with him. I love his energy around the room. But we’ll see where it leads.”

When asked about Marchessault specifically, McCrimmon said: “Marchy is an original. He’s a core player. He had a career year and his value extends beyond what he does on the ice. But we’re not going to comment on where it’s going in the negotiations and I hope he and his representatives will do the same.”

Some of the other decisions may easier for McCrimmon. The team could move on from Mantha, who struggled to produce offensively and found himself a healthy scratch for most of the Dallas series while earring $2.85 million. Amadio, a favorite of Cassidy who is a plug-and-play type up and down the lineup, made $762,500. The Knights could give him a bump into the low seven figures, perhaps at Carrier’s expense. He made $1.4 million this year but Carrier has a history of injuries. He has never made it through a full NHL 82-game season.

The two tough calls will likely be Stephenson and Martinez. The veterans have been multiple Cup winners, Stephenson with Washington and Vegas, Martinez with Los Angeles and the Knights. They also are commanding larger salaries, particularly the 36-year-old Martinez who made $5.25 million this year. Stephenson made $2.75 million. 

At some point, the Knights have to create room for their younger players and see whether or not they can play at the NHL level and produce on a consistent basis. Guys like forward Brendan Brisson and defenseman Kaedan Korczak, who is an RFA.

Could Martinez make it easy on McCrimmon and announce his retirement? Sure. He’s had a great run and his body has a lot of miles on it. Stephenson, who recently became a father for the second time, is only 30 years old. He can play up and down the lineup at center or wing. His 16 goals and 51 points may not have been his most productive campaign but it certainly wasn’t his worst. Cassidy likes and trusts his game and a case can be made to keep him in Vegas if the price and term are reasonable.

I would expect Dorofeyev to remain a Golden Knight. McCrimmon will get a deal done with the RFA. He’s progressing at he NHL level and at 23, you’d like to think his best years are ahead of him.

But what else might McCrimmon do this off-season? The Knights have just four picks in his year’s draft, which will be held June 28-29 at the Sphere in Las Vegas the NHL officially announced Tuesday afternoon. They have a first, a sixth and two seven-round selections. Could a trade or two for picks, both this year and the future be possible and help clear cap space for 2024?

Noah Hanifin appears to be working out nicely in Vegas. His game is similar to Shea Theodore’s and Theodore becomes a UFA after next season. Theodore also makes $5.2 million. To get that contract off the books would certainly help Vegas’ cap situation and at 28, Theodore is far from finished. He could fetch a nice return and could open up a spot for someone like Korczak to compete for ice time in the fall.

Again, McCrimmon won’t tip his hand. He’ll say what he has always said, that he is committed to making the team better and they’ll do what they have to do in order for that to happen.

Of course, if the Knights can ever stay healthy, whatever roster McCrimmon builds would stand a better chance for success. Cassidy said after the season ended that nine players had surgeries during the year. Vegas also lost close to 500 man games this season and that has been the case each of the last three years. They managed to overcome it in 2023 when they had 476 man-games lost after registering 471 in 2022, but this time, it got them, even though they were able to get Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo and Carrier back in time for the playoffs.

I’m sure McPhee and McCrimmon will assess the team’s medical staff along with its strength and conditioning along with its nutrition components to see if here’s something lacking or they can improve. If the Knights can find a way to reduce the injuries and man games lost, it will certainly be a factor in their success in 2024-25.

As for those who are coming back, Cassidy’s top priority may be where to play Tomas Hertl, who the team acquired at the trade deadline and was recovering from knee surgery in February. Hertl never found a home on a particular line, being played up and down he lineup at both center and wing.

“Le’s see what our roster looks like,” Cassidy said. “Ishe (Hertl) as a down-low center so we want to build a line with him that he can play off of.”

Hertl said: “I know I can be better. I know what I can bring to the team. I know I can help more than I did in the playoffs.”

Hertl said he was simply trying to fit in with whoever Cassidy plays him with.

“It’s tough to say who I was comfortable playing with,” he said. “I only played two games (in the regular season with Vegas). I have spent more time at center and I think that’s where I’m he most comfortable.” 

He’ll also have to decide who to pair Hanifin with on defense. Hanifin, who was acquired from Calgary before the trade deadline, played with virtually everyone. He spent the majority of the playoffs alongside Alex Pietrangelo.

Hanifin said Tuesday he’ll adjust to whoever he plays alongside and he is looking forward to a full training camp with Cassidy to get completely comfortable with the system.

For this team, the key to comfortability may well hinge upon health. When you’re constantly gerry-rigging your lineup, you never attain true continuity.

“We had a lot of adversity this year,” said Jack Eichel, who missed time during the season with a lower-body injury that required surgery in January. “Not just me. We had a lot of guys who battled through adversity.

“I’m sure everyone will use it as motivation to come back next year. At the end, only one team is satisfied. We were that team last year. This year, it’ll be someone else.”