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The salary cap didn’t deliver the Golden Knights’ top line; bad talent evaluation did

No one saw this coming. The most optimistic projections for the Vegas Golden Knights suggested they might finish with 80-odd points: respectable, but well out of the playoffs.
The Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the San Jose Sharks
The Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the San Jose Sharks

No one saw this coming. The most optimistic projections for the Vegas Golden Knights suggested they might finish with 80-odd points: respectable, but well out of the playoffs.

Most pundits in the mainstream media thought the Golden Knights would finish in last place, with the Sporting News suggesting they would be the worst team in decades and finish with 47 points. That seemed a little unreasonable: the most recent expansion teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, finished with 71 and 68 points, respectively, in their inaugural seasons, and they had significantly more restricted expansion draft rules.

What absolutely nobody expected was that the Golden Knights wouldn’t just make the playoffs, but win the Pacific Division with 109 points. Definitely nobody expected them to sweep the Kings in the first round, then make short work of the Sharks in the second round.

Now the underdog Golden Knights, a team made up of the scraps from the rest of the league, are in the Western Conference Finals. It’s a Disney sports movie playing out in Sin City, the lovable losers made good.

In fact, the Golden Knights are apparently too good. Some of the same folks that looked at the Golden Knights’ roster and predicted a last-place finish now look at the same roster and see an unfair process that robbed the rest of the NHL of some of their best players.

Heading into the 2017-18 season, The Hockey News predicted that the Golden Knights would finish eighth in the Pacific Division (and that the Edmonton Oilers would battle the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final). Apparently no one at The Hockey News thought the Golden Knights roster had plundered other teams of top players at that time.

On Monday, however, Ken Campbell, the senior writer of The Hockey News, wrote an editorial column complaining that the salary cap failed two small-market teams. These two teams were forced to give up star players to the Vegas Golden Knights against their will, gifting the expansion team a powerhouse first line.

It’s an outrageous lie.

Or, to be more charitable, it’s a poorly-researched claim that has no basis in reality.

There is a lot to unpack in Campbell’s column, but let’s just tackle the main claim: that the salary cap is to blame for the Golden Knights’ first line.

That line was one of the best in the NHL this season, featuring Jonathan Marchessault on left wing, William Karlsson at centre, and Reilly Smith on right wing (not at centre, as claimed in Campbell’s article). The trio combined for 92 goals in the regular season and have led the Golden Knights in scoring in the playoffs, each at a point-per-game pace or better.

According to Campbell, these three players wouldn’t be on the Golden Knights if it weren’t for the salary cap.

All three of them came from financially oppressed teams that needed to dump salary. Think about it, if the salary cap actually worked, would Florida not have been able to afford to keep Rielly [sic] Smith? You know, the way the NHL told us these teams would be able to keep their good young players?

Those “financially oppressed teams” are the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets, neither of whom are in any danger of exceeding the salary cap. At the most basic level, neither team “needed to dump salary.”

The Panthers were over $6.8 million under the salary cap this season, more than enough room to accomodate Reilly Smith’s $5 million cap hit and Jonathan Marchessault’s paltry $750,000. Even if you look past the 2017-18 season, things look fine for the Panthers, who have their core players locked up long-term. If they had kept Marchessault, then cut ties with him when he asked for a raise as a free agent, they could do so.

Of course, some teams have internal spending caps well below the actual salary cap. That’s likely the case for a team like the Panthers. Even with that in mind, there still wasn’t a desperate need to move Smith and the Panthers ultimately spent the same amount of money this season.

Team 2016-17 Cap Hit 2017-18 Cap Hit
Florida Panthers $68,548,300 $68,601,012
Columbus Blue Jackets $72,805,200 $72,621,020

The Panthers cap hit actually went up a little this season compared to last season, while the Blue Jackets actual cap hit this season was around $180,000 less than last season.

That’s because the Panthers immediately went out and signed players with the money they “saved” by trading Smith. There was Evgeny Dadonov for $4 million, Radim Vrbata for $2.5 million, and Michael Haley for $825,000. Don’t get me wrong, Dadonov was great for the Panthers this season, but it seems like it was less about cutting costs than dumping a player that Dale Tallon didn’t want so he could sign players he did want.

And that’s about talent evaluation.

Reilly Smith was coming off the worst full season of his career, scoring 37 points. It’s important to note that 37 points still put him squarely in second-line territory, making him a valuable top-six forward, but he also had two 50+ point seasons on his resume.

Smith’s downturn in points was reflected by a career-low 6.20% on-ice shooting percentage. In other words, when he was on the ice the Panthers didn’t score at the rate you would expect, which is more reflective of bad luck than anything else. Smith still drove possession and created scoring chances at the same rate as the previous season.

It wouldn’t be hard to look at those numbers and Smith’s performance on the ice and conclude that he was due to bounceback in the following season.

Smith’s performance in Vegas has been a surprise — given an opportunity on the first line, he put up points at the highest rate of his career — but trading him away in a salary dump was always a mistake.

But let’s just say that they did need to dump Smith’s salary: how did they end up losing Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer making a mere $750,000 a year as well?

If losing Marchessault in the expansion draft was the cost of dumping Smith’s salary, the cost was far too high. This isn’t hindsight; this was apparent right from the day of the expansion draft. As Dom Luszczyszyn (also of The Hockey News) put it, “Some teams lost a replaceable player, some teams lost a decent player, and some teams lost a good player. Florida was the only team to lose two good players.”

The Panthers had plenty of options. They could have traded a draft pick to Vegas in exchange for them selecting Smith in the expansion draft. They could have negotiated with the Golden Knights to take a player other than Marchessault in exchange for taking Smith off their hands. That player could have been Jason Demers, who the Panthers apparently didn’t want and ended up trading to the Coyotes later that summer for Jamie McGinn.

Heck, the Panthers could have protected both Smith and Marchessault in the expansion draft. Teams had the option of protecting seven forwards, three defencemen, and one goaltender OR one goaltender and eight skaters. The Panthers chose to protect four defencemen, which meant protecting nine instead of 11 players.

One of those defencemen was Alex Petrovic, who ended up as a frequent healthy scratch this season and was on the third pairing when he was in the lineup.

If they wanted to move Smith after the expansion draft to dump his salary, there surely would have been takers around the league. Losing Marchessault was never a necessity. That was a choice made by Dale Tallon.

Then there’s the third member of the Golden Knights’ top line: William Karlsson.

All the Blue Jackets did was hand a first-rounder in 2017 and a second-rounder in 2019 (good grief) in exchange for taking on David Clarkson’s contract and future considerations. Those future considerations turned out to be an agreement to take Karlsson. And all the Golden Knights did was put Clarkson on the long-term injured list and turn Karlsson into one of the most startling revelations in NHL history.

Let’s be clear: this has absolutely nothing to do with the salary cap. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

William Karlsson has a $1 million cap hit this season. That’s it. That’s all.

David Clarkson costs literally nothing against the cap because he’s on Long Term Injured Reserve and will never play again.

It also has nothing to do with Columbus being cash-strapped, because Clarkson’s contract is insured in case of injury, so the Blue Jackets weren’t even paying his salary. It also has nothing to do with staying under the salary cap during the off-season, because players that are injured long-term can go on the LTIR during the summer.

No, this has to do with Columbus paying far too high a cost to prevent Vegas from taking certain players that they had to expose in the expansion draft. The Blue Jackets were unable to put all the players they wanted protect on their list, leaving young goaltender Joonas Korpisalo, and forwards Karlsson and Josh Anderson exposed.

Ultimately, the choice was between Karlsson and Anderson and the Blue Jackets decided to keep Anderson. It’s an understandable decision — Anderson was coming off a 17-goal season, while Karlsson had just six goals — but it’s shocking that the Blue Jackets would give up first and second-round picks to protect someone so unproven.

Sure, the Blue Jackets couldn’t predict that Karlsson would erupt with 43 goals, but it again raises questions about talent evaluation.

At the very least, we can all agree that the reason the Blue Jackets lost Karlsson had absolutely nothing to do with the salary cap or because the Blue Jackets were “cash-strapped.”

So there you have it. The Golden Knights got their entire first line from cash-strapped teams the salary cap was supposed to protect who could not keep their players.

Well, we can all agree except for Ken Campbell.



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