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How the Golden Knights were built for the 2021 season

Updated November 14, 2020 - 4:26 pm

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon believes his team improved each of its first three seasons.

He bet big when trying to make that statement true for a fourth straight year. The Knights signed the top free agent available this offseason in defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and broke up parts of their roster to do it. Trades were made, free agents walked and the team became much different from the one that lost to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final.

Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse, however, and the Knights are one of the clear favorites to lift the Stanley Cup in 2021. Here’s how this year’s roster was built:

1. Expansion draft’s influence waning

The Golden Misfits are slowly going away.

Each year, more and more players from the Knights’ magical inaugural season have found themselves wearing a different jersey — or not wearing one at all. The team’s expansion draft acquisitions, which helped form the bulk of its first roster, are suddenly in the minority.

Nine of the 20 players on the projected 2021 roster were acquired in the expansion draft. That’s down from 11 on last season’s opening-night roster, which didn’t include then-injured forwards — and expansion draft pickups — Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch.

In the last nine months, Eakin and Nate Schmidt were traded, Jon Merrill signed with Detroit in free agency and Deryk Engelland was not re-signed. Rosters always evolve over the years, and more Knights were acquired via the expansion draft than any other method, but it’s undeniable the team looks far different from how it started.

“I don’t think you’ll ever replicate that (first year),” Schmidt said after being traded. “That is definitely something that has since moved on into a team that is an incredibly good team that’s in very much a win-now mode, and there are casualties to that.”

2. Few free agents

Free agency is usually a trap.

If often features desperate teams throwing top dollar at players deemed expendable by their current clubs. Each year’s free-agent contracts are later littered with regrets, but that typically doesn’t stop teams willing to risk their future for a short-term solution.

The Knights are the rare NHL team that shows restraint. Just two of the team’s players were originally acquired via unrestricted free agency: defensemen Pietrangelo and Nick Holden. Only the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings have fewer UFA signings on their roster.

Instead, the Knights tend to target pending free agents in trades and re-sign them before they hit the open market. Robin Lehner, Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and Ryan Reaves were pending UFAs when they were acquired, and all but Reaves re-signed before free agency began. Nicolas Roy and Chandler Stephenson were pending restricted free agents, and both were re-signed.

This method of doing business has led to the Knights parting with more draft capital, prospects and players, but it has allowed them to negotiate without other teams in the mix. It also means it takes a special circumstance, like having Pietrangelo available, to get the club to make a move on the open market.

“With Alex, we get a guy that’s in the discussion for the Norris Trophy each year,” McCrimmon said after the signing became official. “We wouldn’t have gone to these lengths for anyone but a player that we think can do as much for our team as Alex can.”

3. Time for youth to be served

The Knights, because they’ve let veterans leave and haven’t spent lavishly in free agency to replace them, should be more reliant on young players than ever in 2021.

Rookies Nicolas Roy and Zach Whitecould already played key roles in the 2020 playoffs. Cody Glass should be given more responsibility after center Paul Stastny left via trade.

The depth should be young as well.

Veterans Tomas Nosek and Nick Cousins largely alternated as the team’s 13th forward in the postseason. That job might now fall to Gage Quinney, Keegan Kolesar or Reid Duke, three of the extra forwards the Knights took to Edmonton, Alberta. Quinney has played three NHL games, Kolesar one and Duke none.

The story is the same on defense. Merrill and Engelland were the team’s seventh and eighth defensemen, and now both are gone. That means 21-year-old Nic Hague has to build on his rookie season, and 22-year-old Dylan Coghlan should be prepared to contribute.

“I love the development of some of the young guys,” coach Pete DeBoer said after the postseason. “There’s some young guys there that I can’t wait to get our hands on.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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