George McPhee was asked in late 2018 about his philosophy for building the Golden Knights, which at the time was based on an equal distribution of salaries and a collective leadership effort to achieve success.
It was suggested to the then-general manager he was using a socialist approach, and McPhee humorously reminded his interrogator that Canadians are sensitive to that word.
“Sometimes, you’re better off with five players that make $5 million versus having one guy that makes $25 (million),” McPhee replied.
That model of shared wealth proved attractive to fans of the expansion team. The lack of superstars — excluding goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, of course — was offset by a balanced lineup and exciting style of play.
The signing of free agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year, $61.6 million contract last week is the latest example of the Knights ditching their previous ideology in an effort to upgrade with high-priced acquisitions.
While the addition of a Norris Trophy-caliber performer on the blue line clearly makes the Knights better on paper, the cost to sign Pietrangelo was more than a few zeros from owner Bill Foley’s checkbook.
Now the question for the Knights is how all this high-priced talent will mesh on the ice and, most important, in the locker room.
“The first year, the Vegas flu and all that stuff that came along with it, the gals with the big feathers at the games, it was all wild and something we had never experienced before,” Schmidt said. “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.”
The $12 million tandem could be the best in the NHL, but it’s also a ticking time bomb that already went off during the postseason when Fleury’s agent tweeted a picture of the goalie with a sword through his back and coach Pete DeBoer’s last name on the blade.
Last week, Fleury gave an interview in French to Le Journal de Montreal and said he understands his role will be to back up Lehner. Fleury also is on record as wanting to compete for the starting job.
How happy will he be if Lehner continues to get the majority of work, even in a condensed schedule? And how will DeBoer distribute starts if Fleury outplays Lehner?
In order to keep Fleury and Lehner together, the Knights sacrificed down the middle and put pressure on unproven centers to provide offense.
Cody Glass, or possibly Peyton Krebs, will be expected to match or exceed the production from Stastny, who had 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 71 games last season.
Glass, 21, is coming off major knee surgery and hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 17. The No. 6 overall selection in 2017 had five goals and 12 points in 39 games as a rookie.
Krebs has yet to make his NHL debut after being taken in the first round in 2019.
Also, Chandler Stephenson averaged 0.50 points per game after being acquired from Washington for a 2021 fifth-round pick. He earned a four-year, $11 million contract, but has never posted more than 11 goals and 26 points in a season.
McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon deserve credit for performing the salary cap gymnastics needed to afford costly talent such as Pietrangelo and Stone ($9.5 million cap hit).
The Knights are one of five teams with four or more players who carry a $7 million salary cap hit or greater for 2020-21, according to CapFriendly.com. San Jose, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington are the others.
But that star power is a major change from how the Knights were built.
No longer are there 23 captains. Core players from the first season have been pushed to the fringes.
Pietrangelo is a Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist who exudes leadership, but he can’t replace the sunny dispositions Schmidt and departed defenseman Jon Merrill brought to the locker room each day.
The Knights went away from a culture based on equality to one that relies on a few prominent individuals. Time will determine whether it was worth it.