The Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights did not waste any time on getting their offseason started.
First, they dealt forward Reilly Smith, one of their original six “Golden Misfits” left on the team, to the Pittsburgh Penguins while reacquiring their 2024 third round pick, which they initially traded away to acquire center Teddy Blueger. Then, they gave left winger Ivan Barbashev a five-year, $25 million extension, which will earn him $5 million per season.
While cap-clearing moves are getting more common these days, especially in Vegas, to say that this trade was a surprise is an understatement, especially since the deals were made three and two hours before the NHL Entry Draft, respectively.
But every Stanley Cup champion will always face questions, and a familiar question for many champions is “How will they manage their cap situation?”, which is the case again here. They have five unrestricted free agents, including Barbashev and goaltender Adin Hill, and three restricted free agents, including forward Brett Howden. Though it’s bittersweet trading away Smith, a fan favorite, they freed up $5 million in cap space, which they immediately used in locking up Barbashev.
Golden Knights Get Much-Needed Cap Space
At the time of the trade, Smith was second in Golden Knights franchise history in goals (124) and third in points (286), with longtime linemates Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson joining him in the top three slots. The three were together on the same line during the 2017-18 season, Vegas’ inaugural year in the NHL, where they made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Smith, up until this point, was also the franchise’s all-time playoff scoring leader, with 66 points in 88 games.
Smith is entering the second year of a three-year, $15 million contract he signed last summer. As bittersweet as it is, it gives the Golden Knights flexibility into an offseason that allows them to sign their free agents, which includes Barbashev and the rumored re-signing of Hill, who is speculated to get an extension “around the 2x$4.9M range,” per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, though nothing is official yet with him.
While the Golden Knights have $3.46 million in cap space, this doesn’t account for the uncertainty surrounding the status of goaltender Robin Lehner. He carries a $5 million cap hit and is still under contract through the 2024-25 season, though he missed the entire 2022-23 season recovering from double hip surgery.
Barbashev Solidified Himself as Top Line Winger in Vegas
In re-signing Barbashev, they have made a good deal in keeping him after he found himself a nice home on the team’s top line with Marchessault and Jack Eichel. Not only is he a strong defensive and physical presence, but extended time on the wing has paid off nicely for him, and he looks instrumental for their long-term plans, just not as a center like what the St. Louis Blues tried many times with him.
He can play at a high level in all situations. He was heavily utilized on the penalty kill earlier in his career, and, recently, he has been a fixture on the second power play unit. He was coming off a breakout 2021-22 season, where he had 26 goals and 60 points in 81 games. While his numbers didn’t reach that same level this season, they got back on track when he joined Vegas. He is in the prime of his career, and a power forward of his caliber getting paid for his services with a deal like this is not surprising.
Vegas got themselves a nice top six winger who can not only be physical on the ice, but also has a nice scoring touch. In trading Smith to the Penguins, they prioritized keeping their top playoff performers. Security is something they emphasized, and it meant that the cap hit of the contract would be lower than what teams would be asking for on the market.
He, Eichel and Marchessault have great chemistry with one another, and a guy like Barbashev doesn’t come around often. Expect him to continue to be on that top line, and much of the same of what he provides throughout these next five years. This is a good signing, especially given that he will be 32 once the contract expires, and that the salary cap will only go up for the NHL.
Smith Provides Well-Rounded Offensive and Defensive Play
The Penguins kickstart the Kyle Dubas era as the team’s President of Hockey Operations with this trade. After the fallout on the rift between him and Toronto Maple Leafs’ President of Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan, he comes over to Pittsburgh, looking to assemble a team that can make one last Stanley Cup run with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang.
While the Penguins are not getting younger, Smith provides consistency and goal scoring to the team, and he can also play on both the power play and the penalty kill. His 26 goals this past season were one shy of tying his career-high, which he set in the 2019-20 season. One can expect him to be on Malkin’s left wing on the team’s second line.
Coming off a Stanley Cup championship with the Golden Knights, hauling him should answer a few questions on the Penguins’ roster, though him being brought in could mean that it’s unlikely that the team brings back left winger Jason Zucker, who held the second line left wing spot that Smith is likely going to slot into. Zucker will be a highly sought-after UFA after notching 27 goals and 48 points in 78 games this past season. The five-time 20-goal scorer just finished the final year of a five-year, $27.5 million contract that saw him earn $5.5 million annually.
Pittsburgh now has a bit over $15 million of cap space to navigate through a seven-player UFA class, headlined by Zucker and goaltender Tristan Jarry, along with RFA forwards Ryan Poehling and Drew O’Connor.
Written by Alec Nava
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