The Vegas Golden Knights have made some puzzling moves in their short NHL tenure. It started with drafting 15 defensemen in the expansion draft, then trading away arguably their two best choices (Trevor van Riemsdyk and Marc Methot). However, the biggest fumble has been their treatment of Russian superstar Vadim Shipachyov.
The former KHL all-star signed a two-year, $9 million contract over the summer to likely start as the team’s first-line center. After drafting sharpshooter James Neal and a few other top-six forwards (Jonathan Marchessault, David Perron and Alex Tuch to name a few), it seemed like the NHL’s newest team would have a fairly formidable top line.
General manager George McPhee still had a slew of defensemen after trying to wheel them to other clubs over the summer, the fear was prevalent that putting some on waivers would result in claims across the league. The Knights did not want this scenario to play out, so in order to keep the upper hand in trade negotiations, the franchise opted to keep nine defensemen on the NHL roster and send three players to the AHL who were not waiver eligible — forwards Shipachyov and Tuch, as well as defenseman Shea Theodore. With a relatively slim talent pool, the Knights were expected to showcase these three players all season long as some of their best talent.
The franchise’s opener came and went, with all three players remaining in the AHL (to which Shipachyov did not report to the Chicago Wolves). Game 2 against the Arizona Coyotes ended with all three players still not on the 23-man roster (and all nine defensemen kept to open the season still not traded). Then, Vegas’ opener, marked as one of the biggest NHL events in recent memory, was played with plenty of emotion thanks to a boisterous crowd and unique ceremony to open the game. A night that the Vegas roster likely won’t soon forget was missing three of its marquee players, and it wasn’t because of injury.
All of this led to speculation that Shipachyov was seeking a way out of his contract to return to the KHL, but this report was later debunked by McPhee vehemently. Still, this roster issue couldn’t be sitting well with the 30-year-old, who left his native country in search of NHL eminence.
As they often do in the NHL regular season, injuries began to mount for the Knights. With Marchessault and winger Erik Haula both getting sidelined, Shipachyov and Tuch made their season debuts for their club on Sunday — Vegas’ fifth game of the campaign. Entering the contest with a surprising 3-1 record, the Knights defeated the Boston Bruins 3-1 at the T-Mobile Arena in downtown Las Vegas. This was thanks in large part to the team’s newcomers, as Tuch had a goal and an assist and Shipachyov scored what would be the game-winning tally to thrust the Knights to a 4-1 record, good enough for second in the Pacific Division.
With Haula set to return possibly within a week, the Knights have a looming decision to make; risk sending down Shipachyov again and further damaging that relationship or keep him up and expose a defenseman to waivers (if a trade doesn’t occur before that time)?
The answer is simple: Shipachyov is an electrifying player that can take charge in the waning minutes. Although the Golden Knights are not expecting a playoff push anytime soon, having a player of his caliber on an NHL roster will attract media attention and more fans into the building (that’s not to mention jersey sales). Despite the Knights’ impressive open to the season without Shipachyov and Tuch, the speed and skill the two players add can be a productive addition both on the ice and within the eyes of the fans.
Both players belong on the NHL roster and are worth losing a third-pairing defenseman to waivers. A defender of this ilk usually doesn’t amount to much at the bargaining table (see the Knights’ previous low-pairing defenseman trade that landed them a 2019 fifth-round pick). The Knights are truly building for the future, but keeping a budding-star player in the mix benefits the club in the long run more than a low draft pick will.
Another debacle with sending Shipachyov down could result in the center’s desire to return to Russia, or even a trade request, despite McPhee’s comments. With starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury landing on the injury reserve, Knights fans will need a star player to rally around. Shipachyov just may be that guy.
The honeymoon is ongoing in Vegas and the wins keep coming in. However, many believe the team’s success is due to a high adrenaline and the fresh feeling of being a new team. If these beliefs hold any weight, the franchise will need more than just Neal to bring in goal support. It’s a no brainer to keep the roster as talented as possible to keep the honeymoon going.
Feature photo courtesy USA Today
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