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The Golden Knights have turned roster building on its head

Noah Hanifin (right) and Vegas Golden Knights celebrate Noah Hanifin (right) and Vegas Golden Knights celebrate - The Canadian Press

Another trade deadline has passed, once again defined by general manager Kelly McCrimmon and the ultra-aggressive Vegas Golden Knights.

While there has been no shortage of consternation over McCrimmon adding a trio of high-end players this season amidst serious salary cap challenges, it’s also important to underline the ingenuity of Vegas’ strategy, which isn’t just about long-term injured reserve (LTIR).

Let’s first talk about the criticism over Vegas’ frequent leveraging of LTIR. Three things are indisputably true: LTIR allows teams to temporarily exceed the salary cap ceiling, the Golden Knights have leveraged that cap mechanism frequently to add players to their lineup, and the Golden Knights are not the only team to have figured this mechanism out – even non-contending, cash-poor teams like the Arizona Coyotes use LTIR to manipulate their cap position.

LTIR can be used to temporarily exceed the cap because it was designed for injured players who are anticipated to miss at least 10 games and 24 consecutive days in a regular season. But because it’s intricately tied to cap overages, it’s become a breeding ground for conspiracies about circumvention.

Vegas captain Mark Stone has been front and centre there, having missed 39 games in the run-up to the team’s Cup bid last season. This year, Stone and his sizable contract are on the shelf again as he deals with a lacerated spleen.

Some have argued Vegas plays coy with their injuries in order to strategically skirt the cap ceiling, but I think that argument falls apart under scrutiny on two fronts.

The first is obvious: Vegas is a superior team with Stone in the lineup (or Jack Eichel previously, or any other number of players who have been placed on LTIR over the years), and the standings support that.

Few teams have struggled as much as an injured Vegas club has in recent months – in fact, the Golden Knights are playing at an 82-point pace since Dec. 1, 25th in the league and on par with the Washington Capitals.

The second is less obvious, but critically important: Vegas has learned through these injuries that the best time for a contender to build their roster may actually be at the trade deadline.

How could that be, at a time when asset prices are through the roof? The reality is the cap world has changed. With limited year-over-year growth, most teams are frequently against the cap ceiling and do not have a lot of flexibility during the season.

When the trade deadline approaches, sellers look for ways to clear salary ahead of the approaching off-season. In many cases, that might mean salary tied to a very productive player. As teams reach the off-season, roster flexibility greatly increases. Or said another way: the incentive system for teams in the off-season is quite different than in-season, and teams behave accordingly.

That’s what the Golden Knights figured out well before the rest of the league. As a perennial contender that has also dealt with some injury misfortune, they can reload talent at the trade deadline every year, and clean up their books in the summer when it’s easier to do so. It completely defies what we have known about team-building in the NHL.

First, let’s look at what the Golden Knights have done in-season since the Stone deal. I’m only covering the pertinent trades, where Vegas has added a huge portion of their roster by spending $23-million in net cap (via CapFriendly):

That’s a lot of cap to add over the course of the season and it goes without saying several of these players had multi-year deals that will hang around for some time. At some point, these players will age and become problems for Vegas, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Notably, look at how many of these trades – especially recently – involved salary retention. Teams are still more than willing to accommodate the Golden Knights, whether they want to admit it or not. This is where much of the consternation over Vegas’ cap gymnastics comes from.

You would be right to argue that such a strategy only works if a team has one or more injuries to meaningful contracts. But the likelihood of that being the case 60 games into a regular season is quite high – look around the NHL, and you will find the lion’s share of teams have one or more players parked on IR/LTIR. Vegas is just the one team positioning themselves around that fact.

But I bring a second, just as important table that shows what Vegas has done in the off-season. To me, this is a much more compelling story:

How about shedding nearly $44-million in cap hits for the approaching season over the past five years? Teams are just as accommodating with Vegas in the off-season, frequently allowing them to clean up the proverbial balance sheet at marginal cost. It’s hard to find a trade here that did not work out for the Golden Knights, and that’s predominantly with the team in a seller’s role.

There are endless reasons to hate what the Golden Knights are doing, especially if you’re a fan of a team that’s struggled to win in recent years. But set aside the injury conspiracies and you will quickly realize Vegas has flipped the timing of roster building on its head. Sellers in the summer, buyers in the winter, and they’re able to do both because the rest of the league hasn’t quite caught on yet.

Now we see if they can repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly