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Neal departure ends 'Golden Misfits' era in Vegas

Forward who coined nickname signs with Flames, leaving in search of new identity

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

The "Golden Misfits" are no more.

It was forward James Neal who coined that nickname for the Vegas Golden Knights after the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, and he's gone now. He signed with the Calgary Flames as an unrestricted free agent Monday.

Forward David Perron is gone too. He returned to the St. Louis Blues, the team that exposed him in the expansion draft. Defenseman Luca Sbisa is leaving, though he hadn't found a new home as of Monday afternoon.

 

[RELATED: Neal signs five-year contract with Flames | Fantasy: Free agency roundup for 2018-19]

 

Forward Ryan Reaves stayed, but general manager George McPhee brought in new blood, signing center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nick Holden.

"It is really hard," Neal said. "Obviously it's never easy leaving a team. But I think with what our guys did this year, what we did for the city, how we came together, everything we built here, it was a special year."

That's the thing, though. The 2017-18 season was special. It was unique, and it's over.

The Golden Knights exceeded all expectations by shattering records for first-year teams and making the Stanley Cup Final, and did it with a roster assembled almost entirely at the expansion draft, and did it as Las Vegas's first major league sports team in the aftermath of the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1.

It was tempting to keep everyone together. McPhee said he offered a contract to each of his UFAs.

"We're attached to these guys," McPhee said. "Some of the guys that played for us, there's a strong bond there."

Video: GM George McPhee on Free Agency

But remember: A big reason the Golden Knights succeeded was because they made the most of their advantages as an expansion team. They had a clean slate in terms of their roster and the salary cap. They collected players for the short term and assets for the long term. They were smart, and then things snowballed bigger than they ever imagined.

They must remain smart to build upon their success.

"You really have to take the emotions out of things, and that is hard," McPhee said.

This is the unemotional truth: McPhee claimed Perron from the Blues and Neal from the Nashville Predators in the expansion draft knowing they were on expiring contracts, planning to flip them at the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 26. The Golden Knights did so well that he changed the plan and kept them.

It was worth it. Perron led Vegas in assists with 50 and ranked third in points with 66. Neal ranked fourth in goals with 25. Winning the Pacific Division, making the Stanley Cup Final and exciting the city outweighed whatever assets McPhee might have received for them at the deadline, especially considering the surplus of assets he already had.

McPhee prepared for their departure by using that surplus of assets to acquire forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline for first-, second- and third-round picks. Tatar was already signed through 2020-21. He struggled down the stretch and in the playoffs but has scored 20-29 goals each of the past four seasons. Though McPhee offered a contract to each of his UFAs, he did it on his terms. He had lots of cap space but wanted to be careful with length. He wasn't going to give long-term deals to players like Perron, 30, and Neal, 30.

"Term matters," McPhee said. "A couple of summers ago, we had a lot of older guys getting five- and six-year deals [around the NHL]. I think everybody realized that was a mistake. We're trying to be a little more circumspect."

Video: James Neal on signing a five-year deal with Calgary

Perron signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Blues. Neal signed a five-year, $28.75 million contract with the Flames. Good for them. They cashed in. Just not in Vegas.

McPhee got Stastny for a reported three-year contract and Holden for a reported two years. He said he kept Reaves from other suitors because he "simply took the money from a three-year deal and pushed it into two." Good for McPhee. He kept his slate clean in the future.

The Golden Knights will never be the same, and that's OK. They were never going to be the same. Evolution is inevitable with every team, but especially one that is still taking its first steps in the NHL.

McPhee has advantages with lots of assets and cap space, but he faces the same challenges every other GM has. Some might be stiffer, in a sense. He has to sign restricted free agent center William Karlsson, who scored 43 goals after never scoring more than nine in a season before. That could be tricky.

The Golden Knights started their inaugural season with the feeling that everyone was relatively equal and had something to prove, one of the reasons they jelled so well. But that can't last in terms of the roster or salary structure if players prove something. These are pains, but growing pains.

The Golden Misfits? Players are choosing Vegas now as unrestricted free agents. They are not coming as castoffs against their will. That's progress. Eventually draft picks will start to make the team as Vegas' first homegrown players. The Golden Knights will have been the only team they've ever known, and they will have been wanted from the start. That will be progress too.

Time for a new season and a new identity.

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