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Pacioretty trade puts Golden Knights on track to win Stanley Cup

Former Canadiens captain bolsters Vegas, which reached Final last season

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

The Vegas Golden Knights traded for Max Pacioretty for one reason above all others: They can win the Stanley Cup -- not in their sixth season, as owner Bill Foley originally envisioned, but now -- and need to take advantage of the opportunity. 

Vegas fell three wins short in its inaugural season, losing to the Washington Capitals in five games in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and general manager George McPhee clearly thinks it was no fluke.

He didn't try to manage expectations by talking about how difficult that would be to match. At the 2018 NHL Awards on June 19, he talked about making them better in the offseason "to deliver a Stanley Cup."

Well, here you go.

McPhee made the difficult decision to let forwards James Neal and David Perron leave as unrestricted free agents because he didn't want to give them the term they received on the open market.

 

[RELATED: Pacioretty traded to Golden Knights | Pacioretty understood what it meant to be Canadiens captain]

 

Neal, 31, who scored 25 goals last season, signed a five-year contract with the Calgary Flames on July 2. Perron, 30, who led Vegas with 50 assists in 70 games last season, signed a four-year contract with the St. Louis Blues on July 1.

But McPhee signed center Paul Stastny, 32, as an unrestricted free agent July 1. Then he acquired Pacioretty, 29, from the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday and signed him to a four-year, $28 million extension Monday, giving up forward Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

"We're a better team today than we were yesterday," McPhee said in a news conference, pointing out coach Gerard Gallant was a Canadiens assistant from 2012-14. "We think he's going to be a good fit. We have a coach who's worked with him in the past, knows what he can do, believes he'll play very well here."

The Golden Knights can keep together their first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. Then they can roll out a second line with Stastny, a better No. 2 center than Erik Haula in terms of two-way play and face-offs, and Pacioretty, a five-time 30-goal scorer.

Haula, who scored 29 goals last season, could shift to the wing on that line, or he could upgrade the third line while forward Alex Tuch plays with Stastny and Pacioretty. Tuch had 15 goals as a rookie last season.

Credit McPhee. He had more favorable rules in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and took advantage of them, building a team for the short term and stockpiling assets for the long term. He also adjusted his plan based on how things played out.

No one predicted Vegas would contend for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, let alone the Cup. McPhee intended to build methodically. He selected Neal and Perron in the expansion draft knowing they were on expiring contracts, expecting to move them for more assets before the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline.

But when the Golden Knights were not only in the playoff race, but one of the best teams in the NHL, McPhee kept Neal and Perron, forgoing whatever assets he would have received in return, and acquired Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings for a first-, second- and third-round pick on Feb. 26. It was a high price, but he still had a surplus of assets, and Vegas had a chance to win.

Tatar didn't fit, for whatever reason. He scored four goals in 20 games down the stretch, then one in eight games in the playoffs, when he was often a healthy scratch. Had he come back to Vegas this season, he probably would have been better. He has scored at least 20 goals in each of the past four seasons.

But McPhee was able to cut bait and add Pacioretty.

"The deal was did [Feb. 26] was market-driven," McPhee said. "That was the price. We did it to help our hockey club, and can't allow what we did [six] months ago to affect a good decision today."

Video: George McPhee on Vegas acquiring Max Pacioretty

He was able to trade Suzuki, 19, the No. 13 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft who scored 100 points (42 goals, 58 assists) for Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League last season, because he already has another player like him. Cody Glass, 19, the No. 6 pick in the 2017 draft, had 102 points (37 goals, 65 assists) for Portland of the Western Hockey League last season.

The second-round pick Vegas sent to Montreal? It acquired it from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft. The Golden Knights still have their picks in the first six rounds of the 2019 draft, plus two extra thirds and an extra fifth. They still have all their picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, plus two extra seconds. In other words, McPhee has a surplus of assets to build for the future or trade to win now.

"I think this organization's in a very good place," McPhee said. "We believe we have a good team. We have [NHL Salary Cap] space. We have draft picks. We have young players in the pipeline. And we're here to try and win, and to do that every year. We're comfortable with what we've done, or otherwise we wouldn't have done it."

This move might be hard on Pacioretty. He was honored to captain the Canadiens and loved living in Montreal.

"The positives of playing in Montreal and being the captain so heavily outweigh any negatives people talk about," he said at practice for the 2017 Scotiabank NHL100 Classic in Ottawa on Dec. 16.

But the positives of his trade outweigh the negatives for him.

"Max can come here and just play hockey now," McPhee said. "Doesn't have to be a captain. Won't be the captain. We've got 23 captains."

Not only does Pacioretty leave behind the pressure of Montreal, he gets to play with a center like Stastny and a chance to win. He should fit in with guys who called themselves the Golden Misfits last season.

They were jettisoned by their former teams and excelled in a new place. Why can't he?

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