Thompson has stopped 54 of 57 shots for a .947 save percentage, and he pitched a shutout in Thursday’s home opener against Chicago. He carried Vegas early with several acrobatic saves in the opening period before the defense eventually locked down. Cotter has impressed the coaching staff from the opening day of camp, earning a spot on the fourth line in the season opener in Los Angeles. Since then, he’s climbed up the lineup, now playing with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault, and he delivered Vegas’ only goal in the 1-0 win over the Blackhawks.
Thompson and Cotter still have a ways to go to prove themselves as every-night contributors at the NHL level, but early returns have been great. If they continue on this path, they would provide much-needed relief for the Golden Knights’ salary cap for years to come.
The two combine to account for only $1.53 million against the cap. Thompson signed a three-year extension with Vegas in January worth $766,667 per season, which means he’ll be making just over the league minimum through 2025. Cotter is currently in the final year of his entry-level contract, and signed a similar three-year extension with the Golden Knights in August that will pay him $775,000 per season through 2026.
Vegas has teetered on the precipice of the salary-cap ceiling for years, losing several key players for little-to-no return during that time due to cap restraints. The cap situation is largely a product of the marquee players they’ve acquired and signed to long term deals. The Golden Knights traded for Mark Stone in 2019 and locked him up to an eight-year, $76 million contract shortly after. They signed Alex Pietrangelo to an enormous seven-year deal in the summer of 2020 that runs through the 2025-26 season, and traded for the final five years of Jack Eichel’s contract – worth $10 million per season.
Whenever a team loads the top of its roster with expensive – albeit incredibly talented – players, it requires contributions from players with smaller contracts down the lineup. Those usually come in the form of talented young players who have yet to cash in, but the Golden Knights’ uniquely-successful start to their franchise has made those players difficult to come by.
Thanks to its immediate success, Vegas has had only one top-10 selection in team history, and has never picked inside the top five. Combine that with the club’s win-now strategy – sending prospects and draft picks out to acquire veteran players better-suited to help the current team win – and it’s easy to see why the Golden Knights’ pipeline hasn’t produced many NHL-ready players.
“It’s tough at first when you come into the league as a new organization, because you just don’t have the foundation for that,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “The picks take time, so maybe we’ll see more of that now going forward. I think there are some guys who showed well in Henderson who didn’t make it. Jake (Leschyshyn) spent time down there. He hasn’t been in the lineup yet, but I’ll expect him to contribute.”
Players selected later generally take longer to develop, but Vegas could be finally beginning to reap some of those benefits. Cotter was a fourth-round pick in 2018 and spent the last three seasons developing in the American Hockey League. He had only nine points in 54 games during his rookie year with the Chicago Wolves in 2019-20, but has taken steps forward each season. His production rose to 16 points in 38 games with the Silver Knights in 2020-21, and 34 points in 59 games last season.
Cotter’s physical, direct style of hockey is well-suited for a hard-nosed checking line. He showed he can play that style of hockey throughout the preseason, usually lining up with Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar on the fourth line. But the 22-year-old has also shown he has the hands to finish chances around the net, and an excellent wrist shot to score in transition. Whether he’s grinding away on the fourth line or providing an aggressive net-drive to a more offensively-minded line, Cotter has the skills to play in the NHL.
“There were multiple times throughout my carer when it wasn’t looking the best,” Cotter said. “I wasn’t making teams. I was smaller. I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet, but I just kept going. I skated every day. Private lessons, older groups, everything. I kind of willed my way through, and didn’t stop going. Each year I progressed another level. I have to find a way to keep it now.”
Thompson was undrafted but was named the AHL’s goalie of the year in his first season in Henderson, posting an impressive .943 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average. Last season he got his first taste of NHL action and played well in relief duty. Now potentially Vegas’ No. 1 goalie, Thompson has picked up right where he left off.
“Good for them,” Cassidy said. “Good for (Silver Knights coach) Manny (Viveiros). He’s got to feel good about his guys down there. The scouts and development people obviously love to see that. That’s their role behind the scenes. I think everybody wants to see good young players come up and play. It pushes other people and keeps people honest.”
Predicting Thompson and Cotter to be stalwarts in Vegas’ lineup for the next three years would be jumping the gun with such a small sample size, but to this point they’ve exceeded expectations. If they do indeed become key pieces, they’re sub-$800,000 salaries will go a long way toward helping Vegas balance its salary cap.
At their current level of play, they’re already great values in relation to their cap hit. If they continue this upward trend, those contracts will be as good as gold.
The Golden Knights current cap total is more than $96.5 million – $11 million north of the limit. That total includes the contracts for Shea Weber, Robin Lehner and Nolan Patrick, all of which are currently not counting against the cap because they’re on long-term injured reserve. The expectation is that Lehner and his $5 million cap hit will return next season. Including that deal, Vegas already has $80,014,984 committed to next year, when the cap is projected to be $83.5 million.
If Cotter and Thompson are both contributors, it would help massage that number considerably. Rather than looking to fill those positions with veteran free agent signings that usually cost between $1.5 million to $3 million, the Golden Knights could instead lean on their home-grown talent on team-friendly deals.
It’s worth mentioning again that it’s only been three games, but the strong starts by these two players already inked to long-term deals are the first signs of light at the end of the tunnel for Vegas’ cap crunch.
(Top photo of Paul Cotter: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)