Brandon Pirri (USA Today Sports)
As many of you already know, the Golden Knights designated forward Brandon Pirri for assignment, back to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. Among other reasons given by Golden Knights management, the move was made in order to activate Max Pacioretty from the Injured Reserved list. Pacioretty would go on to play in last night’s game (Friday) against the Ducks, in Anaheim. In the seven games, prior to his demotion, Brandon Pirri made his presence known and quickly became a fan favorite in Vegas. Pirri not only paced the Golden Knights in goals (6) and points (9) in that span, but he also brought the best out of linemate Paul Stastny, who was the second leading point-getter for the Golden Knights in that span.
How could Vegas send down a guy that added so much to their on-ice product, immediately upon his promotion to the NHL lineup? Pirri showed his prowess all season in the AHL, earning the promotion, and followed it up at the NHL level. With every business and sports franchise, there are more factors than just the on-ice product. Therefore, the real question is: Are these additional factors enough to justify this move?
When the Golden Knights made this move, they did a few things that stood out as odd to me. The first odd part of this move is how close to game time they made the announcement. I received the press release of Brandon Pirri’s demotion around 2:00 in the afternoon, five short hours before game time. One would assume that a move affecting one of your top-six (first two lines) forwards would be decided and announced with a little more time in between. The announcement came well after the 11:30 morning skate they had in Anaheim. Maybe they needed to see another session out of Pacioretty before making the final decision?
Next oddity, the Golden Knights felt the need to come out in the “media” and announce the move, while providing their justification for it. Vegas Golden Knights Assistant General Manager Kelly McCrimmon filmed a video with Gary Lawless, who, keep in mind, works for the team. In the short video, Lawless opens by mentioning the reassignment of Brandon Pirri to the AHL, leading to an opening for an explanation (not planned at all…). When teams make roster moves, there isn’t necessarily a press conference, special interview, or as in this case, a team produced video. The fact that the Golden Knights felt they needed to do this shows that they knew there would be a blow back from the move and in my opinion, that they know they shouldn’t have made the move in the first place. Back to the actual video, McCrimmon went on to say that the team was “thrilled with Brandon’s play” (yes, the leading scorer during his time, that they just took out of their lineup). The next thing that stands out is that McCrimmon said, “…he made a great impression and he will be back.” Keep that quote in mind while I get to the rest of this video.
McCrimmon states that since Pirri wouldn’t have to go through the waiver process (Alex Tuch being the only other), it “gives them time to make a decision”. What decision could they be pondering? Did Pirri not make that decision obvious enough? Are they contemplating who they could possibly trade away out of their more expendable players (ie: Ryan Carpenter, Oscar Lindberg, and to a lesser extent Ryan Reaves and William Carrier)? Lindberg and Carpenter have expiring contracts, that I don’t feel other teams would be in a hurry to claim off waivers, if they were sent down. Reaves was given a cap hit, that some teams will feel is above his value, whether correct or not. Carrier may be the only guy in that mix that would be claimed in the event he was waived. Carrier would not be an option to waive, in my opinion, as he has been playing some of the best hockey of his career, this season for the Golden Knights. The addition of Carrier in this example, is purely for the role he plays (no special teams, bottom-six forward).
Basically, through the rest of the video, McCrimmon raves about Pirri’s play in both the AHL and NHL. Pirri left Chicago as the leading point-getter in the league and he somehow returned after seven games in the NHL, as the leading point-scorer in the AHL. He was named to the AHL All-Star game and will presumably get a chance to play in said game, now that he was sent back. Now, remember that quote from earlier, “he made a great impression and he will be back”? The reasoning given for sending Pirri down, was the fact that he wouldn’t be subject to waivers, as he hasn’t played the 10 games or spent the 30 days on the NHL roster that kick waivers into effect. That’s all well and good, but the ship goes down when McCrimmon says definitively “he will be back”. In order to get Pirri back, someone will have to be traded or designated for assignment, just as they would have at this point. In the video they mentioned protecting their roster, but again, is getting rid of your leading scorer over the last seven games worth saving a replacement-level player, who most likely won’t be wearing the Golden Knight shield next season?
Trades are the most understandable reasoning for this decision. If the team feels they can trade one of the bottom-six forwards for a draft pick, this move would indeed be a short-term solution until they clear a roster spot for Pirri. When looking at their expendable pieces, I’m not sure how many teams are lining up to trade assets for players that have modest scoring totals and have spent time in the press box this season. It may be a pipe dream for Vegas, that a team would desire these players and make their decision to bring Pirri up permanently any easier.
My last observation of this whole process and justification is that the Golden Knights have operated as a team that wants to win now, dating back to their inaugural season. Once the team’s management saw the potential, they “went for it”. General Manager George McPhee was said to be a big player in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes around the trade deadline. He eventually traded three draft picks for proven goal-scorer Tomas Tatar. He gave Detroit a first, second, and third draft pick in the deal which he was able to lose thanks to his stockpiling through expansion draft deals. It was a steep price, but it showed Vegas’ mentality, they were all-in. This season has been much of the same. Starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has a history of injuries, has started the most games of any goaltender in the NHL this season. He is on an unsustainable pace for games played, but the team’s reasoning is that “every game matters”. If this is the team philosophy, to a point that they’re risking the health of a goalie they’ll need in a playoff push, then why did they make the team worse, by sending Pirri to the AHL. Fleury is due to make $7 million per season, until he turns 38 years old, but they’re riding him because “every point matters”. Sending Pirri down, immediately lessens the team’s talent level, which goes against this very public, team philosophy.
Many fans have the tendency to look at this move as a direct swap, Pacioretty in and Pirri out. While that is the way the move worked out, sending Pirri down was a way for the team keep Carpenter, Lindberg, and the newly claimed from Edmonton Valentin Zykov. Vegas did not take the game in Anaheim as a chance to get Zykov in and analyze him in game situations. They simply took Pirri out and kept everyone else in, with Zykov and Lindberg serving as the healthy scratches. Defenseman Shea Theodore ended up sitting out this game, with Brad Hunt playing in his place. If the team placed Theodore on the IR, they would have had room for Pirri to remain with the team, at least for the Ducks game.
Any way you slice it, this move is a bit of a head scratcher. The team went on to win the game because they are a talented group and getting a guy like Pacioretty back is always beneficial, but imagine just how good and how deep the team would be with a guy like Pirri (or Pacioretty) playing on the third line with Cody Eakin. Eakin had great success on the second line with Pacioretty during Paul Stastny and Erik Haula’s absences. Production like that on the third line would make Vegas even more formidable than they already are. Moving forward, the Golden Knights will be fine, with or without Brandon Pirri. They are a good hockey club with a nice mix of speed and skill. Depth moves are the types of things that get teams to that next level and that next level for the defending Western Conference Champions is a Stanley Cup. Vegas will need to toughen up and make the hard decision to waive one of their more expendable players, before they have given away too many games that Pirri could be helping them win, in their march to a potential Stanley Cup run.
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