George McPhee didn’t expect the expansion draft to be so rewarding for his Vegas Golden Knights. The team’s first-ever general manager was initially underwhelmed by the rules that allowed teams to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters of any position and one goaltender. He simply didn’t believe much high-end talent would be available.
“I was wrong," McPhee said.
Instead the Golden Knights secured a haul of players that propelled them all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in their first year of existence. With Seattle approved as the NHL’s 32nd franchise on Tuesday and set to join the league for the 2021-22 season, another expansion draft is on the horizon. The prevailing thought around the NHL is that while Seattle will face the same expansion draft rules as Vegas, it will be harder to match the Knights' success because other general managers presumably have learned from their mistakes in the last one. McPhee disagrees.
“They might do even better than we did,” he said of Seattle. “Why can’t that happen? They’re going to have some real good people there. They’re led by Tim Leiweke, who I’ve known for many years and he’s a good friend and he’s a very, very talented guy. He’ll put together a terrific staff, and they could do very, very well. I don’t think they should be looking at it any other way.”
While teams may have learned something from McPhee’s maneuvering, it may not matter, the Vegas GM believes, because the same forces that helped the Golden Knights then will still be present two seasons from now.
The key to the Golden Knights landing so many instant-impact players was the side deals McPhee cut with teams who sought to prevent Vegas from swiping a particular prospect or to incentivize the expansion team into taking on a perceived bad contract.
The Florida Panthers wanted center Reilly Smith’s $5 million cap hit off the books after he had a slight dip in production during the 2016-17 season with 15 goals and 22 assists, so they offered to trade Vegas Jonathan Marchessault, who was coming off a 30-goal campaign, to select Smith in the draft. They both enjoyed career years with the Golden Knights playing on the top line alongside William Karlsson, another expansion-draft steal that ended up in Vegas because his previous team wanted to preserve another player.
The Columbus Blue Jackets flipped the Golden Knights a first- and second-round pick to take on the remainder of David Clarkson’s contract – Clarkson is physically unable to play hockey anymore – and also not draft goaltending prospect Joonas Korpisalo or power forward Josh Anderson. Vegas instead picked Karlsson, who’d never scored more nine goals in his three previous seasons. With the Golden Knights, he broke out for a 43-goal, 35-assist year.
There are more examples: Pittsburgh dealt Vegas a 2020 second-round pick to draft goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was one of the best goaltenders in the league last season with a .927 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average. Minnesota, in trying to protect other top players, traded away prospect Alex Tuch so the Golden Knights would take Erik Haula, who then scored 29 goals.
The teams that avoided making deals and resigned themselves to just losing the one player Vegas wanted most in the expansion draft seemingly fared better – even clubs like Washington and Nashville who parted with talents in defenseman Nate Schmidt and winger James Neal, respectively. The expectation is that more general managers will go that route for the Seattle expansion draft in 2021. But to do so they’ll still have to navigate the roster circumstances that precipitated all the dealing ahead of the Vegas expansion draft.
“It was pretty obvious that there were going to be teams that had salary-cap stress, and that will still exist a couple of years from now,” McPhee said. “There are teams that have cap issues, and they will pay to alleviate those issues. And then there will be teams that have drafted really well and will have exposure issues with too many good players. With those two kinds of pressures on teams, and sometimes a team has both, you’re going to be able to acquire something that helps the new franchise, and if you do that often enough in the process, you can be competitive right away.”
McPhee was savvy in how he limited player redistribution in the weeks leading up to the expansion draft. Some speculated that if a team was forced to expose a talented player, it might trade him to a team other than Vegas before the draft to at least recoup some value rather than just lose an asset for nothing. So McPhee struck first, lining up deals with those teams and then making them pledge not to make any other trades that could hurt the Golden Knights ahead of the expansion draft. It essentially froze any movement that didn’t directly involve Vegas.
The Golden Knights had a scout at every game for the 2016-17 season that led up to the expansion draft, digging into players’ characters and trying to identify which might be getting squeezed by certain roster makeups and could flourish with bigger roles. The Seattle franchise will have even more time to prepare with the expansion draft more than two years away.
McPhee won’t have to worry about losing a player – the Golden Knights are the one team exempt from the draft – but like everyone else, he’s intrigued to see how this one plays out.
“Who knows what approach Seattle will take?” McPhee said. “Maybe they’ll come up with a better model or a better approach, it’s really hard to say. The good news is the league was very prescient in giving an expansion team rules that will allow them to be competitive. It’s the first time that’s ever happened in pro sports, and it’s the right thing to do because it gives the team a chance to be successful in its market and it can even help you solidify your base.”