Seattle's new NHL team will benefit from the same favorable draft rules the Vegas Golden Knights leveraged to reach the Stanley Cup final their first season. But whether the front office here can work the system like the Knights did remains to be seen.
Plenty of eyebrows were raised last year when the Florida Panthers left forward Jonathan Marchessault unprotected in the NHL expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights to snatch up.
A 30-goal scorer the prior season on a cost-effective contract, his surprise availability was a combination of a Florida regime change, the Panthers’ desire to protect several young defensemen instead and the fact Marchessault is only 5 feet 9 in a league that often prioritizes size. But then, fearful of losing other exposed youngsters, the Panthers got too cute for their own good in a predraft deal by offering the Knights underproducing forward Reilly Smith for just a fourth-round entry draft choice if Vegas guaranteed it would select Marchessault instead of any of their other players.
Bottom line: Marchessault and Smith went on to form two of the Knights’ top four scorers last season for next to no cost. It was but one example of how Vegas general manager George McPhee shrewdly leveraged new expansion draft rules to yield a larger haul than anyone envisioned.
Those same favorable expansion draft rules will be in play for the new Seattle franchise ahead of its launch in 2021. But the ability to replicate the Knights, who made the Stanley Cup final their first season, might not be possible given how badly some teams were fleeced by them.
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“I’m sure, to a certain extent, the other teams will see us coming and be better prepared,’’ NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said. “That just means we have to work harder and be better prepared ourselves.’’
The reason opposing GMs tied themselves in knots with ill-conceived predraft agreements is they knew the new rules guaranteed they’d lose a good player. For decades, prior NHL expansion drafts allowed teams to protect anywhere from 15 to 18 players, resulting in the new squads settling for back-end castoffs and then struggling for years.
Since 1970-71, when the NHL ended its “expansion division’’ format, the 15 first-year franchises to come along have needed an average of five seasons just to make the playoffs. The Columbus Blue Jackets needed eight seasons, the Washington Capitals took nine and the Tampa Bay Lightning made it just once in their first 10 years.
That changed when Knights owner Bill Foley paid a then-record $500 million expansion fee, with the understanding he couldn’t wait that long to be competitive. Seattle’s ownership group run by David Bonderman and Jerry Bruckheimer is paying $650 million for the franchise under the same favorable conditions.
Under the new rules, the Knights got to pick one player from each of the 30 teams. And those teams had two options in which players to protect: Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters (forwards or defensemen) and a goalie.
Both represent a huge reduction in the total players teams can protect. Additional rules forced teams to expose more quality players with a minimum of 40 games played the prior season, or 70 the previous two and without long-term injury issues.
With NHL active rosters at 23 players, the Knights were guaranteed a top-half performer from each squad. Contrast that with the prior expansion draft for the Minnesota Wild and Blue Jackets in 2000, when teams could protect one goalie, five defensemen and nine forwards, or two goalies, three defensemen and seven forwards.
The newer rules gave Vegas a crack at players who could actually score, finishing fourth best of 31 teams in goals. Scoring had been the bane of expansion teams, it being easier for bad squads to retreat into defensive shells than generate offense.
The Wild was dead last of 30 teams in its debut 2000-01 season, while the Blue Jackets were 26th. Of the 15 expansion teams since 1970-71, six finished last in goals, two were second-last and all but one ranked among the bottom 15 percent of the league.
Throw in the defensive side — with the Knights eighth-best of 31 teams in goals allowed — and the makings of a contender were there. It helped that the Pittsburgh Penguins left three-time Stanley Cup winning netminder Marc-Andre Fleury unprotected and that the new draft rules pretty much guaranteed Vegas a choice from among most teams’ top four defensemen.
Still, McPhee and Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant didn’t always go for the obvious star picks they knew teams coveted. They had an idea of a certain, hungry-player type that fit Gallant’s system and covertly went about acquiring them from teams in exchange for agreeing not to take other players.
The Marchessault and Smith acquisitions were a prime example. Sure, the Panthers probably suspected the 30-goal season for Marchessault — playing for his third team in three years — was an aberration, just as they’d thought it good economics to jettison Smith and his $25 million contract extension after he’d managed just 37 points in 2016-17.
But the Knights saw a fit and watched Smith notch a career-high 60 points while Marchessault put up a personal-best 75.
Likewise, the Blue Jackets wanted to get rid of William Karlsson, who had just 15 goals in two full seasons. To make sure the Knights chose Karlsson and not a more-coveted player, they made a predraft deal to send Vegas their first-round choice in the 2017 entry draft and second-round selection in 2019 — in exchange for the Knights also taking on the $5.25 million contract of injured winger David Clarkson.
McPhee happily obliged.
Karlsson stunned everyone by leading the Knights with 43 goals and adding another 35 assists. Clarkson has since unofficially retired and is coaching a high school team in Ohio, but the Knights still had the draft choices.
The first-rounder for 2017 was 24th overall, but that was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets for a No. 13 selection used on Ontario Hockey League junior center Nick Suzuki. They also got a third-rounder from the Jets in 2019 in exchange for agreeing to select enforcer Chris Thorburn in the expansion draft and not any of their better players.
The Knights knew Thorburn was an unrestricted free agent, but they were more interested in the draft choice and let him sign with St. Louis. As for Suzuki, the Knights packaged him along with Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round choice in a trade this fall to Montreal for Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty.
Sure, it’s dizzying keeping up with what the Knights have done, which is why it’s uncertain Seattle’s franchise can replicate it. In fact, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said giving teams adequate time to prepare for the expansion draft is one reason Seattle’s launch was delayed by a year.
“We need to make sure that the existing clubs have an ample opportunity to make sure that they’re planned appropriately for the expansion draft,’’ Bettman said after an October meeting with the NHL Seattle group in New York. “The expansion draft would be the same rules as Las Vegas. … So, we want to make sure that there’s enough notice for the existing teams to do the appropriate planning that they have to do to comply with the requirements of the expansion draft.’’
The key here is, regardless of how those other owners prepare, their teams still have to lose a good player off their roster when Seattle comes calling. Whether they’ll simply swallow that pill and move on, or try to come out ahead with a fancier predraft deal could very well determine how quickly the Seattle team gets to a Stanley Cup final of its own.