One of the most magical rides in sports history finally came to a crashing halt in the Stanley Cup Final when the Vegas Golden Knights—in their first season in NHL existence—finally fell to the mightier Washington Capitals. From a Seattle perspective, the unfathomable trip Vegas went on to find itself just one step short of winning hockey’s ultimate prize in its inaugural campaign certainly elevated expectations. It’s plausible now that a Seattle team, which is expected to be afforded the same expansion rules, could make a similar run in its first season.
There is an issue though, which may limit the quality of the product that Seattle is able to build when compared to what Vegas managed to put together for its first roster. The league’s General Managers have collectively learned from their mistakes, and they are unlikely to make the same errors in judgment when the time comes once again to decide which players to protect.
The shrewdest thing that Vegas GM George McPhee did in the lead-up to his team’s Expansion Draft was to create a unique market for protective trades. These were moves that were made by teams throughout the NHL to essentially get Vegas to avoid selecting certain players that—by the rules of the Expansion Draft—would have otherwise been made available for selection. The moves backfired on pretty much every team not called the Vegas Golden Knights, as McPhee managed to fleece about half the league. When the dust had settled, McPhee had not only acquired several of the outstanding team’s core players, but he had also amassed ten additional draft picks, setting the franchise up for many years of success.
Some of the teams that came out of expansion looking the most bruised as a result of the aforementioned fleecing included (but weren’t limited to) Columbus, Anaheim, Minnesota, and—perhaps worst of all—Florida. These teams all took the approach of making these handshake deals with Vegas to get the new franchise to avoid taking certain players. The problem for these teams, though, is that in all of their cases, the players that they gave up and/or guided Vegas to take ended up being huge contributors.
The Blue Jackets sent first AND second round draft picks to Sin City to get the Golden Knights to eventually select William Karlsson. Lest you forget, Karlsson ended the season with 43 goals and 35 assists. Oops!
The Ducks, meanwhile, carefully pulled strings to get McPhee to select Clayton Stoner. The strings they pulled, though, were shipping out former Seattle Thunderbird Shea Theodore, who at 22 years old, played a major role on the Vegas blueline, and looks like he’ll be one of their cornerstone players for many years to come. Darn!
The Wild—under GM Chuck Fletcher—opted to trade away prospect Alex Tuch to get Vegas to select Erik Haula, who really had been miscast in his role as a depth center in Minnesota. Both Tuch and Haula ended up serving as key pieces of the Golden Knights’ offensive attack. This move was arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back in ending Fletcher’s tenure in Minnesota. Son of a…!
Finally, the Panthers, who fired the coach that eventually landed behind the Vegas bench and carefully guided them to the Stanley Cup Final, also made two gigantic player personnel blunders. They accepted a fourth-round pick from Vegas in exchange for Reilly Smith (who scored 60 points), in order to get McPhee to select Jonathan Marchessault (who scored 75 points). NO!
Heck, even the Penguins—who were dealing with a strange goaltending-related salary crunch—paid Vegas a second-round pick to lure them into taking Marc-Andre Fleury… Yes, the Penguins actually gave up a draft pick in addition to Fleury. Shocking, isn’t it?
How This Impacts Seattle
Hindsight is 20/20. We can all look at these moves and scratch our heads now, but at the time, every team had a reason to make these transactions, and they all thought they were making the right decisions in the moment.
The problem that has now been created for the arriving Seattle franchise is that these moves very much inflated the quality of the first Vegas roster. This will of course make it much more difficult for Seattle to similarly fleece opposing teams, so the new franchise will likely be left to simply pick the best players exposed in the next Expansion Draft. Thus, Seattle’s hockey faithful should probably come into the team’s inaugural season with expectations a bit more tempered than previously thought.
The good news is that looking back at the Vegas selections, even if the Golden Knights had failed to swing any of these side deals, the team still would have had the opportunity to select a bevy of talented players. Deryk Engelland, Jon Merrill, Tomas Nosek, Colin Miller, William Carrier, Brayden McNabb, David Perron, and Nate Schmidt were all selected of the “straight up” variety, after being exposed by their former teams. And let’s not forget that in a lot of the cases of teams making trades to protect certain individuals, those players that were protected would have otherwise been made available. So although Vegas may not have ended up with Tuch and Haula from the Wild, it likely would have snagged a young impact defenseman like Matt Dumba or Jonas Brodin instead.
There’s no doubt that the side deals made by George McPhee were the icing on the cake that gave Vegas the opportunity to be one of the best teams in the NHL it its inaugural season. A strong foundation can still be constructed under the current rules of the Expansion Draft, but without that special ingredient known as the “side deal,”
anticipating a similarly magical first-season run in the Emerald City is not advisable.
Manage those expectations, Seattle.