Down Goes Brown: Expansion draft winners and losers

Nick Kypreos joined Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to talk Vegas and how it's first-ever lineup looks post Expansion Draft.

The Golden Knights finally exist in a form beyond a name, a logo and a handful of free agents.

After last night’s expansion draft unveiling, the Knights finally have a full roster. And while it may not look all that much like the one they open the season with, it’s a start.

Let’s take a look at what the Knights gained and what everyone else around the league gave up, voluntarily or otherwise, as the first expansion draft of the cap era played out.

Here are the winners and losers from the last few days – and weeks, and months – of expansion maneuverings.

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Winner: George McPhee’s creativity
The league made sure that the Knights would have some decent players to choose from, shifting the rules from previous drafts to make sure Vegas wouldn’t be left with a roster made up entirely of castoffs and has-beens. (Hey, $500 million has to buy you something.) So we knew that McPhee and his team would be able to find some talent.

But McPhee didn’t just grab the best available names and call it a day. Instead, he spent the weeks leading up to yesterday’s selections setting the table to cut deals with any team that wanted one. And when the time came, he was aggressive in getting those deals done. Heck, by the time this week rolled around, he was sounding like a mafia kingpin collecting protection money.

Not all of those deals will end up looking like winners, but they should add up to a solid foundation. That’s what yesterday was about, and McPhee and his front office worked hard to squeeze every drop of value they could out of the situation. They even showed a willingness to get creative, which is a trait sorely lacking in many of today’s GMs. That’s a good sign for the Knights’ chances of mattering once the new-car small has worn off in a few years.

Loser: George McPhee’s roster
The team is certainly better than some of the disasters that have emerged from expansion drafts in the past. But it’s not good.

With the obvious caveat that there are going to be some pending trades we don’t know about yet, some of the picks were head-scratchers. Passing on Detroit’s Petr Mrazek to take an AHLer who’ll be 25 on opening night, Tomas Nosek, seemed odd. Grabbing Deryk Engelland from Calgary was unexpected, although maybe the local connection plays a role there. Alexei Emelin, among others, felt like a reach.

Add it all up, and those “the Knights could make the playoffs in Year 1” takes already aren’t aging well.

And maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world. McPhee probably could have built himself a decent team, or at least one that would have been good enough to hang around the edge of the playoff race. But that would have been short-term thinking. Instead, McPhee focused on the future, landing a pile of draft picks including two extra firsts for this weekend. Those are assets that will be far more important to the Knights’ long-term success than a few extra wins in 2017-18. If they stick to the plan, the Knights won’t be one of those expansion nightmares that misses the playoffs for the better part of a decade. They’ll get there sooner than later. But in the meantime… well, at least the uniforms are nice.

Winner: Marc-Andre Fleury
For a long time, it seemed like the Penguins’ goaltending situation could get messy. Fleury had a no-movement clause, which could force the team to protect him and expose Matt Murray. With that in play, it was possible the team could trade Fleury or even buy him out, or to cut a costly side deal with the Knights. That’s the sort of thing that can lead to bad feelings in a fanbase, and even tarnish a legacy.

Instead, we now know that Fleury had agreed to waive his NMC months ago. He got one last Cup run in Pittsburgh, playing a key role along the way, and then got a chance to say his goodbyes. Now he heads to Vegas as the first face of the franchise, getting a standing ovation when he was introduced last night. And the hockey world can’t seem to stop raving about how he handled the whole situation.

There will probably be a few nights when Vegas is getting throttled and Fleury finds himself wishing he was chasing a fourth Cup in Pittsburgh. But for now, nobody came out of this whole process looking better than the veteran netminder.

Loser: James Neal
Going to an expansion team is never easy. But you have to feel for a veteran who just came within two wins of the Stanley Cup and now heads to a team that might be in the running for dead last.

And sure, Neal could be traded. But according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Neal was invited to attend last night’s show but declined because he’s recovering from surgery. That would suggest that the Knights don’t intend to flip him, at least not immediately. To his credit, Neal was saying all the right things. But it can’t be easy to be part of what we just saw unfold in Nashville, only to have to start all over again with an expansion team.

Loser: Secrecy
The NHL went into the week with one apparent goal: Keep as much of the expansion-related transactions as possible under wraps until last night.

You can understand why. The league wanted to put on a show, and the annual NHL Awards in Las Vegas seemed like an ideal spot to do it. The league gets a nice ratings bump for its show, the Knights get a captive audience, and fans get a slick production they can enjoy instead of a drab press release.

Unfortunately, reality has a habit of getting in the way. And so, predictably, many of the names on the list leaked out as yesterday went on, as insiders and beat reporters sniffed out the Knights’ selections and reported them. We even had one player’s destination spoiled based on an Instagram follow. By the time the big reveal arrived, we knew roughly three-quarters of the Vegas roster.

Meanwhile, many of the Knights’ pre-selection trades had already been reported. Keeping those trades secret was always a weird choice by the NHL – why not let fans base their mock drafts and speculation on actual information? – but we probably shouldn’t be surprised given the league at one point didn’t even want to release the protected lists. Maybe it all made sense to someone. But it was a doomed plan from the start, and it didn’t leave much in the way of surprise by last night’s announcement.

Winner: The blueline market
No position has had more expansion draft success than the goaltenders, where teams have found players like Billy Smith, Bernie Parent and John Vanbiesbrouck. (Not to mention guys like Dominik Hasek who were available but were passed over.)

With every team limited to protecting one goaltender, this year seemed like another opportunity for the Knights to load up at the position. They did grab Fleury, taking a pick from the Penguins along the way. But they passed on most of the bigger names, as Petr Mrazek, Philipp Grubauer and Antti Raanta were left alone. That might be bad news for teams like the Coyotes and Flyers who could use a goalie, and may have been hoping that the Knights would end up with a surplus to deal from.

Instead, it was the defencemen who were the focus, as the Knights grabbed the 13, the maximum allowed. With only eight jobs up for grabs on the NHL roster, Vegas is clearly gambling that there will be teams lining up to land blue line help. And they were right, with Carolina acquiring Trevor van Riemsdyk from them Thursday morning. The Knights came out of the draft with 31 signed players and a cap hit pushing the upper limit, so there are plenty of moves left to be made. It’s not hard to figure out which position will be the focus.

Loser: Counting
Look you guys, math is hard.

The NHL can’t even hold an expansion draft without something getting overturned on review.

Losers: The Senators, Capitals and Blues
All three teams were unable to swing a deal to avoid losing a valuable piece of their roster. And with all three in various stages of “win now” mode, that hurts.

The Senators lost Marc Methot, who’d paired well with Erik Karlsson over the years, and it will be interesting to see if there are any lingering bad feelings in Ottawa over Dion Phaneuf’s refusal to waive his NMC to open a spot for his fellow blue liner. The Blues lost David Perron, who’d been their fifth highest scorer last year. And the Capitals may have had it worse than anyone, losing a good young defenceman in Nate Schmidt.

We don’t know what deals may have been on the table to avoid those losses, and it’s possible that the Knights’ asking price was just too high. But in the short-term, losing a key piece off of a potential contender will always sting.

Winners: The Flames and Jets
In Engelland and Chris Thorburn, both teams lost guys who were about to hit unrestricted free agency and weren’t likely to be re-signed. In other words, they basically avoided losing anybody. In some sense, maybe that should feel vaguely insulting – the Knights essentially looked over their roster of available players and said “no thanks. we’ll pass”. But any team would take that over losing a key piece, so Calgary and Winnipeg come out ahead.

Loser: The New York Islanders
When you’ve just finished missing the playoffs and have won just a single playoff round in 24 years, it’s clear what you need to do: Trade your first-round pick to keep the dynasty together.

Maybe it works out – this is supposed to be a weak draft, after all, and dumping Grabovksi’s contract is a bonus. Still, that’s an awful lot to give up, and it’s hard not to wonder if this is a defensible hockey move, or a GM who knows he needs to win right now to save his job.

Loser: The Florida Panthers
No team has had a stranger 12 months than the Panthers. That continued last night, as they managed to lose a contract that stood as one of the best values in the league when 30-goal man Jonathan Marchessault was plucked off the roster, and they apparently gave up Rielly Smith to make it happen. Even if they’d come to regret the contract they gave him less than a year ago, that’s a lot of offence to surrender in one move.

It’s clear that the Panthers are busy hitting a big CTRL-Z on pretty much everything that happened last year, but nobody lost more goals on the night than a Florida team that already ranked in the bottom 10 in scoring as it was.

Winner: How You Like Me Now?

How about now? Now? Now? What about now? Maybe the Knights can fill a need by trading one of those defencemen for a second song.

Loser: That free agency window
One of the unique wrinkles of this year’s expansion process was a special Vegas-only window to talk to pending UFAs and RFAs who hadn’t been included on another team’s protected list. In theory, that gave the Knights a chance to get a head start on the market, including signing away RFAs without having to offer compensation. With plenty of cap space to work with, there was some thought that the Knights could emerge as big players on the open market.

In reality, the window resulted in the team signing Engelland and Erik Haula and… that was it. And while Haula’s a decent player, he’s headed to Vegas largely because the Wild bribed the Knights to sign him instead of drafting someone like Eric Staal, Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella.

Of course, anyone the Knights signed this week would have counted as their expansion selection from that player’s old team. It’s possible that they could be close to deals with other players they spoke to, but choose to hold off until next week to make anything official. That’s a scenario worth watching, but for now, the free agency window seems like a bust.

Winner: Doing this all again in a few years for Seattle or Quebec City
Who’s got next? We know another round of expansion is coming – the league isn’t going to want to sit with an unwieldy 31 teams for long – and now the blueprint has been established.

This year’s draft was an unknown, the first of the cap era and a situation where the price ranges hadn’t been set. Now teams have a better sense of what to expect. That will both help the new team (since there won’t be any sticker shock at surrendering a first-round pick as pre-expansion bribe) and hurt them (since other teams should be better prepared to get their rosters in order before the draft).

Either way, we may as well start getting ready now. Who’s up for a mock draft?