Down Goes Brown: NHL Expansion Draft regret rankings

Jeff Marek and Colby Armstrong relive a wild weekend in the NHL that was highlighted by the NHL All-Star Game from Tampa Bay.

So the Vegas Golden Knights are having themselves a bit of a season.

With everyone assuming they’d struggle to stay in sight of the playoff race, if not finish dead last, they came out of the gates 8-1-0. Soon they’d established themselves as legitimate contenders for the Pacific crown. Then the Western Conference. Then the Presidents’ Trophy. They climbed all the way to first place overall. They’ve already been crowned the greatest expansion team ever in any sport. At this rate, we may be days away from the rest of the NHL just conceding the next few Stanley Cups and begging for mercy.

So how did we get here?

Wait, let’s rephrase that: So what the hell was the rest of the league thinking?

Sure, the Knights were gifted with friendlier expansion-draft rules than previous newcomers. For $500 million, they’d better have. But they were still left choosing from players who were each, at best, considered their team’s 10-most-valuable asset. (And that’s not even counting all the prospects and younger players who were ineligible.) You shouldn’t be able to build a contender out of those kinds of spare parts.

Well, unless some of the other teams screw up.

So today, with Vegas riding high and Seattle kicking down the door to get in on this action, let’s look back at the expansion draft and the trades that came around it with the benefit of a half-season’s worth of hindsight. We’ll do this in tiers, starting with the teams that came out OK and working our way up to the worst of the regrets.

Tier 1: Teams that somehow improved

As it turns out, an expansion draft doesn’t represent an opportunity for only one team.

Carolina Hurricanes

Their trades: They traded a fifth-round pick to Vegas to get them to lay off veterans like Cam Ward and Lee Stempniak. Then they traded a second for Trevor van Riemsdyk, who the Knights had plucked from the Blackhawks, and later added Marcus Kruger for a fifth.

They lost: Connor Brickley

No team apart from the Knights themselves did more wheeling and dealing. Kruger hasn’t done much, but the Hurricanes managed to avoid losing anyone of consequence – Brickley was a pending UFA who ended up signing in Florida – and added yet another good young defenceman to an already strong blue line.

Colorado Avalanche

Their trades: None

They lost: Calvin Pickard

At the time, this seemed like yet another misplay by Joe Sakic, who let a reasonably well-regarded young goalie slip away despite Semyon Varlamov‘s struggles. Instead, the move freed up a roster spot for Jonathan Bernier, who’s been fantastic, and Pickard was on waivers (and eventually traded) by week one.

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Tier 2: No harm, no foul

Oh, was there some sort of draft? We already forgot.

Winnipeg Jets

Their trades: Flipped first-round picks with Vegas, dropping from 13th to 24th, and threw in a 2019 third-round pick to steer the Knights away from everyone they wanted to keep.

They lost: Chris Thorburn

Dropping 11 spots in the draft isn’t nothing, but given the prices some other teams paid, the Jets seemed to get off easy. The Knights didn’t even bother to sign Thorburn.

Calgary Flames

Their trades: None

They lost: Deryk Engelland

Engelland’s a Vegas local who’s been a nice fit, but he probably wasn’t coming back to Calgary, meaning the Flames basically escaped untouched.

New Jersey Devils

Their trades: None

They lost: Jon Merrill

Merrill hadn’t done much in New Jersey. He’s been OK in Vegas, but far from an impact player, so the Devils probably don’t have many regrets here.

Vancouver Canucks

Their trades: None

They lost: Luca Sbisa

Sbisa looked OK before getting hurt, but the Canucks were basically fine with losing the veteran’s cap hit. If he’d stayed in Vancouver he might be decent deadline bait right now, but that’s about it.

San Jose Sharks

Their trades: None

They lost: David Schlemko

Schlemko had only been in San Jose for one season, and the Knights immediately flipped him to Montreal for the bargain price of a fifth-round pick. The Sharks may have preferred to see the Knights take a bigger contract, like Paul Martin or Mikkel Boedker, but that was always a long shot.

Montreal Canadiens

Their trades: In a post-draft move, traded a fifth-round pick to Vegas for Schlemko.

They lost: Alexei Emelin

Schlemko’s been fine. Meanwhile, Emelin’s departure gave Marc Bergevin $4.1 million in cap space to land a top centre or bring back guys like Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov. None of those things actually happened, but the Canadiens still came out of things relatively unscathed.

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Tier 3: Too soon to tell

While there’s still a chance that things could backfire, for these teams it’s a case of so far so good.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Their trades: None

They lost: Brendan Leipsic

The 23-year-old Leipsic has some skill, but he wasn’t cracking the Leafs’ lineup anytime soon and has only managed two goals as a Knight.

Arizona Coyotes

Their trades: None

They lost: Teemu Pulkkinen

Is Pulkkinen even still a prospect? We’re probably being generous to have him in this section and not the one above. He hasn’t played an NHL game for the Knights, and at 26 we can pretty much write him off as any sort of hidden gem.

Detroit Red Wings

Their trades: None

They lost: Tomas Nosek

After the Wings raised some eyebrows by exposing Petr Mrazek, the Knights re-raised a few more by settling on Nosek instead. He scored the first regular-season goal in Las Vegas, but hasn’t done all that much else, and at 25 he’s another one of those guys who’s getting too old to call a prospect anymore.

Edmonton Oilers

Their trades: None

They lost: Griffin Reinhart

Yes, the Oilers’ 2015 draft-floor trade that saw them acquire Reinhart for two picks, one of which was immediately used on Mathew Barzal, was an unmitigated disaster. But by 2017, Reinhart was a sunk cost. He’s still just 24, but he’s already been on waivers. Maybe he still becomes a useful NHL player some day, but it wasn’t going to be in Edmonton.

Buffalo Sabres

Their trades: Sent a sixth-round pick to Vegas, presumably to keep them away from Linus Ullmark.

They lost: 22-year-old rookie William Carrier

We’ll never know if Ullmark would have been the Knights target – they might have just taken Carrier anyway – but the Sabres paid a minimal price to avoid finding out. So far, Carrier has played regular fourth-line minutes but hasn’t done much to make the Sabres regret it.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Their trades: Sent Nikita Gusev, a second and a fourth to the Knights to steer them away from names like Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin.

They lost: Jason Garrison

Losing Garrison freed up cap space, and he hasn’t had any impact in Vegas; he was on the waiver wire by the end of October and has only appeared in five games this season. But let’s wait and see whether Gusev makes it over to North America, and whether the Lightning use that extra cap space at this year’s deadline.

New York Rangers

Their trades: None

They lost: Oscar Lindberg

Lindberg was coming off a decent playoff run, but he hasn’t done much in Vegas and at 26 he’s not much of a prospect anymore. The Rangers had also exposed Antti Raanta and Jesper Fast, as well as 20-goal deadline bait Michael Grabner, so in hindsight this probably worked out about as well as it possibly could have.

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Tier 4: OK, that hurt a bit

These are the teams that definitely lost something of value in the draft. Then again, that’s how it’s supposed to work, right?

Dallas Stars

Their trades: Sent a second-round pick and a prospect to Vegas for Marc Methot days after the draft.

They lost: Cody Eakin

Eakin is pretty much the platonic ideal of a guy you’re supposed to lose in the expansion draft: a decent player who you don’t want to lose, but whose absence doesn’t really hurt you all that much. Adding Methot seemed like a steal at the time, but an injury has cost him most of his first season in Dallas.

Boston Bruins

Their trades: None

They lost: Colin Miller

Reaction to the loss of the 24-year-old Miller was mixed in Boston, ranging from no big deal to a screw-up. Half a season later, he’s the Knights’ leading scorer among defencemen. Still, the Bruins are rolling, so we can’t call this an especially painful loss right now.

Los Angeles Kings

Their trades: None

They lost: Brayden McNabb

The Kings went with a 4-4-1 list and protected the younger Derek Forbort as their fourth defenseman. McNabb’s been solid in Vegas and every team needs blueline depth, so his loss hurts. But losing the exposed Trevor Lewis might have hurt more.

Philadelphia Flyers

Their trades: None

They lost: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

This pick was a minor surprise, as most had expected the Knights to grab a younger player or maybe goalie Michal Neuvirth. Instead, Vegas went for veteran depth. The Flyers are probably glad they kept Neuvirth, who’s been better than Brian Elliott for much of the season. But the loss of Bellemare has contributed to a penalty kill that’s barely running at 75 per cent.

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Tier 5: The New York Islanders

You’ll never guess who’s in this tier.

New York Islanders

Their trades: They sent a first, a second and prospect Jake Bischoff to the Knights to unload Mikhail Grabovski‘s contract and steer them away from certain players.

They lost: Jean-Francois Berube

This is a tricky one, which is why we’re giving the Islanders their own section. On the one hand, Garth Snow gave up a ton – probably too much, at least compared to what other teams were surrendering in deals with McPhee. It was, as reports described it at the time, “a ransom.” On the other hand, the Islanders were in a brutally tough spot with their protected list and would have risked losing names like Calvin de Haan or Brock Nelson. More importantly, the Knight might have plucked Ryan Strome, who Snow later sent to the Oilers for Jordan Eberle. And unlike certain other teams that pulled off expensive deals with the Knights, at least the Islanders didn’t manage to lose a player of any value (Berube was a free agent who ended up signing with Chicago, where he’s struggled).

Maybe the best way to put it this: Snow bought his way out of a jam, but paid full price to do it.

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Tier 6: Guilty, but with an explanation

These teams paid a high price, but they may have had no choice.

Ottawa Senators

Their trades: None

They lost: Methot

Once Dion Phaneuf decided not to waive his no-movement clause, the Senators were widely expected to work out a deal to keep Methot. But they couldn’t, and Erik Karlsson‘s longtime partner was on his way to Vegas (and eventually Dallas). Has that contributed to the team’s disastrous season? We don’t want to oversell it, and there have been plenty of other factors, but Methot’s absence sure hasn’t helped.

St. Louis Blues

Their trades: None.

They lost: David Perron

Perron’s been one of many nice surprises in Vegas, and the Blues had been hoping the Knights would look elsewhere. But his future in St. Louis was probably limited and he was coming off a weak playoff run, so his addition has probably helped the Knights more than this subtraction hurts the Blues.

Chicago Blackhawks

Their trades: Traded Kruger to Vegas for future considerations. In other words, a straight salary dump.

They lost: Trevor van Riemsdyk

Losing van Riemsdyk hurt, although the Hawks didn’t have much room to maneuver with their protected list, thanks to a veteran roster and plenty of no-movement clauses. Dumping Kruger helped ease some pain.

Minnesota Wild

Their trades: They sent prospect Alex Tuch to Vegas in exchange for a third-round pick and the Knights agreeing to stay away from Eric Staal and their young defencemen.

They lost: Erik Haula

Haula and Tuch have both looked good in Vegas, so chalk this up as yet another win for the Knights. But the Wild paid a price to keep their core together, and they got off cheaper than other teams we’ll see below.

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Tier 7: The architects

These are the teams that George McPhee should be personally thanking when he accepts the GM of the Year award.

Anaheim Ducks

Their trades: They sent 21-year-old defenceman Shea Theodore to Vegas as a bribe to pick Clayton Stoner.

They lost: Stoner

The Ducks may have been in the worst spot of any team heading into the draft, thanks to several no-trade clauses and almost all their key players being eligible. They were facing the possibility of losing good young players like Jakob Silfverberg, Rickard Rakell, Sami Vatanen or Josh Manson. Instead, they sacrificed Theodore to protect the others and dump a bad contract in the process. It wasn’t cheap, and Theodore has looked good in Las Vegas. Under the circumstances it may have been the best they could do, but man, that had to sting.

Washington Capitals

Their trades: None

They lost: Nate Schmidt

The Caps pretty much had to expose Schmidt. They could have worked a trade, but with goalie Philipp Grubauer also available it would have been expensive to keep both. Still, losing a top-four blue-liner who now leads the Knights in ice time was the first of several blows the Capitals endured in a tough off-season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Their trades: They sent a second-round pick to Vegas to make sure they picked Marc-Andre Fleury.

They lost: Fleury

We knew the Penguins were in a bind, with Fleury holding a no-movement clause and Matt Murray‘s two Cup wins making him indispensable. Getting Fleury to waive his clause was a key, and while sending a high pick to Vegas to get them to take the guy who was clearly the best pick available to them seemed odd, the deal was apparently struck during the season; essentially, the Penguins were paying a premium to buy a sense of certainty around a tough situation. Fleury’s been fantastic and Murray has struggled this year, but it’s hard to see how else the Penguins were supposed to play this.

Nashville Predators

Their trades: Acquired Emelin from Vegas for a third in a post-draft deal.

They lost: James Neal

Aside from Fleury, Neal was probably the biggest name the Knights landed. He’d scored at least 20 goals in all nine NHL seasons, including a 40-goal year in 2011–12. And he’s already topped 20 goals again in Vegas, earning an all-star invite. But the Predators didn’t have much choice; their blue-line depth meant they had to go with the 4-4-1 protection option, so there wasn’t room for Neal at forward. David Poile reportedly tried hard to pull off a trade but found McPhee’s price too high. Maybe it was, and the Predators certainly haven’t missed a beat. But this was painful, by Poile’s own admission.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Their trades: They sent a first and a second to Vegas, in exchange for the Knights taking on David Clarkson’s dead-weight contract and drafting the player the Blue Jackets wanted them to. That’s a high price to pay, but would probably work out OK as long as they steered the Knights to someone who wasn’t all that good.

They lost: William Karlsson

Oh.

Karlsson’s been the Knights’ biggest steal of the draft, which is really saying something; he leads the team in goals with 27. And Columbus bribed the Knights to take him, largely to protect 15-goal-scorer Josh Anderson and backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo.

It’s tempting to call the Blue Jackets the biggest losers of the whole process, especially given their inconsistent performance this season.

But as Aaron Portzline recently pointed out, there was some method to their madness. Nobody saw Karlsson’s explosion coming, the team was deeper at centre than other positions, and dumping Clarkson’s contract could be huge in the coming years. Still, in a league where scoring is nearly impossible to find, giving up high picks for the privilege of losing a league-wide top-10 goal scorer is a disaster.

(Just not the biggest disaster…)

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Tier 8: The Florida Panthers

As if anyone else would be all the way down here.

Florida Panthers

Their trades: They traded 15-goal winger Reilly Smith for a measly fourth-round pick. But that was OK, because they also got the Knights to agree to take… wait, that can’t be right.

They lost: Jonathan Marchessault.

Just to be clear, you’re reading that right: The Panthers gave up their sixth-leading scorer in order to bribe the Knights to take their third-leading scorer. That is… not how this is supposed to work.

Granted, Smith carries a $5-million cap hit. But Marchessault’s $750,000 hit was quite possibly the best value in the entire league, so even from a cap perspective the move didn’t make any sense.

And that’s not hindsight — at the time the deal went down, nobody was quite sure what the Panthers were doing. Marchessault didn’t get it. Local media didn’t get it. Analytics guys didn’t get it. Even I didn’t get it. Nobody understood what the Panthers were doing.

And that was before it all went bad.

Today, Marchessault is the Knights’ leading scorer, while Smith ranks fourth. Meanwhile, the Panthers are 24th in league scoring and are going to miss the playoffs by a mile. And to this day, nobody’s offered up an especially good reason for what the Panthers did beyond an obsession with undoing whatever the last regime put in place.

Plenty of teams can look back on the expansion draft with regret. But when it comes to self-inflicted wounds, the Panthers are in a tier all their own. We may not know when the new Seattle team will start or what their name will be, but we can be pretty sure about which team they’ll be making their first phone call to.

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