Mock expansion draft: How Vegas could be playoff-ready now

John Shannon discusses a few surprise players left unprotected for the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft, and discusses the many possible deals Vegas GM George McPhee already has in place ahead of his roster unveiling.

The city of Las Vegas already feels like an alternate universe.

If Sin City’s virgin voyage into professional sports was operating in a world where it needed to push all-in and win now, we believe there’s enough unprotected talent on the table to make it happen.

Of course, in reality, we believe Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee when he says he’ll be taking a stack-the-assets, draft-and-develop approach when he selects his 30 chess pieces between now and Wednesday evening. It’s been reported that McPhee has already shook hands on as many as nine side deals to avoid premium players in return for futures.

But that doesn’t make it any less fun to see what kind of squad the Knights could ride into 2017-18.

If owner Bill Foley was willing to spend to the $75-million salary cap and take on a couple of cumbersome long-term deals he’d later regret, the Knights could be a playoff team in 2018. (Feel free to ask the 16th-seed Nashville Predators what playoff teams are capable of.)

In an alternate universe — one in which McPhee is less concerned about draft picks and side deals and a slow-growth ascension to greatness — the 2017-18 Golden Knights are a real contender in a Pacific Division with a couple of soft rebuilders like Arizona and Vancouver.

Here’s what their roster could look like, if the Knights were drafting to win now:

Vegas expansion mock draft

A few thoughts on my mock contending Knights roster:

• The starting six:
Bobby Ryan – Mike Cammalleri – James Neal
Toby Enstrom – Mathew Dumba
Marc-Andre Fleury

• It’s not as simple as drafting the best player from every team. You’ll go over the cap quick. (My first draft at a contend-now roster held a combined salary cap of $102 million.)

• Went for Josh Manson over Sami Vatanen from Anaheim due to price point.

• Goal scorers cost big bucks, which is why it’s widely presumed the Knights will be solid defensively and in net but will have difficulty lighting the lamp. That won’t be the case for my win-now Knights. James Neal ($5 million cap hit), Mike Cammalleri ($5 million) and Marian Gaborik ($4.875 million) all have 40-goal campaigns on their resume. Bobby Ryan has four 30-goal seasons. True, none of them may ever score 30 again. But if they all threaten 20, they could join KHL point machine Vadim Shipachyov in one heck of a score-by-committee approach.

• We initially wanted Petr Mrazek (or even Niklas Kronwall) from Detroit but could not tie that much money up in goalies. While we shook our head upon learning Wings GM Ken Holland exposed Mrazek, we now think he may be perfectly fine, especially since it’s common knowledge that the Knights are taking Marc-Andre Fleury. Maybe he should’ve went one step further and protected Jared Coreau, leaving both Mrazek and Jimmy Howard exposed.

• Fleury is the best No. 1 available, and inexpensive Antti Raanta ($1 million) is the most reliable backup without overspending. That’s a tandem that gets you to the post-season.

• We love us some Marc Methot but selected Ryan from Ottawa because dynamic playmakers are harder to find.

• Our D core of Toby Enstrom, Jack Johnson, Alexi Emelin, Josh Manson, Mathew Dumba, Nate Schmidt, Colin Miller and Trevor van Riemsdyk will make for one heckuva competitive training camp.

• Cammalleri would be named captain, with Ward and Johnson serving as alternates.

• We chose Jay McClement over, say, Lee Stempniak from Carolina to lead our PK unit.

• How awesome is 30-goal man Jonathan Marchessault for $750,000?

• The draft process forces a GM to take a couple not-so-impact players — in this case, names like Greg Pateryn, William Carrier and Alex Chiasson — just to make the financial planning work.

(thanks to CapFriendly.com’s glorious mock draft tool)