Assembling the Golden Knights: A preliminary mock draft

NHL insider Brian Lawton tells Sportsnet’s Starting lineup which goalies he’d select if he was Vegas GM George McPhee, which ones he’d try to keep, and which one he’d definitely stay away from.

After months of speculation, the 30 protection lists for the expansion draft were revealed Sunday morning and we’re starting to get a clearer picture of what the Vegas Golden Knights have to work with.

At least theoretically. While the names they have to choose from are out there, it appears some of the more obviously enticing candidates may be staying put thanks to handshake agreements that have been arranged on the side. For example, it’s already been reported that teams like the Blue Jackets, Islanders and Ducks will pay some sort of premium to steer Vegas’ selection in a more favourable direction.

It remains to be seen what the price tag for those kinds of deals is, but if history has taught us anything about the way NHL teams operate when it comes to (over)valuing their own assets (commonly referred to as ‘The Endowment Effect’) it seems fair to posit that Vegas is in the driver’s seat. Especially if they’re thinking outside the box and getting creative, leveraging their position as the third party middleman shuttling players from their original team to a new suitor.

Acknowledging the vast amount of uncertainty that persists, let’s take a crack at assembling a team for the Golden Knights to enter their inaugural campaign with using some combination of what’s realistically likely to happen based on what we know already and what should happen in an ideal world.

Some advice on who the Golden Knights should select from Brian Lawton
June 19 2017

Finding the right balance between those two factors is the toughest part, because while I think Vegas would be smart to consider taking someone like Ville Pokka from the Blackhawks, there isn’t much practical value in throwing him in here when it seems like a foregone conclusion that they’ll be incentivized to take Marcus Kruger and/or Trevor van Riemsdyk instead. And while some teams have a medley of intriguing targets, the pickings from others are awfully slim – Benoit Pouliot, for example, obviously isn’t worth the $8 million spread over two years that he’s owed, but Vegas might be able to recoup an asset for taking his contract — and it’s not like the Oilers have any other worthwhile options available. The same goes for the Sabres and Coyotes – when picking a player from their collection of unprotected assets you may as well close your eyes, throw a dart in the general direction of their list, and settle for whatever it lands on.

With those caveats out of the way, here we go:

Player Team Position Age
James Neal Nashville Predators F 29
Mike Cammalleri New Jersey Devils F 35
Reilly Smith Florida Panthers F 26
David Perron St.Louis Blues F 29
Michael Grabner New York Rangers F 29
Cody Eakin Dallas Stars F 26
Lee Stempniak Carolina Hurricanes F 34
Michael Raffl Philadelphia Flyers F 28
Benoit Pouliot Edmonton Oilers F 30
Marko Dano Winnipeg Jets F 22
William Karlsson Columbus Blue Jackets F 24
Charles Hudon Montreal Canadiens F 22
Brendan Leipsic Toronto Maple Leafs F 23
Brendan Gaunce Vancouver Canucks F 23
Teemu Pulkkinen Arizona Coyotes F 25
Hunter Shinkaruk Calgary Flames F 22
Nicolas Kerdiles Anaheim Ducks F 23
Player Team Position Age
Matt Dumba Minnesota Wild D 22
Nate Schmidt Washington Capitals D 25
Calvin de Haan New York Islanders D 26
David Schlemko San Jose Sharks D 30
Colin Miller Boston Bruins D 24
Trevor van Riemsdyk Chicago Blackhawks D 25
Slater Koekkoek Tampa Bay Lightning D 23
Frederik Claesson Ottawa Senators D 24
Brayden McNabb Los Angeles Kings D 26
Player Team Position Age
Marc-Andre Fleury Pittsburgh Penguins G 32
Petr Mrazek Detroit Red Wings G 25
Calvin Pickard Colorado Avalanche G 25
Linus Ullmark Buffalo Sabres G 23

While this is still just a preliminary mock draft based on a series of educated guesses, there’s immediately a few key takeaways that crystallize when you poke around and get a lay of the land:

1. I’m all for the strategy of cornering the market by loading up on as many goaltenders as possible and making the rest of the league come to you. We’ll see whether Marc-Andre Fleury’s stabilizing veteran presence is more valuable to Vegas than whatever another team may offer them for his services, but there should be an appetite for him based on his name brand value and renaissance playoff performance that kickstarted Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run.

Even though it seems like a lot of money to sink into the one position between him and Petr Mrazek, the upside is too good for the Golden Knights to pass up on after the Red Wings inexplicably left the younger, better, and cheaper of their two goalies unprotected. Mrazek struggled in 2016-17, but that seems like more of an anomaly than a trend when stacked up against his previous six years of sparkling numbers across every level.

Beyond those two, there figures to be a handful of other intriguing, low-cost options available at the position (even if the Blue Jackets insist on making sure Joonas Korpisalo isn’t one of them). With so many enticing alternatives set to be made available, Calgary’s decision to prematurely trade for Mike Smith before seeing how things shook out is hard to rationalize.

2. It was difficult not cheating here by putting Josh Manson or Sami Vatanen on this team just to see what it would look like on paper, but if we’re working under the assumption that they’re off limits that likely means Vegas will be compensated handsomely in some other way (perhaps with another young defenceman in Anaheim’s seemingly endless pipeline like Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore, or Jacob Larsson).

Even without those guys in tow, Vegas still figures to have a defence corps that immediately gets vaulted into consideration as one of the more uniformly competent units across the league. Despite not necessarily boasting a star caliber player amongst the bunch that’ll resonate with the more casual crowd, they can roll six deep without any real hiccups or liabilities. Considering the state of some of the patchwork blue lines you’ll see kicking around the NHL these days, just the mere fact that they’ll have a number of guys who can skate, move the puck, and provide specific playable utility is a great starting point.

3. The defence group is legitimately impressive, but the forward group leaves a lot to be desired. Especially in terms of the top of the lineup, where getting their hands on the type of difference-making talent that tangibly moves the needle will surely be Vegas’ most elusive challenge.

One way to approach getting around that is to take some calculated risks on certain young forwards that have yet to make the jump and spread their wings at this level for whatever reason. That applies both to players like Charles Hudon and Brendan Leipsic who have been stuck in the AHL, and Marko Dano who has been stuck at the bottom of his NHL team’s depth chart.

The other thing they could do is just round up as many lottery tickets as possible in the form of draft capital and take their chances that, with the numbers game in their favour, they hit a couple of home runs. Which conveniently leads into the final point..

4. This should technically be true for essentially every team, but with Vegas’ unique circumstance of starting from scratch it’s especially true that they should prioritize being in the asset accumulation business above all else at the moment. The good news is that parsing through George McPhee’s various comments on the matter suggests they’re readily aware of that fact.

While it may seem counterintuitive to include veteran players such as James Neal, Mike Cammalleri, David Perron, Michael Grabner and even Lee Stempniak (if we’re being honest with ourselves this has been his destiny all along), whose individual timelines don’t mesh with that of a team whose sights are set on the big picture, they do serve a two-fold purpose: they’ll provide a nice bridge right out of the gate, and given ample cushy opportunities and ice time to produce as the de facto top scoring options on the team they should be easily flipped come next year’s March trade deadline after building up some nice value. Of course, that’s presuming they don’t get shuttled to another team before they even put on a Golden Knights jersey.

The beautiful part about the entire expansion draft process is that the league really has given its newest franchise every opportunity to start on the right track. Assuming they’re not going to cut corners by trying to cobble together a group of players that give them a slightly better chance of winning a few more games in Year 1 at the expense of the future, there’s no reason why the Golden Knights can’t emerge from this exercise with an abundance of valuable draft picks and prospects.

That’s what makes this expansion draft and everything surrounding it a true godsend for the NHL. The possibilities are endless, and the future is bright. Considering how much time and energy we spend arguing banal things like offside reviews and coaching challenges, this respite is a welcomed change of pace.


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