The available pieces are all there for the Vegas Golden Knights to be a competitive team right away.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Petr Mrazek, Philipp Grubauer and Antti Raanta in net. Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Matt Dumba, Marc Methot, Jack Johnson, Toby Enstrom, Niklas Kronwall and Calvin de Haan on the blue line.
A list of forwards that includes James Neal, Bobby Ryan, Eric Staal, Brock Nelson, Jonathan Marchessault, Cody Eakin, Troy Brouwer, Michael Grabner, Mike Cammalleri, Jori Lehtera and others.
“We really like what we’re looking at right now,” Golden Knights general manager George McPhee told reporters in Las Vegas on Sunday.
It still wasn’t easy to predict exactly what the NHL’s 31st team would look like as McPhee and his staff started working through their selections in the expansion draft. That’s because they’re already believed to have deals in place with Columbus, Anaheim and the New York Islanders about who will be taken from those teams.
Hint: It’s not going to be the best player available from each.
There’ll likely be other trades, as well, with the Golden Knights sending out a press release on Saturday night indicating that they’re wide open for business. Indeed, it’s no secret that McPhee will pass on a player you’ve been forced to expose if you’re willing to part with draft picks to make it happen.
“Every team in this league has a chance to protect their roster,” said McPhee. “We will not make a claim with any club before we talk to the club.”
The message is clear: Vegas is much more interested in becoming a homegrown power a few years down the road than winning a few extra games in its inaugural season.
It’s a sound approach given the way championship organizations tend to be built in today’s NHL. Here we have one starting from scratch, and McPhee recognizes that the entry draft is going to be a lot more important to his ultimate success than the expansion draft.
Still, the veteran GM has an incredibly unique opportunity to maximize assets and position the franchise for a bright future during an expansion draft process that will culminate with his 30 selections being revealed on Wednesday night at the sparkling T-Mobile Arena, just off the Las Vegas Strip.
“We think we can accomplish two things,” McPhee explained. “We can put a good team on the ice and accumulate draft picks and be in a surplus situation here in the next couple of years so that we can start with a real good team and then build it with these draft picks to a team that can win a Cup.”
Fleury is expected to become the first No. 1 goaltender in Golden Knights history. He and Enstrom were the only players league-wide that elected to waive a no-move clause to be made available in the expansion draft.
Elsewhere, the situations are less clear.
Vatanen and Manson are both key figures on an Anaheim Ducks blue line that is the envy of much of the NHL. Only one can be lost. The expected trade will almost certainly determine which.
The Islanders were the only NHL team to protect five defencemen, which left Nelson – a 20-goal scorer each of the last three seasons – available. A side deal is believed to have already been consummated to keep him in New York.
Still, the Vegas brass came away happy with the protection list it was presented with. They had anticipated the pool would be diluted by a massive redistribution of players that never materialized before a trade freeze kicked in on Saturday afternoon.
“The issue for us isn’t going to be, ‘Can we fill out the roster?”’ said McPhee. “It would be, ‘Do we have too many players?’ There are lots of good players there.”
This is the first expansion draft since Columbus and Minnesota entered the league in 2000 and it’s essentially the first of its kind. There was no salary cap in place when the Blue Jackets and Wild joined the NHL. Everything from the entry-level system to free agency to the waiver process has changed in the years since.
McPhee is required to take one player from each of the 30 existing teams and 20 of them must already have contracts for 2017-18. Vegas needs to claim at least 14 forwards, nine defencemen and three goalies and the players selected are required to count at least $43.8 million towards the salary cap.
Beyond that, the Golden Knights are limited only by imagination and whatever market forces exist around the league.
Vegas is thought to be asking high prices in exchange for doing rival teams a favour – think first-round picks – and could end up with a haul of futures when all is said and done here. Some of the players claimed in the expansion draft are bound to be flipped to other teams – either right away or perhaps before the trade deadline next season.
McPhee is also permitted to negotiate contracts with any free agents left unprotected during this exclusive window – players like Joe Thornton, Alex Radulov, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, among others.
It promises to be a crazy, sleep-deprived few days at team headquarters.
While the NHL provided an unprecedented look inside the expansion process by releasing the protected lists on Sunday morning, we still don’t have the complete picture. Some of the names listed as “available” are already protected by secret side deals; others will likely join that group before Vegas finalizes its picks by 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning.
As that deadline approaches, McPhee and his lieutenants have complete control over any player movement around the NHL.
It amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – one where Vegas is hoping to hit the jackpot.