The Vegas Golden Knights have been THE story of the 2017-18 NHL season. Never before has an expansion team found such success in its inaugural season. Unfortunately, being the new kid on the block can rustle a few feathers. With the Golden Knights on an unbelievable playoff run taking them to the Western Conference Finals, many pundits are now saying the NHL slanted the expansion draft rules to ensure a strong team. While it would be in the league’s best interest to have a competitive team in Vegas, the notion that this was somehow the plan is ridiculous.
Don’t Blame NHL Expansion Draft Rules For Vegas Golden Knights Success
Vegas secured 51 wins, 109 points and a Pacific Division title in their first ever season. That is quite an accomplishment on its own. For context, the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the oldest franchises in the NHL, had its best-ever season in 2017-18 with 105 points. Vegas surpassed that in its very first season.
Then, when the playoffs started, most believed that the Golden Knights would not be able to handle the “real” NHL. All they have done since the beginning of the post-season is go 6-2, sweeping aside the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks en route to a Western Conference finals appearance against either the Nashville Predators or Winnipeg Jets.
Now that they have proven most of the nay-sayers wrong, people are now looking for new reasons for the team’s success. They seem to have grabbed hold of this notion that the expansion draft rules are the reason for the Golden Knights success.
Maybe they shouldn’t give Seattle these expansion rules…
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) May 7, 2018
Sometimes when success comes too quick for a team, there can be pushback from people or media in established markets. Rather than give credit to the management team that build the roster or the coaching staff that brought the team together or the players for performing, they undercut the team by suggesting they had it easy in the expansion draft.
Think I’m one of the only people not really that pleased with VGK success.
If you’re the NHL and you created a system where a team like Florida had to give up a 30 goal scorer and then missed the playoffs, while the team that was built is in the final 4 first year?
— Brian Wilde (@BWildeRecrutes) May 7, 2018
If the expansion draft is the reason, then maybe NHL general managers should be held more accountable rather then the league and its rules.
So, the NHL expansion draft rules were as follows, a team could either protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie. This left some teams with difficult choices to make. This is how the Golden Knights were able to acquire some of their better players. However, part of the problem was general managers creating their own mess.
Players with no movement clauses (unless the player waived) had to be protected. A valuable protected spot might not be available, because teams are so willing to give out NMC in contracts. Still, these rules meant that there were some good players available to the Golden Knights, but not so many good players that anyone saw this type of season coming.
The Expansion Roster
At first glance, the Golden Knights initial roster was nothing special. There were some familiar names like Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, Marc Methot, and David Perron. Still, other than Fleury, these acquisitions were seen as players to be moved for future assets. Methot was traded five days after the expansion draft to the Dallas Stars. Neal and Perron are scheduled to be free agents and were thought to be trade deadline bait. Not much was expected from this roster as most predicted the Golden Knights to finish at the bottom of the Pacific Division and near the bottom of the NHL – a run of the mill type season for an expansion team.
The team was seen as thin up front and not having enough depth on defence to be close to competitive. The Golden Knights were seen to be planning on building through the draft and for the future. Nobody gave this team much of a chance at anything.
Expansion drafts can be difficult for teams with deep rosters. They can’t protect everyone they would like. Also, with the rule that players with NMC had to be protected (unless an agreement was reached to waive the clause), some teams were put into very difficult positions. Still, teams can work out deals with the expansion team to select certain players or lay off of others.
At the time, Vegas used its available cap space to give relief to some teams in exchange for draft picks and prospects. Teams also cut deals with the Golden Knights to make sure certain players were or were not selected. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee used this leverage to his full advantage. There were several different instances where teams begged the Golden Knights to take a certain player and compensated them extremely well to do so.
Take My “Trash”
Marc-Andre Fleury waived his no-movement clause to go to Vegas, as he and his $5.75M contract were relegated to backup in Pittsburgh. The Penguins gave the Golden Knights a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL draft to select Fleury. The Anaheim Ducks sent defencemen Shea Theodore to Vegas to ensure the Golden Knights picked Clayton Stoner in the expansion draft.
The Winnipeg Jets traded their first-round pick in the 2017 and a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL draft to Vegas for the Golden Knights first round pick in 2017 (acquired from Columbus – more on that in a second) and the promise to select Chris Thorburn.
While the Golden Knights were able to use the expansion draft to build up draft capital, a few teams were more than generous in helping build this year’s team as well.
Ya Blew It: Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus was in a difficult position. They had to protect Scott Hartnell and Brandon Dubinsky. They also chose to protect Cam Atkinson, who was coming off 35-goal season. Unfortunately, this meant that young players like Josh Anderson and Joonas Korpisalo were left unprotected. The Blue Jackets were also carrying the bloated contract of David Clarkson on their salary cap. Looking for relieve and to protect some of their players, they sent a 2017 first round pick (later flipped to Winnipeg), a 2019 second round pick, and Clarkson to Vegas for them to select William Karlsson.
At the time, Karlsson was thought to play in the bottom six with the Golden Knights. Karlsson had other plans. He led the team with 43 goals and 78 points. He is the Golden Knights number one centre.
After the expansion draft, the Blue Jackets ended up buying out Hartnell.
Ya Blew It: Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers are a budget team. So, in that light, the team left 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault unprotected in the expansion draft. Marchessault was set to become a free agent after the 2017-18 season. To that point, however, Marchessault had an uninspiring NHL career. The Panthers were, presumably, not looking to get stuck paying a high salary for a one-year wonder. So while exposing Marchessault may have raised some eyebrows, it was not very surprising.
They were also looking to shed the salary of Reilly Smith, so a deal was made. The Panthers sent Smtih to Vegas for a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft and selecting Marchessault.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, both Marchessault and Smith are now key figures for the Golden Knights. They flank William Karlsson on the Golden Knights first line. Marchessault netted 27 goals and 75 points, while Smith has 22 goals and 60 points.
The Golden Knights success must be especially tough in Florida as along with Marchessault and Smith, former Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant is guiding Vegas on his incredible run.
Ya Blew It: Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild were probably the team with the most to lose in the expansion draft. The Wild had, at that time, one of the deeper rosters in the NHL, especially on defence. Due to NMC contracts to Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild could only protect six other players. The Wild had to expose Marco Scandella, Mathew Dumba and Eric Staal. In order to keep Vegas from selecting one of those players, the Wild traded Alex Tuch to ensure that Erik Haula was selected.
Haula has settled into the number-two centre role with Vegas. He scored 29 goals and 55 points this year. Tuch, in his first full season in the NHL, scored 15 goals and 37 points.
The Wild ended up trading Pominville along with Scandella to the Buffalo Sabres on June 30th.
Even after all the dust had settled from the expansion draft and free-agency, the Golden Knights had low expectations. And there is nothing wrong with that. Expansion teams are not supposed to have many expectations. It’s hard to build a successful team when picking from most teams leftovers. It’s not usually a recipe for immediate success.
Sometimes, however, events can pull a city and team together. On Sunday, October 1st, 2017, there was an unspeakable tragedy in Las Vegas. A Gunman opened fire into a crowd at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. The attack left 58 dead and 851 injured. The attack happened six days before the Golden Knights first ever game (in Dallas) and 10 days before their home opener.
Tragic events really bring people and city’s together. Sports can also play a vital role in the healing process. The Vegas Strong movement seems to have become a rallying point for the city and team. Being the only professional team in the city, the Golden Knights have taken on the responsibility of helping in the healing process. Just by their inspired play on the ice, the Golden Knights have given their community some sense of normal in the wake of the shooting and the city has rallied around the team because of it. Events like this can inspire great things out of people and, yes, sports teams.
Competitve vs. Dominant
It’s no secret that the NHL wanted a competitive team in Vegas. Expansion teams that struggle out of the gate and for too long can lose steam and fans can lose interest. Once fans lose interest, it is very difficult to lure them back. In a city like Las Vegas, where there are plenty of other things to do, grabbing the attention of fans early was paramount.
While the league wanted a competitive team, there is no way they thought something like this would happen. It’s easy to look at the deals made around the expansion draft and point out mistakes. At the time, nobody was expecting much from this team. Its a credit to the hard work everyone has put into the team.
For other recent expansion teams, like Florida or Columbus, it can be frustrating to see a team achieve more success in their first year than they have in their existence. That is not on Vegas, that is on those teams for not building competitive teams. Don’t blame the expansion rules for the strong season Vegas is having – blame the general managers that boxed themselves in. Blame them for gifting the Golden Knights their first line.
Enjoy The Ride
The Vegas Golden Knights are doing something that has never been done before. What they have achieved is already above and beyond what anyone expected from them. Unfortunately, some people can’t seem to get on board. It’s not to suggest everyone needs to be a Golden Knights fan, but you can appreciate what they are doing.
Arguing that the league set it all up so the this would happen is totally undercutting all the hard work Vegas put into their team building and on ice execution.
Better yet, rather than looking for someone to blame, why not give credit. Give credit to George McPhee for building this team. Give credit to Gerard Gallant for coaching this team to this level. Show the players some love producing on the ice. Give it up for the city of Las Vegas that has embraced this team right from the jump.
Sometimes its more fun to just stop trying to poke holes and appreciate what is actually happening. This is something that we will likely never see again (sorry Seattle). So sit back and enjoy the ride.
Main Image Credit: