Photo: The Athletic
After watching the Vegas Golden Knights‘ improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final a season ago, teams are rethinking their expansion draft strategies as they prepare for Seattle’s entry into the league in 2021. Anxious to avoid giving up potential superstars before they break out, teams are going to give players bigger roles sooner in their careers to see what kind of talent they really have. In this piece, NoVa Caps takes a look at the side deals made with Vegas and the players left exposed that those teams almost certainly regret not protecting now. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, and Vegas seems to have come back to Earth this season (though they are still very good), but teams are sure to rethink their strategies next time around.
William Karlsson – Columbus Blue Jackets
The Columbus Blue Jackets has a dilemma: they wanted to protect forward Josh Anderson and backup goaltender Jonas Korpisalo and they needed to unload forward David Clarkson’s $5.28 million cap hit. The price was high: the Blue Jackets traded center William Karlsson and Clarkson’s contract and sweetened the pot with first- and second-round picks in the 2017 NHL Draft to Vegas.
Karlsson, 25, was the league’s biggest breakout star last season, finishing third in the NHL with 43 goals, leading the league with a +49 rating (the next highest +/- rating was a +36), and leading the team with 78 points.
Karlsson was the fourth-line center in Columbus, averaging just 13:23 per game in 2016-17. This year, he is leading Golden Knights forwards with an average of 19:32 per game of ice time. His previous career-highs included 25 points in 2016-17, and nine goals in 2015-16.
This season, Karlsson has dipped to nine goals and 22 points in 31 games. Those totals would rank fourth on the Blue Jackets, behind forwards Cam Atkinson (31 points) and Artemi Panarin (31) and center Pierre-Luc Dubois (25). Anderson had 19 goals and 11 assists in 63 games last year and has 12 goals and 3 points in 29 games this season. Korpisalo, meanwhile, went 8-8-1 in 17 starts last year and is 5-1-2 in nine starts this season.
Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith – Florida Panthers
After scoring 30 goals with the Panthers in 2016-17, forward Jonathan Marchessault was left unprotected by the teams in perhaps the biggest surprise of the draft (along with the Predators’ decision to leave forward James Neal exposed). The Panthers traded Marchessault and forward Reilly Smith (to clear $5 million in cap space) for a fourth-round pick.
Despite scoring 30 goals and finishing third on the Panthers with 51 points in 2016-17, Marchessault averaged only 16:55 with Florida that season, eighth among Panther forwards. He had previously never played more than 45 games or finished with more than seven goals in two previous seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The 27-year old finished second on Vegas with 48 assists and 75 points last season and currently leads the team with 11 goals and 23 points this season while averaging 19:16 of ice time. The Golden Knights inked Marchessault to a six-year contract extension worth $30 million ($5 million AAV) midway through last season. He could have become an unrestricted free agent this past summer.
The Panthers traded Smith after he declined from 25 goals and 50 points in 2015-16 to 15 goals and 37 points the next season despite averaging 18:21 minutes per game. He currently averages 19:18 minutes per game with Vegas and leads the team with 15 assists. Smith is fourth on the Golden Knights with 25 points this season.
Marchessault and Smith led the team in scoring during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, with Smith tallying 23 points and Marchessault 22.
The Panthers decided to go with protecting eight skaters and a goalie. They protected defensemen Mark Psysk, who only has two assists and a +1 rating in 16 games this season, and Alex Petrovic, who only has an assist and a -5 rating in 20 games with Florida this season.
Alex Tuch and Erik Haula – Minnesota Wild
To protect defensemen Matt Dumba and Marco Scandella and convince the Golden Knights to take center Erik Haula in the expansion draft, the Minnesota Wild gave Vegas forward Alex Tuch and a third-round pick in either the 2017 or 2018 drafts.
Haula, 27, was among the breakout stars for the Golden Knights last year, shattering his previous career-highs of 15 goals and 34 points with the Wild with a 29 goal, 56 point season. Haula averaged a career-high 13:49 of ice time in his final season with the Wild and played 17:22 a game for Vegas. The center has been out much of this season due to a lower-body injury, missing 15 games. Before then, he posted two goals and seven points in 15 games while playing 16:35 per night.
Tuch, 22, played just six games near the end of the season for Minnesota in 2016-17, tallying no points. He started last season with the Chicago Wolves (the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate) and got called up after scoring four goals and five points in three games and the team needed him with players out due to injury early in the year. Tuch played well enough to stay on the NHL roster last year, finishing with 15 goals and 37 points while averaging 15:15 per game. Tuch, who signed a seven-year contract worth $33.25 million ($4.75 million AAV) prior to this season, missed the team’s first eight games but is third on the team with 21 points and fifth with 12 assists in only 22 games, eight fewer than Marchessault and Karlsson, the two leading scorers on the team.
Minnesota traded Scandella and forward Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres two days after the expansion draft for forwards Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno and a third-round pick. Protecting Dumba prived smart for Minnesota: he is tied for third on the team with 10 goals this season and tallied 14 goals, 50 points, and a +15 rating last year.
David Perron – St. Louis Blues
The Blues decided to protect forwards Ryan Reaves, Patrik Berglund, and Paul Stastny over forward David Perron. All three of those players are gone and Stastny and Reaves are both currently with the Golden Knights.
Perron led the Golden Knights last season with 50 assists and third with 66 points despite appearing in only 70 games after posting 18 goals and 46 points with the Blues in 2016-17. Despite posting nine points in the postseason, he played in just 15 games, averaging 16:33 worth of ice time per night.
The loss of Perron would only be for one year in St. Louis as he signed a four-year contract with the Blues on the first day of free agency this past summer.
James Neal – Nashville Predators
With the Predators needing to protect the best top-four defensive unit in the NHL, the team was forced to leave a talented forward exposed outside of their strong top line. James Neal, who posted 20+ goals in each of his first 10 NHL seasons, proved to be the odd man out and was grabbed by the Golden Knight.
After posting 31 goals and 58 points in 2015-16, Neal, 31, dropped off to 23 goals and 41 points in 70 games in his final season in Nashville. A major reason why Neal was left exposed by the Predators was that he was older than the forwards the team protected and was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
Last season in Vegas, Neal posted 25 goals and 41 points in 71 games, including six goals in his first four games of the season. He had a more productive season with the Golden Knights than he did with the Predators despite averaging 31 seconds fewer per game with Vegas than he did with Nashville in 2016-17.
While it’s understandable that the Predators protected their impressive defensive unit and top line, they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over Neal. While Jarnkrok has been a 30+ point producer in each of the past three seasons, he has never produced more than 20 goals in a season, while Neal has done so every season of his career.
The Predators tried to re-acquire Neal as a free agent this past summer but he signed a five-year contract with the Calgary Flames. Neal has gotten off to a shaky start in Calgary, posting only three goals, six points, and a -5 rating in his first 30 games in a Flames uniform.
Shea Theodore – Anaheim Ducks
To keep young defensemen Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen, the Ducks sent defenseman Shea Theodore to the Golden Knights in exchange for Vegas taking defenseman Clayton Stoner’s and his $3.25 million cap hit off of their books. Theodore’s career-high in games played in Anaheim was 34 and averaged only 17:19 in the games that he played in his final year with the Ducks.
Theodore, 23, has 6 goals and 23 assists in 61 games with Vegas last year. This season, he is averaging 21:48 worth of ice time per game, including 2:43 on the power-play, and has tallied four goals, 17 points, and a +1 rating in 30 games this season, only 12 points off his total from last season in half as many games.
Meanwhile, Vatanen was traded to the New Jersey Devils after the first quarter of the season last year for forwards Adam Henrique and Joseph Blandisi and Manson is having a down year with only three goals, six points, and a +5 rating even though he averages more than a minute of ice time per game than Theodore does this season (23:04). They were forced to protect defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who retired this past offseason and only posted eight assists and a -13 rating in 59 games for the Ducks last season after he was unwilling to waive his no-movement clause.
Colin Miller – Boston Bruins
The Bruins protected two players who are currently not on the team anymore (forward Ryan Spooner and center Riley Nash) and opted to keep defenseman Kevan Miller, who has posted just a goal and 16 points a season ago and just two assists in 11 games this season, over Colin Miller.
Miller led Vegas defensemen with 10 goals and 41 points a season ago while averaging a career-high 19:21 after never averaging more than 15:49 in his two seasons in Boston. This season, Miller led the Golden Knights with an average of 20:52 of playing time per game after the team’s ice time leader last year, defenseman Nate Schmidt, was suspended 20 games earlier this year. Miller never had more than seven goals and 16 points in his career in Boston.
Meanwhile, Kevan Miller has averaged 18:47 per game and has been responsible defensively but has had nowhere near the impact Colin Miller does with the Golden Knights.
Brayden McNabb – Los Angeles Kings
The Kings opted to go with the format that would let them be able to protect eight skaters and one goalie. Three of the defensemen they chose to protect over McNabb have fewer than four goals and 11 points this season.
Last season, McNabb played with Schmidt on the team’s top defensive pairing, averaging more than 20 minutes worth of ice time per game in each of his first two seasons in Vegas. In his final season in Los Angeles, the 27-year old only averaged 15:04 per game. With the Golden Knights this season, McNabb has three assists and a -3 rating, but Schmidt missed the first 20 games of the season due to suspension. Not only did McNabb set a career-high with five goals and a +26 rating in addition to posting 15 points with Schmidt, but he also scored the series-clinching goal in the first round of the playoffs against the Kings to help Vegas finish the series sweep last season.
Marc-Andre Fleury – Pittsburgh Penguins
After several seasons as the Penguins top goalie, Fleury lost the starting job to goaltender Matt Murray, who was the starter in each of the Penguins’ run to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Fleury played in 38 games in his final season with Pittsburgh, his lowest in 11 seasons, and went 18-10-7 with a .909 save percentage, a 3.02 goals-against average, and one shutout, though he went 9-6 with a save percentage of .924, a goals-against average 2.56, and two shutouts in the playoffs.
Murray was younger and he played a major role in the back-to-back Stanley Cups Pittsburgh won prior to the summer of the Vegas expansion draft. In fact, the Penguins were so high on Murray that they gave the Golden Knights a second-round draft pick just to guarantee that Fleury, 34, would be taken.
Fleury responded to the move with the best season in his career, going 29-13-4 with a .927 save percentage, a 2.24 goals-against average, and four shutouts with the Golden Knights last season. In the first three rounds of the playoffs last season, Fleury posted a .950 save percentage, a stellar 1.60 goals-against average, and four shutouts. In the Stanely Cup Final, however, Fleury posted a .853 save percentage and a 4.09 goals-against average in the Golden Knights’ five-game series loss to the Washington Capitals.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Murray has lost his job as the starter as he’s gone 4-5-1 with a save percentage of .877, a goals-against average of 4.08, and a shutout this season after going 27-16-3 with a save percentage of .907, a goals-against average of 2.92, and just a single shutout last season.
How Will The Experience with Vegas Impact Seattle Expansion Draft?
While every team’s situation is unique, there are some common tactics to look for in the lead up to the 2021 expansion draft.
First, expect teams to be less willing to make deals with Seattle because of how unpredictable things ended up with the Golden Knights. Vegas was able to amass a slew of draft picks in addition to what proved to be a very talented roster of players, setting them up for success in coming years.
Second, expect teams to juggle lineups more frequently in the regular season to give younger players more opportunities to highlight their talents. Bottom six forwards and bottom pair defensemen who clubs drafted with high expectations may get bumped up to see how they handle higher-pressure, higher-profile opportunities and more ice time.
Finally, expect teams to manage their rosters with an eye to the expansion draft well ahead of 2021. Teams are going to want to get value for players they will otherwise be forced to expose in the draft. Some creative deals are likely, particularly for teams with strong goalie tandems.
Seattle will almost certainly have a strong selection of goaltenders to choose from, and a lot of good defensemen and forwards will be available, which should put them in a good position to compete in their inaugural campaign.
By Harrison Brown