Imagine being in a position where it is almost impossible to fail; the only direction is up. You have a choice of more quality players than any team in the history of expansion, and you're in Las Vegas. The man in the middle of what will soon become hockey's biggest conspiracy theory is George McPhee, an undrafted player who signed on with the New York Rangers in 1982, and played with courage and tenacity. Though his playing days were largely unremarkable, he has had a very successful managerial career. He was with the Canucks when they made their run to the 1994 Stanley Cup and then moved on to Washington. He put together a lineup that would take the Caps to their first Stanley Cup, and continue a long run of divisional championships while continually reinventing his team. His boldest move was unloading key veterans and fan favorites which allowed the Capitals to draft Alexander Ovechkin. Later, he hired and introduced AHL super coach, Bruce Boudreau.
Now he finds himself in a brave new hockey world, where the flashing red lights won't necessarily mean a goal. If he brings success like he has everywhere else he's been, he should enjoy rewards beyond what most cities could offer. He'll have the 3rd pick of the draft to start (possibly first, as Vegas is eligible to win the lottery), he's already signed Reid Duke, a hard nosed young player cut in the same mold of himself, and he'll pick players from deep, successful teams that will have an immediate impact. His team will have players that imitate his character as a player, but he'll also start building with numerous first round picks buried on deep rosters. So what will he do? He'll bring a crew to Vegas that could be in reach of the playoffs their inaugural season.
15 Anthony Duclair via Expansion Draft
Here's my prediction: Arizona gets confused if they're coming or going, continue to think the kid is not an NHL player, and leave him exposed. Then, Vegas proves why the Yotes are a sorry bunch and snap up the young forward who can skate, shoot, and play with attitude. The Yotes suffer and watch Duclair return to his 2015 form and become a plus player with a purpose. He'll score 25 goals, and 50 points under McPhee and the Vegas lights. He'll also double his penalty minute totals for fantasy players when they play Arizona. Duclair has been poorly handled by the Yotes. He has all the skills a GM could want, but they turned on a budding star at his first hiccup. A fresh start with a team that has patience and more than one veteran leader is all he needs. See a trend here? McPhee starts building a team in his own image.
14 Trade For Malcolm Subban
First, expansion teams love first round picks that haven't worked out and here is a good reclamation project. Though his game in the AHL is not encouraging and his starts in the NHL even less so, he's still young and full of potential. He's small compared to today's goalie, his positioning and angles need work, and even the ridiculously large pads don't help. However, he's exceptionally quick, athletic, and confident. With goalie coach David Prior, who has worked with undersized and athletic goalies in Washington, he'll have every chance to blossom. Even if he doesn't, teams are always willing to trade and take chances to acquire young goalies. Finally, it must not go unstated, that a Subban in Vegas should be a ton of fun. Let the good times roll!
13 Anders Lee
The Islanders are a perfect team to capitalize on. They have many players with no movement clauses, some good young players, and this will be enough to confuse Garth Snow and leave Lee exposed. McPhee will be laughing when he picks the young, rough, talented goal scorer to add to his forward lines. He's big, 6'3", he's heavy, 220 pounds, and he plays a power game. He's a solid 25 goal scorer, crashes the net, and is just the type of player the Golden Knight fans will love.
Not only is Vegas acquiring young, skilled, gritty forwards, but they are relatively inexpensive and have tons of upside. Just as important, they'll have players that won't get pushed around by the big, bad teams in the West. The Islanders are a team that makes mistakes. Tavares could be the next one, and Vegas could be waiting.
12 Patric Hornqvist via Expansion Draft
Sure, it's a bit of a stretch that he won't be protected, but the Pens have to protect themselves. Though Kris Letang is a great defenseman, injuries and age are catching up and limiting his games and production. Jusin Schultz is a UFA that will be paid, and they shouldn't expose their young defensemen when they can still score while sleeping. They also have young forwards already in their top 6, and more on the way. So really, why protect the 30-year-old earning $4 million a year? Hornqvist is a true winger, and though he isn't going to take over games by himself and needs skilled teammates, he is a sniper. He's still relatively young, has speed, and can play the power play. Furthermore, a Penguin in Vegas that is not in a hotel but in a rink will add an offensive and winning mentality. If he doesn't work out, he can certainly be a quality trade candidate to bring in quality assets.
11 Hunter Shinkaruk via Expansion Draft
Here we go again, with another team having to debate whether they cut ties with an underachieving early pick or stick with players who impact their current lineup, like a Micheal Ferland. The Flames have a solid core of players who know their roles, complement each other, and have that all elusive chemistry. Shinkaruk has not been able to crack the lineup, find a role, and is definitely on the outside looking in. The Flames also have their share of smaller forwards and defensemen that will be protected. Why expose Ferland who is bigger, finding his game and roll, and is succeeding.
Either player will be taken by Vegas, but the bet here is Calgary keeps their surging team intact and exposes Shinkaruk. Vegas takes him home, and starts to put together forward lines than include grit, speed, skill, and a balance of youth and veteran leadership.
10 Phillip Danault via Expansion Draft
Though projected to be one of the last protected players on Les Habitants, that last spot is a slippery one. Injuries, chemistry, playoff injuries, all play a role in who will be protected. A slip here or there, and all of a sudden another young, fast, talented player could be exposed. Danault has been inconsistent; his numbers aren't great despite his playing time, and the Canadiens have a plethora of bottom 6 forwards seeking top 6 minutes. He was drafted in the first round by Chicago in 2011, so without the benefit of hindsight it seems he isn't turning into the player many thought he might be. The Canadiens like him, but they'll have trouble protecting him, and he could be headed to Vegas. He'll add speed to their roster; speed is just too enticing, and they'll try to find away to get him going.
9 Brenden Dillon via Expansion Draft
There's a good chance he will be exposed and Vegas will take him. He's a hulking defensive defenseman who can play shorthanded, be paired with anyone, and always stands up for his teammates. He'll fit in with the identity of a team that never lets up, plays a full 60 minutes, and is young enough to learn and improve. Though his offensive game won't remind anyone of other big defensemen like Chris Pronger, Kevin Hatcher, or Brent Burns, he'll compete every night and the Vegas fans will love him. He's just another solid, all around defenseman that will be really helpful in those big games against the tough, solid, heavy teams in the West. It's not like Vegas will find themselves flashy defencemen right from the go, right?
8 Trevor van Riemsdyk via Expansion Draft
Chicago, like many teams, is going to have a player selected they don't want to lose. Though van Riemsdyk's numbers don't leap off the page, he's playing more than 20 minutes a game on a Chicago team as deep as any. He can't crack special teams play in Chicago, but he's more than capable in Vegas. He is a right handed shot which is always valuable, he has good size, is young, and would pair up nicely with Dillon. Right now, the 3rd year pro hasn't shown offensive upside, but he can skate, pass, and shoot. Without Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, and the others in front of him, he'll get a real chance to open up his offensive game. When you look at the Golden Knights now, there's youth, speed, grit, and offensive upside on offense, and now from the rearguards.
7 Acquiring Ryan Kesler, Naming Him Captain
Anaheim has the most difficult choices of any team to make. Most think because of Kesler's no movement clause and league rules he won't be moved or exposed, and instead the Ducks will say goodbye to a younger forward like Jakob Silfverberg. If so, he is a no brainer, but that's just nonsense. Instead, in a league with more gray areas in the rule book than perhaps the NFL, Anaheim keeps the young, complete player and Vegas walks with a great veteran presence. The Ducks are stuck with Getzlaf and Perry, overpaid and declining vets who no team will take. They also have young, talented forwards and defensemen any team would want. Do they really expose the latter? When the cards are down, they fold.
Whether by trade or coming to their senses, Kesler becomes available. and the vet who can play on the power play, shorthanded, hit, win face offs, and fight becomes the first captain in the Golden Knights history.
6 Matt Dumba via Expansion Draft
Minnesota is another team with difficult decisions to make and this will only add talent to the Golden Knights. The Wild have built a heck of a team, a stingy and deep back line, but they will only be able to protect 3 or 4 defensemen. As a result, Matt Dumba could be exposed. If he is, Vegas could continue to build one of the best expansion teams in league history. Not only is Dumba valuable because he is a right handed shot, but he's got a cannon and will make a difference on the power play. He also plays a good 5 on 5 game, can move the puck, and isn't afraid to mix it up. He's very good in all 3 zones and can be a real leader. It's just another example of how Vegas came into the league at the right time, unless, you believe in conspiracy theories.
5 Brooks Orpik
Though Dmity Orlov could also be available, in which case Vegas takes him, the Caps expose Orpik and Vegas gives him the A. Look at this defense group now, with the guys we've projected heading to Vegas. You've got two right handed offensive defensemen now paired with defensive defensemen who can still skate and be physical presences. Though Orpik is getting older, he can close angles, kill penalties, and makes every team he plays for better. His experience alone with winning the cup in Pittsburgh and playing with the elite in Washington will serve Vegas well.
At 36, he plays a complete game, is smart, calm, physical, is a terrific leader and pro, and will demand as much confidence and respect on the blue line as Kesler will upfront. Pair him with Dumba, and Vegas has a top 4 that can compete with any team.
4 Derek Forbort via Expansion Draft
How imposing will this defense look with the 6'4", 215 pound, 25-year-old who is already playing consistent minutes on the Kings? Another first round draft pick, his offensive game has a way to go, but he can skate, hit, and clean up bodies in front of the net. He's gaining confidence in his passing, defensive skills, and physicality. But what's most impressive is at this age he doesn't really panic and make mistakes. He clears the zone, doesn't overstay his shifts, and can shut down other teams' better forwards.
With Dillon and Orpik, he'll complete a defense group that blends skill and nastiness. And with Orpik, he will continue to grow and learn and could be that prototypical shut down defenseman. Vegas doesn't really look like your typical expansion team anymore, does it?
3 Jason Demers via Expansion Draft
Florida joins the club of having to make some tough decisions, especially on defense. They have no choices up front, because they have some of the best, young talent in the league. They're deep on defense too, but something's got to give. Though they would hate to lose Demers, it just comes down to odds and value. Though Demers is just 28, Florida has younger defensemen with that highly sought after right handed shot. This means Demers is exposed, and Vegas grabs him to pair with Forbort. He's got a little edge in that 6 foot frame, but more importantly he's finding his shot and his goals and production has increased every year.
He can play on the man advantage and shorthanded, and he's got a quiet confidence. This 7th round pick whose on his 3rd team, continues on and brings his collection of sweaters and his underdog story to Vegas. He'll find a home and lay down his roots, because he'll outperform his contract and round out a terrific young defense.
2 Jimmy Howard via Expansion Draft
When it comes down to the most important position on the team, Vegas takes the net minder that in many ways fits perfectly for this expansion team. Of course, and he'd probably have it no other way, Detroit will give up on Howard and expose him. He's had a few rough seasons with injuries as he ages, but he's also been banished to the dog house under Jeff Blashill. One of the more underrated goalies in the league, he's the ultimate competitor despite his size. He's athletic, incredibly focused, and never gives up on the puck.
He’d also be a great mentor for Subban and would be able to teach the youngster how to be more positionally sound and move more efficiently.
He brings 194 career wins, a career goals against below 2.50, and a save percentage of .915. Howard has always had to fight for his playing time, won a cup, and is another example of how work ethic brings success.
1 Signing Ben Bishop
The only whole that Vegas will have to sure up is in goal, as in bringing in competition to cover them in net. This will also be McPhee's only real test. Subban isn't ready yet and Howard is on the verge of being an old 32. He can either claim a back up like Al Montoya who can also start for short periods of time, or he can put his chips on the table and go for it via free agency. Though McPhee generally doesn't chase the market, Ben Bishop could be had for over $6 million a year. Though Bishop isn't probably worth it - he's terrible with his stick, pucks get caught up in his feet, and he often gets injured - he has shown he can be that lock down goalie every team needs. He's won in the playoffs, has gaudy regular season stats, and this team will be good enough they can't afford any questions in goal.