The Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL's 31st franchise, have arrived! In a flashy and sometimes awkward Wednesday night awards ceremony at the Knights' new T-Mobile Arena home, the club welcomed what will at least partly be their inaugural roster. General manager George McPhee, along with team owner Bill Foley, unveiled the players they selected from the other 30 teams' unprotected lists and announced a bevy of trades designed to maximize their expansion draft opportunities. While watching Connor McDavid win Hart Trophy honors, fans were also introduced to the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal, the first group of players to represent the Golden Knights.
McPhee did well within what was a chaotic, complicated and exciting situation. For the $500 million expansion fee they paid the league, the Knights were entitled to take one player off of every other NHL club, with certain exceptions and controls limiting the available players. The club's selections were bound by a framework in which they had to take at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies among their 30 picks. The rules governing the draft made McPhee's job a little more challenging, but he successfully leveraged his position into trades with teams fearful that he would nab a player they valued but couldn't protect. By the end of Wednesday, the Knights had a bountiful roster, plus a considerable supply of draft picks and prospects to help cement a long-term vision in Vegas.
Are the Knights off to a good start in their bid to build a winning franchise in the desert? Absolutely. But like any personnel decisions, the moves of McPhee are subject to scrutiny, particularly when his pool of player choices had been made public. Amidst the frenzied wheeling and dealing of the busy Vegas executive, there were moves that looked like masterstrokes and others that seem highly questionable for now. While adhering to the same rules and limitations faced by McPhee and the Knights' team brass, we will offer up an Expansion Draft redo to highlight how the NHL's new addition could have best utilized the assets at their disposal, be it as a trade asset or for their own use.
30 Anaheim Ducks
Owing to the Anaheim Ducks' deep and talented roster, it came as little surprise that the club would need to leave some very good players available and, thus, were eager to talk trade with Vegas to control who they chose. For taking Clayton Stoner, the Knights also nabbed 21-year-old defensive prospect Shea Theodore from the Ducks. Theodore carries plenty of promise and could man the Knights' blue line for years to come, but by acquiring Theodore, McPhee opted to pass on Sami Vatanen. The Finnish blue liner is five years older than Theodore, but has already proven himself as an elite, NHL level defensemen without having yet hit his prime. Vegas could have anchored their franchise with Vatanen, but instead went with future hope in a player that might, one day, be Vatanen-like.
29 Arizona Coyotes
Teemu Pulkinnen is just 25 years of age, but has encountered a winding and bumpy path along the way to achieving permanent NHL employment. He looked poised to be the latest in a long line of late round gems to be taken by the Detroit Red Wings, raising eyebrows with 65 goals and 120 points in 117 games across two seasons with their Grand Rapids AHL affiliate. But that success hasn't carried over to the NHL level, where Pulkinnen has just 13 goals in 83 games with three different teams. Jamie McGinn is only three years older, but brings a considerably more impressive NHL pedigree as a hard-nosed forward with 100 career goals to his name. Though he struggled in Arizona this past season, McGinn is just a year removed from splitting 22 goals and 39 points between Buffalo and Anaheim over the 2015-16 season.
28 Boston Bruins
Vegas appeared to narrow their expansion draft options from the Boston Bruins down to two defensemen - Colin Miller and Adam McQuaid. Understandably, they went the younger route, opting for the 24-year-old Miller over 30-year-old McQuaid. Miller might serve the Knights well, but the veteran blue liner affectionately known as Darth Quaider could have been a culture-establishing presence in the locker room. For a club in search of both identity and character, a well-liked and hard-nosed guy like McQuaid can play an invaluable role in helping a young roster - and franchise - along. If veteran Vegas draftees like Marc Methot and David Perron are traded, its hard to see where leadership on the Knights will come from.
27 Buffalo Sabres
McPhee and the Knights are excited to see what they have in the 22-year-old speedster William Carrier, who could shine with the type of opportunities that he wasn't likely to get anytime soon in Buffalo. To make things even sweeter, they squeezed a sixth round pick out of the Sabres, reportedly to keep them from drafting exposed goalie Linus Ullmark. For the promise that Carrier boasts, however, Ullmark looks like an even more intriguing prospect. The Sabres view the 23-year-old Swede as their goalie of the future, owing to a promising taste of his potential when Ullmark posted a 2.60 GAA over 20 games in Buffalo during the 2015-16 season. If the young goalie can capitalize on his potential, that sixth rounder will look like a pittance for passing on a major talent between the pipes.
26 Calgary Flames
Few clubs came away from the expansion draft as unscathed as the Calgary Flames, thanks to the Knights' perplexing selection of Deryk Engelland, a 35-year-old pending free agent. The primary motivation behind the pick is hardly a secret - Engelland is a Las Vegas resident and the rare "local" talent to sell their new fan base on. Even still, it's hard to see a guy like Engelland selling a single additional ticket or generating a sliver of additional interest in the team locally. Matt Stajan may not have had the local ties to the area, but he does have two years left on his contract and can slide in rather nicely to a second- or third-line center position. Geography and residence aside, Stajan would have represented a much better fit as a productive depth addition down the middle.
25 Carolina Hurricanes
The decision on who to select off of the Carolina Hurricanes' roster is believed to have come down to a slim pickings trio of veteran Lee Stempniak and young forwards Connor Brickley and Joakim Nordstrom. 'Canes management tossed a fifth-round pick Vegas' way to nudge them towards Brickley out of the three, which they happily took as part of their asset collection. However, that pick - which brought LW Jonathan Dugan into the fold - should not have offered enough incentive to prompt the Knights to shift away from Nordstrom, the best option unprotected by Carolina. Age doesn't factor into the Brickley / Nordstrom debate - the forwards were born on the very same day - but Nordstrom still boasts a higher ceiling and plays center, a position where Vegas remains woefully thin.
24 Chicago Blackhawks
Rumors that had the Chicago Blackhawks using young defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk as the bait to goad Vegas into taking on the contract of Marcus Kruger never made much sense. After all, van Riemsdyk was either going to be left unprotected or not, either leaving him to be claimed or making room for another coveted 'Hawks player to be freed for the taking. In the end, the Knights couldn't have done any better, bringing the 25-year-old in without surrendering any assets or taking on unwanted baggage. Now, the younger brother of Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk won't be donning a Golden Knights' jersey any time soon. He was quickly flipped to Carolina, but McPhee maximized his selection by getting back a second round pick, which he used on Regina St. Pats center Jake Lechyshyn, the son of retired NHL defenseman Curtis Lechyshyn.
23 Colorado Avalanche
Despite the obvious and numerous drawbacks that come with being an expansion team, there are advantages too. For one thing, there's the opportunity to acquire assets in exchange for taking on bad contracts, which we'll get to later. There's also the chance to grant under-performing prospects greater roles and bigger opportunities to showcase their abilities. Accordingly, it is these type of players that should be embraced for their jackpot potential. Vegas could have had that in Mikhail Grigorenko, who was once a highly coveted prospect selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the 12th pick of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. The skilled center is on his third team, but remains just 23 and has been marred by time spent on poor teams in shaky systems while receiving inconsistent ice time.
22 Columbus Blue Jackets
Per the unique circumstances of the expansion draft, McPhee has had some degree of dealings with every single NHL club over the past few weeks. When it comes to the Columbus Blue Jackets, it's hard to fathom how he could have fared any better than he did. The easy part was the pick, where 24-year-old two-way center William Karlsson sat ripe for the picking. Unless he gets traded, Karlsson should assume a significant role up the middle with the Knights this season. Things only got better, though, when the Knights GM agreed to take on the three years remaining on the contract of injured veteran forward David Clarkson. In exchange for about $15.75 million of cash that won't count against the cap, Vegas swapped picks to move from 24th overall to 13th in the draft and added a 2019 second rounder to their draft stash.
21 Dallas Stars
Much of the fundamental purpose of the expansion draft can essentially be boiled down to the old adage of 'one person's trash is another's treasure'. With that in mind, it probably wasn't a particularly tough decision for GM Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars' brass to leave Cody Eakin unprotected, nor would there have been much haggling by McPhee and company over whether to snap him up. The Stars are already set down the middle with the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, but in Vegas, Eakin could well start the season as a first line center. Despite coming off of an injury-marred 2016-17 campaign, the 26-year old averaged 17 goals and 37 points over the previous three seasons and should see those numbers jump with added ice time and offensive opportunities.
20 Detroit Red Wings
Presumably McPhee did his due dilligence with each club's unprotected list and identified either the best fit or most valuable trade asset that all 30 teams had to offer. Still, it came as something of a surprise that he looked beyond a pretty decent roster of available talent to take an undrafted 24-year old Czech forward with one goal and 17 games on his NHL resume. Fans of Tomas Nosek can point to an impressive performance as part of the Calder Cup-winning Grand Rapids Griffins last season as a sign of promise, but it remains to be seen whether that was the best direction for Vegas to go when they could have had established NHLers in Riley Sheahan or Darren Helm. You also had the one-time goalie of the future in Motown, Petr Mrazek, surprisingly left exposed. Even if he wasn't going to remain in Vegas, he would've made for a nice trade chip to have on hand when a goalie-needy team came calling.
19 Edmonton Oilers
Hard to believe that it was already five years ago that Griffin Reinhart was taken with the fourth overall pick in a 2012 NHL Draft that saw blue liners selected with eight of the top ten picks. Like many of his fellow 2012-drafted rearguards, Reinhart has been slow to develop into the elite defenseman that the New York Islanders hoped they had selected. Now on his third NHL team, he has yet to find any secure footing in the league, having played 37 games at the sport's top level across two seasons and somehow finding his way into one playoff game for the Oilers last year after not getting called up at all during the regular season. Still, defensemen are notoriously slow to develop, so it was a no-brainer to take a chance on a 23-year old who still boasts plenty of upside. Easy pick here.
18 Florida Panthers
Rumors abounded leading into the expansion draft that the Florida Panthers were aggressively trying to work out a trade with the Knights to keep them from snapping up Jonathan Marchessault. While Florida did work out a deal with Vegas, one that saw forward Reilly Smith head to the Strip for a fourth-round pick, they were unable to prevent the 26-year-old winger from getting claimed. And who could blame them for wanting to avoid losing Marchessault, who broke out last season by scoring 30 goals and collecting 51 points in just 75 games. For Vegas, it isn't every day that an expansion team gets to add a 30-goal scorer just entering his prime at no cost, so they were naturally going to jump at the chance. Marchessault currently slots in as the top line left winger for the Knights.
17 Los Angeles Kings
In both a hockey and financial sense, the decision to take defenseman Brayden McNabb off of the roster of the Los Angeles Kings is a sensible one for Vegas. Not only did McPhee and the Knights add another promising player entering his prime years, but they owe him just $1.8 million this year, a paltry sum in comparison to the pricey contracts of veteran teammates Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, who were also available. Then again, so what? Gaborik, a bona fide NHL star, still has four years and over $16 million remaining on a contract that will keep him paid through age 39. But his cap hit will go down each year and Gaborik would have immediately filled the role of face of the franchise, making for a smoother fit than current headlining star Marc-Andre Fleury. While not the most practical choice, Gaborik would have been a bold and flashy get and would have opened more eyes than anything else Vegas did on draft day.
16 Minnesota Wild
There may not have been a bigger asset left unprotected throughout the NHL than 22-year-old blue liner Mathew Dumba. Along with similarly talented teammate Marco Scandella, Dumba was a victim of the Minnesota Wild's deep back end, one that already had Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin protected. In other words, the deep Wild roster presented a unique opportunity for the Knights to add a major piece to their core or to draw other future assets out of the club. It seems rather underwhelming, then, that Vegas was swayed away from Dumba and towards forward Erik Haula with just prospect Alex Tuch, a 2014 first round pick, coming their way. That Vegas also had to send a third round pick to the Wild in the deal makes the whole arrangement strange, particularly in comparison to some of the other trade packages they got. Wouldn't you rather have Dumba and keep the pick rather than Haula and Tuch?
15 Montreal Canadiens
McPhee surprised many observers by selecting Alexei Emelin from the Montreal Canadiens, bringing in a 31-year-old on a $4.1 million expiring contract that doesn't exactly fit within the Knights' young and inexpensive building approach. Immediately, he was projected as a prime trade candidate. However, to bring value as a trade asset, you have to actually get traded and Vegas has yet to drum up sufficient interest in the blue liner. While things could wind up working out for Vegas, the whole situation could have been avoided if they had just nabbed skilled but undersized winger Charles Hudon. The speedy 23-year-old has scored at every level he's played, from the QMJHL to the AHL to four points in six career NHL games. The Knights could have offered him a shot that the Habs haven't been able to.
14 Nashville Predators
Barring a trade, James Neal will, in all likelihood, reign as the first leading scorer in Vegas Golden Knights' franchise history. Indeed, it would have been awfully tough to pass up a natural scorer who has potted at least 21 goals in every one of his nine NHL seasons. The trouble with the 29-year-old for Vegas, however, is that he doesn't figure to remain in Sin City once the Knights are ready to contend. And from a marketing standpoint, it isn't as though Neal carries the star power to independently sell tickets. For the appeal of Neal, the savvy move for Vegas would have been to snag young center Colton Sissons, a 23-year-old two-way center who is a victim of the numbers game in Nashville. The defensive-minded pivot may never score 21 goals in a season, let alone nine straight, but he is the type of heady contributor that any franchise with Stanley Cup aspirations eventually needs.
13 New Jersey Devils
The expansion draft marked the rare scenario in which it actually paid to have a roster relatively devoid of talent. As the owners of the entry draft's No. 1 overall pick (they selected Halifax Mooseheads star Nico Hischier), the New Jersey Devils hardly faced the problem of having too much depth that plagued other clubs. As such, it was pretty slim pickings for the Knights. Given what was available, they did fairly well to come away with Jon Merrill, a one-time Michigan Wolverines standout who has been serviceable on the blue line through over 200 career games in Jersey and is still just 25 years of age. Though Merrill may never develop into a Norris trophy candidate, he's an NHL-caliber d-man who stands to get better and represents a better option for Vegas than veterans Mike Cammalleri, Ben Lovejoy and Beau Bennett.
12 New York Islanders
In what was easily the Knights' biggest trade haul from a team fearful of which player they were poised to lose, the New York Islanders served up a 2017 first round pick (Vegas took Swedish defender Erik Brannstrom), a 2019 second round pick and defensive prospect Jake Bischoff to keep McPhee from snapping up Calvin De Haan and to entice them into taking on Mikhail Grabovski's contract. Unquestionably, the trade return left the Knights with some impressive future assets and the hope that Brannstrom and/or Bischoff may develop into a star. But some of the Isles left unprotected, namely de Haan but also Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome, are elite NHL talents now with the possibility of getting even better. Strome has since been swapped out for Oilers star Jordan Eberle and the 26-year-old de Haan would have brought an even bigger return.
11 New York Rangers
Even with 21 goals and 48 points over two seasons of sparse duty in the Big Apple, Oscar Linberg was a curious pick for the Knights given other options available. The general consensus had Vegas zeroing in on goaltender Antti Raanta, who many league executives feel is talented enough to start but remained stuck behind Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers. Sometimes speculation exists for a reason, and Raanta would've made more sense for Vegas than Linberg, either as a roster addition or trade candidate. Since the expansion draft, Raanta was included in a trade package that landed the Rangers the No. 7 overall pick (Swedish center Lias Andersson) and defensive prospect Anthony DeAngelo. He will now be the starting netminder for the Arizona Coyotes, allowing for a pretty quick evaluation on just how much of a mistake the Knights made by not grabbing him when they had the chance.
10 Ottawa Senators
As was his contractual right, Dion Phaneuf exercised his no-movement clause and, thereby, forced the Ottawa Senators into protecting a player who likely would not have piqued the interest of Vegas on account of his onerous contract. Phaneuf's decision did, however, put the Sens in the unenviable decision of having to leave Marc Methot, the stalwart defensive partner of superstar Erik Karlsson, unprotected. Ottawa's misfortune made for a pretty easy decision for McPhee and the Knights. While the 32-year-old could have made for a stabilizing presence on the Vegas back end, Methot was rumored to have been on the trade block almost immediately after the selection and has since been dealt to Dallas. The return of a 2020 second round draft choice and goalie prospect Dylan Ferguson from the Stars seems rather underwhelming, but the expansion selected was a no-brainer, nevertheless.
9 Philadelphia Flyers
The surprising selection of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare by Vegas was felt more by the Philadelphia Flyers than you might imagine for a club that lost a fourth liner. The physical, defensive-minded forward was named an alternate captain for the Flyers last season, an indication of the respect he carried in the Philly locker room. But veteran fourth line grinders high on character are eminently available around the league and tend to play a more meaningful, impactful role on a playoff contender, anyway. I understand that the Knights weren't going to attempt to add high end skill with each of their 30 picks, but Bellemare still seems like an odd fit in Vegas. If the Knights were looking to add bottom six depth to their forward corps, they would have been better off selecting Dale Wiese, a speedy winger who showed some scoring touch in Montreal and is four years younger than Bellemare.
8 Pittsburgh Penguins
If you have a chance to add a three-time Cup-winning goaltender to your roster at no cost, you do it - plain and simple. Unique circumstances, including the rapid emergence of Matt Murray and the strict rules governing the expansion draft, left the Pittsburgh Penguins with little choice but to watch Marc-Andre Fleury walk away for nothing just 10 days after he was between the pipes as Pittsburgh clinched their second straight Stanley Cup victory. So now here we are, with Fleury reigning unmistakably as the headlining name on the Vegas marquee. He is not only the starting goalie for the team, but received the biggest ovation of any player introduced as the Knights unveiled their picks. Now, the only question is how the 32-year-old former first over-all pick responds as he goes from the Stanley Cup Finals to the often frustrating process of being part of an expansion franchise.
7 San Jose Sharks
As we've seen of late in the NHL, blue liners carry more value than their forward counterparts. It's why acquiring Adam Larsson cost the Edmonton Oilers Taylor Hall last summer and getting unproven young defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev meant that the Tampa Bay Lightning had to give up proven young forward Jonathan Drouin. All that being said, the decision to take David Schlemko made sense on the surface - until they could only turn him into a mere fifth rounder. Adding defensive help was only so valuable to Vegas as to work when there wasn't a considerably better forward available. While 36-year-old forward Joel Ward may not have seemed like much of a fit in Vegas, he would have had an opportunity to pile up some points before drawing interest at the trade deadline from a contending team that valued his playoff pedigree.
6 St. Louis Blues
We'll never know the full extent of the options available to McPhee ahead of the expansion draft, nor the decision-making process that went into the moves he and the rest of the Knights brass made. But still, one can't help but wonder whether more could have been squeezed out of the St. Louis Blues' selection. This might seem strange to say given that the Knights came away with a veteran goal scorer in David Perron, but the combination of the Blues' cap concerns and the nearly $10 million left on Jori Lehtera's contract created an opportunity that Vegas certainly appeared to miss. With St. Louis motivated to clear space in anticipation of Colton Parayko's pending contract extension and boasting the 20th and 27th picks in the entry draft (they traded No. 27 in the Brayden Schenn deal), it only stands to reason that there was a trade for the taking that could have brought Vegas a fourth first rounder and a solid forward who is desperately in need of a change of scenery.
5 Tampa Bay Lightning
Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning deserve credit for keeping Vegas away from its prime unprotected assets without surrendering a first round draft choice. Instead, they sent rising KHL prospect Nikita Gusev, along with a second- and fourth-round pick, to the Knights to prevent them from coming away with rookie defenseman Jake Dotchin or 2012 first rounder Slater Koekkoek. Though the three assets - not to mention veteran blue liner Jason Garrison - could pay off in the long run, Dotchin was probably the best 23-and-under d-man available to Vegas and could have been a fixture on the Knights' blue line for years to come. Gusev and two long-term prospects, meanwhile, represent hope, but a vague, distant and intangible hope.
4 Toronto Maple Leafs
The decision of who to select off of the young Toronto Maple Leafs, who were well-positioned to absorb an expansion loss thanks to having so much of their core on their rookie contract, was something of a toss-up. Forwards Brendan Leipsic and Kerby Rychel are separated by less than five months in age and wound up just one point apart in scoring with the AHL's Toronto Marlies last season. McPhee opted to grab Leipsic, a sage move considering he needed just 49 games to collect 51 points in contrast to Rychel requiring 73 games to reach 52 points. Long term, however, Rychel may well have been the smarter play. In addition to scoring talent, the former Windsor Spitfires star packs a physical edge that Leipsic can't duplicate. Since neither player's scoring is guaranteed to translate at the next level, Rychel's physicality probably made him the slightly safer choice here.
3 Vancouver Canucks
The Knights are rumored to still be dangling defenseman Luca Sbisa in hopes of further bolstering an impressive collection of future assets, so the success of his selection won't be known for some time to come. For now, though, versatile forward Brendan Gaunce looks like he would've been the better bet here. Still only 23, Gaunce made a name for himself as a scorer at both the OHL and AHL level, being taken 26th overall in 2012 one season removed from a 28-goal campaign and months prior to scoring 33 goals for the Belleville Bulls. In parts of two seasons of NHL duty with the Vancouver Canucks, he has plied his trade as a gritty fourth liner. For Knights head coach Gerard Gallant, navigating through a patchwork expansion lineup would have been made at least a little easier with a versatile asset like Gaunce.
2 Washington Capitals
Former Minnesota Golden Gophers standout defenseman Nate Schmidt averaged 15 minutes of ice time on the deep blue line of the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. If Schmidt could carve out a significant role in Washington, he likely projects to earn top-four minutes with the Knights, making him a pretty valuable addition. It's hard to take issue with the selection, but in taking Schmidt, they may have passed on one of the best available goalies left unprotected. As backup to Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer won 13 of his 19 starts last season, posting a 2.04 goals against average and .926 save percentage. To put those numbers in perspective, this year's Vezina trophy winner, Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky, had a 2.06 GAA and a .931 save percentage. While I'm aware that the 25-year-old would have left Vegas with five goalies according to my choices, Grubauer would've been either a highly coveted trade chip or maybe even the club's goalie of the future.
1 Winnipeg Jets
Another club concerned over the prospect of losing a key asset to Vegas for nothing, the Winnipeg Jets engineered a first round pick swap that allowed Vegas to turn the 24th pick they acquired from Columbus into the No. 13 choice. By selecting forward Chris Thorburn over Mark Dano and Tobias Enstrom, the Knights wound up with a whopping three picks among the first 15 selections in the entry draft. If Owen Sound Attack center Nick Suzuki, who Vegas took at No. 13, becomes a star, the 11-pick jump will have been worth it. But until that happens, the betting here is that Vegas will have to watch as Enstrom either commands a major trade haul or continues to expertly man the Jets' blue line and the 22-year-old Dano takes further steps to becoming a standout top-six forward.
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