The Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft is right around the corner, and the picture is becoming clearer as to which assets teams will be protecting and which they’ll be exposing.
An interesting angle to look at as we approach June 21—the date the Golden Knights’ selections will be revealed in Las Vegas—is the current bad contracts around the NHL. It’s impossible to know for sure what the GMs of the various club’s across the league are thinking, but you can bet that some will be dangling some hefty contracts out there in an attempt to bait Vegas and get them off their books.
Las Vegas GM George McPhee should be cautious when it comes to these players. Sure, it could be tempting to select that 31-year-old star who still might have something left in the tank yet, but it’s not wise if the contract comes with a $7M cap hit through 2021, for example. The last thing an expansion franchise needs is an anchor contract to hinder them as they build.
Today I popped over to good old Cap Friendly and picked out a handful of contracts that I would suggest Vegas would be wise to avoid. One thing I realized today is that there will be many NHL quality goaltenders available for Vegas to choose from, and there are many that McPhee should probably avoid for the sake of the franchise’s future.
Here are the 15 players that the Golden Knights MUST avoid come June 21:
18 Semyon Varlamov
I see how this could be a controversial entry, as it’s fairly likely that Colorado protects the Russian netminder. However, the Avalanche are a club in shambles, and they’ve been known to make some pretty questionable moves in terms of asset management lately. I could see them looking at Semyon Varlamov’s age (29) compared to Calvin Pickard’s (25), as well as Varly’s recent injury proneness, and decide on the younger Pickard.
While it might be tempting for McPhee to bite here, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Varlamov’s contract comes with a $5.9M cap hit through 2020, and he’s shown clear signs of regression since his Vezina-calibre season in 2013-14. The Russian is coming off his worst season to date, so McPhee should avoid the expensive and diminishing Varlamov.
17 Benoit Pouliot
Benoit Pouliot is a decent NHL hockey player who can play on the third line of a good hockey club. However, the Oilers' former GM Craig MacTavish signed the winger to a contract that pays him $4M per season three offseasons ago, and that contract was five years long and goes until the end of 2018-19. So far in the 2017 playoffs, Pouliot often finds himself on the fourth line in Edmonton, which isn’t great bang for Edmonton’s buck.
Pouliot is already on the wrong side of 30, and Edmonton will almost certainly be leaving him exposed for Vegas, if current usage is any indicator. It’s not like Pouliot would be a bad player for the Golden Knights, but I’d suggest that they could be a lot more savvy with their money and pick up a player elsewhere who brings a similar skillset to Pouliot, but at about half the price.
16 Jimmy Howard
Although Jimmy Howard outperformed Petr Mrazek in 2016-17, it’s hard to imagine the scenario where the Red Wings choose to protect Howard over Mrazek. Mrazek is 25 with bright days ahead, while Howard is 33 and comes with a more expensive cap hit. Those two qualifiers alone are reason enough to avoid Howard at all costs if you're Vegas.
Howard’s contract runs through 2019, which is only two more seasons now, but it still comes with a $5.3M cap hit. I’m no expert (neither is McPhee, judging by that Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat trade he pulled off before getting canned in Washington), but I would think Vegas would be much better off by letting Howard stay in Detroit and looking for their netminding elsewhere. There will be good prospects available; no sense in spending a selection on a 33-year-old goalie.
15 Kari Lehtonen/Antti Niemi
It’s no secret that the goaltending situation in Dallas is an unmitigated disaster, and there’s no doubt Stars GM Jim Nill is silently hoping that the Golden Knights help them out a bit come June. Between Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi, Dallas is paying their goaltenders $10.4M to supply the club with goaltending that can be fairly described as a liability.
This is an entry for both players because the club can only protect one ‘tender and hope the other one gets chosen. Although I’m just not sure which one gets protected, odds are leaning toward Lehtonen. Really, though, it shouldn’t matter to McPhee and the Knights in the end. These goalies are not great, obviously, and they’re both 33 years old. The only positive for these players is that their contracts expire after the Golden Knights’ inaugural season, but really what would be the point of taking either one of them if you’re Vegas?
14 Michael Cammalleri
You were probably thinking this list was going to be all goalies, but don’t worry there are more skaters than goalies. The first skater to appear here is Michael Cammalleri of the New Jersey Devils, who is under contract through 2018-19 and comes with a cap hit of $5M. As history has proven, expansion teams like to stock their rosters with a handful of grizzled veterans to support their young players, which does make sense.
Nonetheless, I don’t think the 34-year-old Cammalleri is best suited for this role in Vegas. He’s coming off a very ineffective season in Jersey that saw him produce just 10 goals and 31 points in 61 games. No disrespect to the Devils (okay, maybe a little disrespect), but the Vegas Golden Knights’ roster will be made up of players of a similar ilk, more or less. If Cammo can’t pull it together in Jersey, will he be able to in the desert?
12 Clarke MacArthur
There are a lot of great stories that have come out of Ottawa during the 2017 postseason, and the unexpected return of Clarke MacArthur is one of them. He was limited to just four games in each of the previous two regular seasons, but he returned for the 2017 playoffs and has already scored a few big goals for the Senators (this is being written during the second round, so if he's since somehow cratered the Sens, I apologize).
While it looked like he was going to remain on the LTIR for Ottawa, he will now require protection should the Senators decide they’d like to keep him. The Sens have a lot of younger players of equal or greater value who are also on cheaper contracts, so I’d suggest they dangle MacArthur for Vegas. McPhee would be wise to avoid this, as the 32-year-old is under contract through 2019-20 and carries a $4.7M cap hit. McPhee best not be swooned by the Cinderella story of the 2017 postseason.
11 Jaroslav Halak
It’s no big secret that the relationship between goaltender Jaroslav Halak and the New York Islanders has soured. Halak spent much of 2016-17 in the AHL as a result of this contention, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest the Golden Knights will have the opportunity to select Halak in the expansion draft, as they have Thomas Greiss signed up for longer term and at a lower cost.
To be completely honest, there is a part of me that actually thinks Halak might work in Vegas. His contract expires after next season, so it’s not a long term risk for the Golden Knights. However, the Golden Knights can only pick so many goalies, and it would be silly to choose such a depreciating asset when the options will be plenty.
10 Roberto Luongo
Bobby Lou! Heck, it’s a good thing that I’m not GM of Vegas because I would pick this guy up simply because I love him. However, from the standpoint of building a franchise that needs a bright future, selecting a 38-year-old goalie whose skills and health are diminishing and who also is under contract until the end of 2021-22, this seems like it would be a bad choice.
When asked whether he was concerned that the Vegas Golden Knights would select him in the expansion draft, Luongo replied “I’m older than dirt, they don’t want me.” That response truly encapsulates why I’d want to take him if I were McPhee, and more importantly why I’d stay the hell away. He’d be a blast to have around the locker room, but his diminishing health and performance is a bit scary considering the money and term.
9 Justin Abdelkader
The Detroit Red Wings have spent a lot of time grooming Justin Abdelkader in their system, and to their credit they’ve sculpted a decent fourth line NHL player. To their detriment, though, they signed him to a contract that has a $4.s5M cap hit and carries him through 2022-23. Ken Holland has long been considered one of the game’s elite GMs, but he’s been prone to making some head-scratching moves recently, with the Abdelkader deal being exhibit A.
Although it might be possible that Detroit chooses to protect Abdelkader, it’s equally possible that they dangle him out there for the golden Knights. The Red Wings, who aren’t a great team today to begin with, are facing some cap issues and would do well to shed themselves of the $4M+ they’ve committed to a fourth line winger. That’s the exact reason I’m staying away from Abdlelkader if I’m McPhee.
7 Cam Ward/Eddie Lack
The last goaltending entry on today’s list (promise) is another tandem in Cam Ward and Eddie Lack. It’s safe to say the Hurricanes need and expect more from their goaltending, and they’ve already acquired Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks and have already signed him to a long-term extension, meaning it’s inevitable that the entire two-headed monster is left exposed in Carolina this June.
So, should McPhee take a chance on one of these goalies? I’d say no. An argument could be made for Lack, who is four years younger than Ward and comes with a cheaper cap hit, but he’s performed well below expectations since arriving in Raleigh and there’s no real reason to believe he will turn things around with a clean slate.
6 Nail Yakupov
As far as first overall draft busts go, Nail Yakupov is among the all-time greats. Picked first by the Oilers in the decidedly weak 2012 draft class, the Russian winger was dealt to St. Louis at the start of the 2016-17 season for a low-percentage prospect and a 3rd round pick. That 3rd round pick was to turn into a 2nd if Yak scored 15 goals this season, but he fell a good 12 short of that mark.
While it might be tempting to grab the pending RFA as a reclamation project at the upcoming expansion draft, I would advise against it. Las Vegas surely needs to stock the cupboard with prospects (also known as “maybes”), but is Yakupov even a maybe anymore? He played 40 games during the regular season, and has yet to lace them up for the Blues in the postseason. If I’m McPhee, I’m taking a pass on the enigmatic Russian.
4 Mike Smith
Don’t worry, there are only two more goalies who appear on the list, and coming in at number seven is Coyotes’ starter Mike Smith. To be fair to Smith, he put together a pretty stellar bounce back 2016-17 after a disappointing 2015-16. He’s still on a bad Coyotes team though, and his decent play this season wasn’t enough to make the club even remotely relevant.
That last point is exactly why picking Smith from the Coyotes would be a fruitless endeavor. Look, even if Smith pieces together a couple solid seasons (his current deal expires in 2018-19), he’s already 35 years old and is not an answer for the future of the Golden Knights. I say they’d be better off grooming a few promising prospects in the crease for the first few seasons, as it’s highly unlikely they ice a competitive team before Smith retires.
3 Bobby Ryan
As mentioned earlier, Ottawa is producing many great stories this postseason. Another one is the Bobby Ryan story. Ryan was, to put it lightly, turning into a major disappointment for the Senators. He’s on a contract that pays him $7.25M through 2021-22, and he scored just 25 points this season. That’s not near enough production from the American winger, who's paid to score, but his playoffs are actually going very well so far.
While this postseason performance may have convinced GM Pierre Dorion and the Senators to use a protection spot on Ryan, if it didn’t I’d still recommend to George McPhee to avoid Ryan. Some folks might see him as a prime bounce back candidate, but even if he bounces back to his 50ish points (he produced 48, 54, and 56 points in the previous three seasons), that’s still not enough bang for the buck.
2 Andrew MacDonald
Andrew MacDonald is a decent option for an NHL team’s bottom pair, and even then his defensive liabilities might prove to be costly for his team. Unfortunately for the Flyers, he’s currently the club’s highest paid defenseman. He is under contract through 2019-20, and that deal carries an annual $5M cap hit, which is simply unacceptable for a player who spent 43 games playing with the Leigh Valley Phantoms in 2015-16.
Looking at the Flyers roster, I think it’s pretty obvious that they won’t be using a protection spot on MacDonald, so the Golden Knights will have the opportunity to nab him if they want him. I wouldn’t even take a second look at MacDonald if I’m McPhee, and if McPhee does take a second look he’ll likely see that MacDonald isn’t the answer to any NHL team’s questions.
1 Dustin Brown
Dustin Brown stole the hearts of Kings fans when he captained the club to its first two Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014. Since then, his play has swiftly deteriorated and he’s basically a glorified third-liner for the Kings, who are committed to paying him $5.875M through 2021-22. Brown is already 32 years old and hasn’t scored more than 36 points since 2011-12.
Brown’s game has a lot of deficiencies for today’s NHL, namely the fact that he’s a pretty slow skater. Speed is paramount to success in the game today, and Brown simply doesn’t possess the speed to keep up with the elite players of the game—you know, players who are making the same amount of money as him. The Kings already stripped him of the captaincy, so don’t be surprised when they expose him in expansion (and also don’t be surprised when McPhee takes a hard pass on him).