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Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Golden Knights, Kings got key players back in Game 3

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Game 3 of the Vegas Golden Knights – Los Angeles Kings series should have a different feel to it, and not just because the venue’s shifted to Los Angeles.

Both teams get key players back in their lineups, which has to be especially welcome after Game 2 almost made it to a third OT period before Erik Haula put Vegas up 2-0 in the series.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH GAME 3 LIVE]

The Kings probably feel the most relief. After being severely out-shot in Game 2 with Drew Doughty suspended, they’re getting Doughty back, but that’s not all. Jake Muzzin is also returning from his injury absence, and Muzzin – Doughty served as the Kings’ top pairing to begin Game 3.

Vegas gets an important player back, too, as David Perron returns to their mix. Despite being limited to 70 regular-season games, Perron finished third in scoring for the Golden Knights, collecting 66 points (16 goals, 50 assists). Perron gives the Golden Knights a dangerous additional scorer beyond James Neal and the dangerous-looking trio of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith.

So far, this has been a very low-scoring series, yet it’s also been thrilling and physical. It should be interesting to see how this influx of talent might change the flow of play, matchups, and other aspects of the series.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Teams under pressure, sleeper picks

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1. Which Round 1 series are you most looking forward to and why? 

SEAN: The obvious is Penguins/Flyers, but I’m real interested in seeing how the Vegas Golden Knights respond to their first playoff series. They have plenty of postseason experience on the roster but over the last month of the season they haven’t been playing their best hockey. But that’s the good thing about the playoffs, it’s clean slate and the focus is solely on one team. LA, meanwhile, is back and we’ve seen before how the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty can propel this team to success. Kopitar had a wonderful bounceback season and Doughty is in the Norris Trophy discussion. But will the Kings’ roster overall be able to handle the speed that Vegas will throw at them?

JAMES: Penguins/Flyers is almost always thrilling, and not just from a rubber-necking standpoint. Kings/Golden Knights should be a ball when you consider the absurdity of Vegas winning the Pacific in its inaugural season and the clash in styles at play.

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

Those are just two other examples of great series, but for my money, Bruins/Maple Leafs has it all. You have two bitter rivals with plenty of history, some of it scarring. The Bruins aren’t just a great defensive team, as even with buckets of injuries, they only scored seven fewer goals (270) this season than the high-flying Buds (277). This series could be an instant classic between two blindingly talented teams.

Also, this series likely to produce at least once epic Mike Babcock scowl per game. Consider that the tie-breaker.

JOEY: Boston/Toronto should be a whole lot of fun. Both teams have a lot of good, young players that can play fast. But the most intriguing matchup in this series will take place between the pipes. I have no idea how the Frederik Andersen vs. Tuukka Rask matchup will play out. Both guys have had strong years for the most part, but it’ll be interesting to see what they can accomplish in the playoffs.

Obviously, having Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron go head-to-head is every hockey fan’s dream (or at least it should be). Having Brad Marchand and Nazem Kadri lighting fires all over the ice doesn’t hurt either.

ADAM: Penguins/Flyers just because I really have no idea what is going to happen in that series. It’s set up to be really high scoring because neither team has great goaltending, they both have high-end players up front, and they both can score a ton of goals. They are also both capable of completely blowing the other one out. And while neither team really plays a physical style it’s still the Penguins and Flyers, it’s still the playoffs, and it is almost certain that it is going to turn into complete chaos at some point. Sign me up for it.

SCOTT: Many will say Toronto/Boston. It’s a great Original Six, I hate you, you hate me series, but for me, it’s Pittsburgh/Philadelphia. There’s simply more hate for each other in this one. And it’s not as much Sidney Crosby vs. Claude Giroux this time around as it is Crosby vs. Sean Couturier, which will be intriguing. Not to mention the Penguins are going in search of the three-peat. 

2. What team in each conference is feeling the most pressure to succeed this postseason?

SEAN: This is the one title the Capitals can claim. Another postseason filled with pressure to win. It was 20 years ago this spring that they last got past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2009, they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs three times by the Pittsburgh Penguins and they could meet yet again in Round 2. First, however, they need to slay the Columbus Blue Jackets which won’t be an easy task and getting the first crack in goal is Philipp Grubauer, who’s been playing like a No. 1 for most of the season.

In the West, the Predators are built to win the Stanley Cup. They earned valuable experience in their run last year, but now anything short of a championship is a disappointment. GM David Poile bolstered his roster by adding Nick Bonino, Mike Fisher, Kyle Turris and Eeli Tolvanen up front, while Pekka Rinne is having a Vezina Trophy-type season in goal. Can he keep his play up for another two months?

JAMES: Compared to previous seasons, the Capitals probably feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders … yet it still comes down to Washington or the Lightning. Consider this a vote for D.C., as the baggage of multiple letdowns and Barry Trotz’s uncertain future make for quite the pressure cooker. At least they’re used to it, though, right?

Out West, the Jets could very well win the Stanley Cup, yet things could get really awkward if they struggle early against Minnesota. After all, the Thrashers/Jets haven’t won a playoff game, let alone a playoff series.

JOEY: I have to go with the Capitals in the East and the Predators in the West. Washington is an obvious one because they’ve iced a lot of good teams, but have failed to get past the second round of playoffs. This year, they didn’t come away with a Presidents’ Trophy, but they’re still one of the top teams in the league. Failing to get out of the second round would be seen as another disappointing end.

The Predators made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year and they were pretty dominant this year. Failing to make another run will be seen as a disappointment. Nashville didn’t have much pressure last year as an eight seed, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to being top dog in the Western Conference.

ADAM: The easy answer in the East is Washington because, well, it’s Washington and at some point they have to get through that glass ceiling. If they don’t do it this year you have to wonder if Barry Trotz gets another chance or what sort of changes they make. But honestly, I think Toronto might be facing a lot of pressure simply because it’s Toronto and now that they are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and because the Toronto media is always out for blood, I feel like expectations are a lot higher this year and if they don’t get out of the first-round (remember, a Mike Babcock coached team has not gotten out of the first-round since 2013, and only once since 2011) I feel like the knives could be out a little. In the Western Conference I think it comes down to either Winnipeg just because they still haven’t won a playoff game yet, or Nashville simply because expectations are so high at this point. It almost seems like it is expected the Predators will be in the Stanley Cup Final again and anything less than that would be a disappointment.

SCOTT: In the East, surely it’s the Washington Capitals. They once again one the Metropolitan Division but once again, it doesn’t matter unless they can show up in the playoffs finally. Can Philipp Grubauer do what Braden Holtby hasn’t been able to do? Will the Capitals figure out a way to keep scoring? They’ve made the playoffs 10 times in the last 11 seasons. Their longest run in any of those 10 times? The second round. The pressure to prove they belong couldn’t be any higher.

In the West, I believe it’s on the Nashville Predators. Last year, they were the second wildcard. With no pressure, they made an improbable run to the finals. This year, reaching the same stage wouldn’t be surprising in the least. The Predators appear to have all the tools and they’re well-versed in using them. Anything other than a return trip to the Stanley Cup finals would be a disappointment.

3. Give me one sleeper team in each conference and why?

SEAN: Don’t sleep on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Good possession numbers, balanced scoring up front and a power play that improved eight percent since the trade deadline. Sergei Bobrovsky needs to be his regular season self unlike the past where he’s posted .929 and .898 even strength save percentages in his two previous postseason experiences. They have the right Round 1 matchup with the Capitals, a team facing plenty of pressure to win and hoping they made the right choice in goal with Grubauer.

The San Jose Sharks know how to win this time of year. It was only two years ago they pushed the Penguins to six games in the Final before falling short. While the focus in the West is on Nashville, Winnipeg and Vegas — rightfully so — San Jose is sitting there with a stingy defense, a balanced offense (with a big boost from Evander Kane) and good special teams. Their question mark is in goal and making us wonder which Martin Jones we’ll see. It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for him. How long is he leash considering how well Aaron Dell played behind him?

JAMES: Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets generated a fantastic 13-4-2 record. The only East team with a better record during that span is the Panthers, who fell a stride short of the playoffs.

With Artemi Panarin on a roll, the Seth Jones/Zach Werenski combo on defense, some nice depth players, and an elite goalie desperate to prove himself in the playoffs in Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets check a lot of the boxes for a dark horse candidate.

Honestly, all three California teams could feasibly make a run out West. If forced to pick just one, let’s go with the Ducks … at least if John Gibson can heal up soon. If not, pretend we never spoke of this.

JOEY: At one point, it looked like the Columbus Blue Jackets were never going to win another hockey game again, but they managed to right the ship. After a slow start, Cam Atkinson finally came around. He’s a big reason why the Blue Jackets are in the position they’re in. Facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions won’t be an easy task though. If they’re going to go on a run and surprise a few people, they’ll need Sergei Bobrovsky to steal the show. He’s certainly capable of doing that.

In the West, the San Jose Sharks seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Evander Kane, who they acquired at the deadline, has fit in perfectly to his new surroundings and he’s added another dimension to this team. After going through a rough patch last season, Martin Jones has also bounced back in the second half of the year. If Jones can give the Sharks some solid goaltending, they’ll have a chance to go a round or two. Obviously, having Brent Burns firing on all cylinders doesn’t hurt.

ADAM: I gave them the lowest chance to win the Stanley Cup in my pre-playoff Power Rankings but even if they do not win the whole thing I could see New Jersey causing some headaches. They have the (most likely) MVP, they play a fast, aggressive game, and they are getting a Tampa Bay team that kind of limped into the playoffs. Will it happen? Probably not, but I could see the Devils maybe upsetting the apple cart a bit. In the West I kind of want to say San Jose just because I feel like they are lurking under the radar quite a bit, had a surprisingly good season, and seem to have exceeded expectations all year.

SCOTT: In the east, it’s the New Jersey Devils. It’s the typical team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain against the team that placed tops in the Eastern Conference. We saw the same scenario play out last year with the Predators. The Devils finished the year on a 7-2-1 clip in their last 10-games and they have Taylor Hall, who may just be the hottest player in the league at the moment.

In the West, it’s tough to count out the Anaheim Ducks. They finished second in the division on the back of an 8-1-1 stretch to close out the regular season, including a five-game winning streak. The Ducks are far from favorites, but they ice one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL in John Gibson, give up fewer goals than most as a result and have playoff experience oozing from every pore. There’s nothing the core of the Ducks hasn’t seen in the playoffs.

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4. How far can the Vegas Golden Knights go?

SEAN: They’ve been doubted all season, and already fueled by being cast off by their previous teams, why not have something else to motivate them after an historic season? Despite a final few weeks where they were a tad inconsistent, playoff time is wakeup time. Getting out of the Pacific Division poses a challenge, but their speed can help them get by the Kings in the first round and then you wonder how beat up the Sharks/Ducks will be coming out of their series. 

Marc-Andre Fleury is a goalie who’s had his issues in the postseason, but in this situation, with his experience, is certainly someone you want in net. But will those who produced in the regular season see that continue in the playoffs? Can William Karlsson sustain his 23 percent shooting percentage? Can Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal find time and space to continue their scoring prowess? Can the special teams hold up and take advantage of situations when presented?

Vegas has already answered a ton of questions through 82 games. Now comes an entirely new set.

JAMES: Well, according to my own predictions, they’re most likely to see the dream end against Los Angeles.

Still, the Golden Knights get to see if their home-ice advantage extends to the playoffs when their opponents should be on their best behavior. And, while it’s conceivable that the other Pacific teams could catch fire (see question 3), there’s also a reason why they rank as sleepers: this division has been far weaker than the Central in 2018-19.

With that in mind, it’s not that outrageous to picture the magic lasting until the Western Conference Final. Even if the Central teams mash each other into paste, it’s tough to picture Vegas outlasting Nashville or Winnipeg, in particular.

So, if the stars align, they can win two rounds. I’d wager that they fall short against the Kings, which shouldn’t diminish this magical run.

JOEY: That’s a tough one. I can see the Golden Knights getting past the Kings, but I can also see them lose out to an experienced group that has Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and many others. But I’ve learned my lesson from the regular season, so I won’t doubt them. Still, I can’t see them getting further than the second round. I don’t think a trip to the conference final is in the cards for Vegas just yet.

ADAM: Honestly, I could see them in the Western Conference Final. The Pacific Division is a favorable field for them, I think they match up well with the teams in the division because of their speed, and they have that four-line recipe offensively that can be tough to match up with. A fast, high-scoring team with a suspect defense and Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Not like we have not seen that recipe go on a postseason run before.

SCOTT: When is reality going to catch up with this team? Is there even a reality other than the one they currently exist in? Vegas has defied all the odds in the regular season and now there’s a chance for them to continue to re-write the history books again. They face a tough Los Angeles Kings team that knows a thing or two about playoff hockey. Vegas took the season series 2-1-1, but L.A. scored more goals, 11-10 in those matchups. It was a close season series and that won’t likely change come puck drop in their first-round matchup. Personally, if think the Golden Knights could make the conference finals. They have a three-time Stanley Cup champion in goal and an uncanny ability to come back from deficits. I stopped betting against this team a long time ago.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

PHT’s 2018 Stanley Cup playoff previews

Lightning vs. Devils
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Penguins vs. Flyers

Predators vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Wild
Golden Knights vs. Kings
Ducks vs. Sharks

Biggest contract years for NHL playoff teams

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Technically speaking, NHL players only get paid for the 82-game regular season, aside from the pocket change that comes from certain bonuses for playoff wins.

In reality, a player can make a living off of a magical postseason run or two.

A strong couple of months could end up being costly in contract negotiations, yet greed can also be good in helping a team in the short run. Let’s take a look at the biggest contract year situations for all 16 of the teams that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In several cases, it’s not as much about deals that will expire after this season, but instead core players lining up for their first cracks at extensions in July.

It only seems fair to begin with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, even if their concerns are minor …

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

West

Nashville Predators

Biggest contract year: Nashville’s biggest concerns come down to the guys whose contracts end after 2018-19: Ryan Ellis and Pekka Rinne.

Still, there are a couple of RFAs who could mop up. Ryan Hartman needs to prove his value after being traded from the Blackhawks, while Juuse Saros could break the bank if something happens with Rinne and he goes on a big run.

Colorado Avalanche

Biggest contract year: Jonathan Bernier is at quite the fork in the road in his career.

The 29-year-old played a key role in keeping things going for the Avalanche earlier this season when Semyon Varlamov went down with an injury, to the point that he probably did enough to earn another backup role. If he can author a big playoff run, then who knows what sort of offer he might be able to command?

With Varlamov’s own deal expiring after 2018-19, a red-hot run from Bernier could even force questions about a changing of the guard.

Winnipeg Jets

Biggest contract year: Connor Hellebuyck is a pending RFA who just broke the single-season wins record for an American goalie, going 44-11-9(!) with a fantastic .924 save percentage. If the Jets make a long-awaited but easy-to-imagine deep run, Hellebuyck will inspire many “buck”-related headlines.

The Jets also have Jacob Trouba and Paul Stastny to consider, while this playoff run will play a role in Patrik Laine‘s extension. Tough to imagine Winnipeg going through the summer without a new deal for Laine, whose rookie deal ends next season.

Minnesota Wild

Biggest contract year: Jason Zucker blew away career-highs in goals (33) and assists (31) this season, generating 64 points. He doesn’t have a huge body of work of scoring at this level (Zucker’s 47 points from 2016-17 were easily his best before this season), so proving it in the postseason could help him earn even more of a boost.

Matt Dumba generated a sneaky-great season of his own, scoring 14 goals and 50 points. The Wild are very lucky that these two players are RFAs.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Vegas Golden Knights

Biggest contract year: The Golden Knights cleared up some concerns, such as handing Jonathan Marchessault a team-friendly extension. Even so, the Golden Knights may lead in greed.

William Karlsson is a pending RFA after leading the Golden Knights in scoring. Some of their biggest names are soon to be UFAs, including James Neal and David Perron. This team has a lot to prove and a lot to gain in the postseason.

Los Angeles Kings

Biggest contract year: For better or worse, most of this Kings team is locked in place. Tobias Rieder could be one of those “flavor of the month” types if he rides some high percentages.

Anaheim Ducks

Biggest contract year: Depth youngsters are looking to earn new contracts in Ondrej Kase and Brandon Montour.

Really, John Gibson might be the guy shooting for the most money in Anaheim. His dirt-cheap $2.3 million cap hit expires after 2018-19, so the Ducks will get their first shot at extending the underrated goalie in July. If he can get healthy and lead a surge, Gibson could drive up his price.

San Jose Sharks

Biggest contract year: Evander Kane generated 14 points in 17 games since being traded to the Sharks, and that includes a three-game drought at the end of the season. Few players had as much to gain or lose as Kane did coming into 2017-18, and that remains true entering the postseason.

Tomas Hertl also approaches free agency as an RFA.

[Want to follow the action? Here’s the full schedule, including where to watch.]

East

Tampa Bay Lightning

Biggest contract year: J.T. Miller could really market himself if he can produce alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

The Lightning stand out as one of the teams with the most interest in how this might grease the wheels for extensions, though. Kucherov’s due for an enormous raise over his almost-insulting $4.767M cap hit, while Ryan McDonagh‘s similar mark also runs out after 2018-19.

New Jersey Devils

Biggest contract year: There are quite a few depth players on expiring deals in New Jersey, yet the most interesting names are imports from the trade deadline in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon.

So far, Maroon has been especially useful since being traded to the Devils, as he has 13 points in 17 games with New Jersey. It could really help him to prove that he can score without Connor McDavid‘s help.

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Boston Bruins

Biggest contract year: “Ri-Nash needs cash.” Both Rick Nash and Riley Nash are in contract years, with each forward set to be UFAs. Rick Nash probably grades out an “Incomplete” so far in Boston, as he’s only scored six points with the B’s, yet he’s been limited to 11 games played.

Considering how snakebitten Rick Nash has been, it would be pretty funny if he went on a tear in the playoffs. The Bruins wouldn’t mind, even if it would mean that his time would be short with Boston.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Biggest contract year: The Maple Leafs decided to keep rather than trade James van Riemsdyk, even though a lot of signs point to JVR moving on after this season.

For the second time in his career, he passed the 30-goal mark, collecting a career-high 36 goals. Still, this has been far from a fluke, as he’s scored 29 and 27 during other campaigns and has been a reliable 50+ point guy when healthy.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of deal he’ll command, and that’s doubly true if he helps the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins.

There are other notable names (Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Leo Komarov especially), but JVR is the contract year player to watch for Toronto.

Washington Capitals

Biggest contract year: John Carlson‘s long been a solid scorer for Washington, generating 37 points three times and even hitting 55 once. His contract year’s been one to note, though, as he topped all NHL defensemen with a whopping 68 points, including a career-high of 15 goals.

Carlson is poised for a big raise over his near-$4M cap hit. Piling on big postseason numbers would inflate that even more.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Biggest contract year: Boone Jenner fits the mold of a guy who could blow up for a playoff run, as right now, it’s really tough to truly gauge the value of a one-time 30-goal scorer who only managed 32 points this season.

Thomas Vanek and Jack Johnson both have a lot to play for, even though they’re in supporting roles for CBJ.

The biggest situations to eye are players whose deals run through 2018-19. Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski both could get extensions during the off-season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Biggest contract year: Some of the bigger concerns fall after 2018-19, although Jamie Oleksiak might be the latest member of The Justin Schultz Club: players who landed with Pittsburgh and then revitalized their careers (and paychecks). Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan also need to earn some dough.

Philadelphia Flyers

Biggest contract year: None of the Flyers’ goalies are locked up for all that long. Petr Mrazek‘s deal is expiring this summer, while Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both see their contracts run out after 2018-19. Philly’s goalies pose plenty of questions, yet you’d think that motivation won’t be lacking.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights vs. Kings: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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On one side, you have one of the teams of this generation, a Los Angeles Kings squad with two Stanley Cup victories on its resume. On the other, you have the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion franchise riding a magical run to a Pacific Division title during their first season.

If that’s not a sexy enough narrative to build intrigue, consider the clashing styles.

While the Kings have opened things up since moving on from Darryl Sutter, they’re still a button-downed team, they still allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season (202). Meanwhile, the Golden Knights have hit the ground running. Whether you think they’re for real or that their pixie dust is running out, there’s little denying that Vegas pushes the pedal to the metal. Few teams push the pace like Vegas, so it’s little surprise that the Golden Knights finished in the top five in scoring.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Golden Knights broke just about every record imaginable for an expansion team, especially in the NHL. They finished the season with a 51-24-7 record for 109 standings points, trailing only Nashville and Winnipeg in the West.

Despite Jeff Carter missing a big portion of 2017-18, the Kings secured the West’s first wild card spot after missing the playoffs last season and seeing massive front office changes. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty carried the Kings to a 45-29-8 record for 98 points.

It’s true that Vegas finished 11 points ahead of Los Angeles, yet they were closely matched during head-to-head meetings. The Golden Knights won the first two games of their season series (Nov. 19 in regulation, Dec. 28 in overtime) and then the Kings won the last two (Feb. 26 in OT, regulation win one day later).

Let’s break down what could be the least predictable series of the first round.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Vegas: The Golden Knights combined two parts former Panthers (Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault) and a light-scoring former Blue Jacket (William Karlsson) to form one of the deadliest lines in the NHL. Karlsson topped the Golden Knights with a stunning 43-goal, 78-point season. Marchessault wasn’t far behind, while Smith was very productive but limited a bit by injuries.

Like Karlsson, Erik Haula enjoyed the season of his life – or a huge breakthrough? – by scoring 29 goals and 55 points.

More familiar faces rounded things out nicely. James Neal extended his streak of 20+ goal-seasons with 25, while David Perron finished third on the team with 66 points. Motivation has been an asset for Vegas all season long, and Karlsson, Perron, and Neal rank among the forwards who still have new contracts to earn.

Los Angeles: Anze Kopitar likely deserves more Hart buzz than he gets, but then again, isn’t that often the story with the Kings’ perennial Selke candidate? He generated a whopping 92 points, blowing away his previous career-high of 81. The second-closest Kings scorer among forwards was Dustin Brown, who rode shotgun with Kopitar to a redemptive 61-point season. Three Kings forwards passed 20 goals in 2017-18: Kopitar (35), Brown (28), and Tyler Toffoli (24).

That said, Jeff Carter was certainly on pace to do so. Despite being limited to 27 games played, Carter scored 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points.

Advantage: Golden Knights, although Kopitar is most likely to be the best forward on the ice.

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DEFENSEMEN

Vegas: The beauty of the expansion experience is that players received the best opportunities of their NHL careers, and that seemed especially true on defense. Colin Miller (41 points, 19:20 minutes per game), Nate Schmidt (36 points, 22:14 ATOI), Shea Theodore (29 points, 20:21 ATOI), Deryk Engelland (23 points, 20:16 ATOI), and Brayden McNabb (15 points, 20:09 ATOI) all enjoyed some of the best work of their careers.

As a group, they enabled Gerard Gallant to unleash the hounds without suffering too much in their own end.

Kings: Released from the shackles of Sutter’s system, Drew Doughty generated 60 points this season, the best output of his impressive career. Doughty earns his hype, while the Kings also employ two underrated blueliners in Jake Muzzin (42 points, strong possession stats) and Alec Martinez (25 points, though with shaky possession numbers). As mentioned earlier, the Kings limited opponents scoring thanks to some great high-end players.

Depth might be something the Golden Knights can exploit, though. Dion Phaneuf generated OK offense since joining the Kings (10 points in 26 games), but the big-name defenseman continues to leak chances. If Vegas can force Los Angeles into trading blows rather than slowing things down, it could be a long couple of weeks for players like Phaneuf. That’s especially true if Muzzin can’t play due to injuries.

Advantage: Kings. Few defensemen are prepared to log huge minutes at a high level like Doughty, who’s easily the best defenseman in this series.

GOALIES

Vegas: What a weird year of goalies for Vegas, especially since they generally did such a great job weathering all the turbulence. Five different netminders suited up for Las Vegas, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban both suffered through injuries, occasionally at the same time.

Fleury generated the best save percentage of his career, posting a .927 mark while going 29-13-4 in 46 games. He’d be getting serious consideration for the Vezina if injuries didn’t railroad the quantity to go with all of that quality.

“MAF” has quietly been impressive, for the most part, lately. He’s generated a .920 or better season in three of his last four campaigns. Even last year (.909 save percentage), Fleury helped the Penguins with excellent postseason work.

Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick enjoyed one of the best years of his career, going 33-28-3 with a strong .921 save percentage.

Much like Fleury, Quick has been a polarizing goalie. Analytics-minded fans have often criticized Quick, while mainstream pundits sometimes exaggerate his accomplishments. In 2017-18, Quick earned the accolades.

Advantage: Golden Knights. Fleury’s generated better numbers this season and in recent years. Both goalies have plenty of postseason experience, so they have the confidence of their teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Vegas: The Golden Knights’ power play generated 53 goals, gave up five shorthanded tallies, and enjoyed a 21.4-percent success rate (tied for eighth in the NHL). Their PK gave up 44 goals while scoring eight shorties, killing 81.4 percent of their penalties (tied for 10th). Overall, special teams is a net positive (+12) for Vegas.

Los Angeles: The Kings topped the NHL by killing 85 percent of their penalties, while their 39 power-play goals allowed was second-best in the NHL (Los Angeles also scored five shorthanded goals). Los Angeles scored 49 power-play goals and allowed four shorthanded goals, generating a PP% of 20.4 (tied for 17th). Consider that a net positive of +10.

Advantage: Kings. The Golden Knights get the nod for balance, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that the Kings boast one of the best penalty kill units in the NHL. Like many facets of this series, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Vegas: You’d think that the Kings will be on their best behavior but …

/Cuts to a shot of a car rolling into Sin City, with bright lights blinking and casinos never sleeping. Vince Vaughn may be in this montage.

Home-ice advantage could be significant for Vegas. The question is: how significant will it be?

Los Angeles: Normally, when you hear the word “experience” thrown around, it’s tough to resist rolling your eyes.

You can keep a straight face this time. The Kings have two Cups to their name, and in each case, they didn’t exactly set the NHL on fire during the regular season. (This is a team with two championship banners and zero division titles during that run, after all.)

The Golden Knights are in their first season against a team that knows all about the pressures, the grind, and the matchups that come with playoff hockey. Maybe that veteran edge will allow the Kings to control the tempo?

PREDICTION

Kings in six games. The Golden Knights are the ultimate underdogs, so why not keep that going by doubting them even though they won their division and hold home-ice advantage against Los Angeles? This could be a weird one, even by first-round standards.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.