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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 stun Kings, eye first playoff sweep

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We’re far beyond the point of debating if the Vegas Golden Knights are “for real,” but the expansion team’s first-year accomplishments keep stacking up to a staggering degree.

The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs haven’t ruined the party. In Game 1, the Golden Knights grabbed their first-ever goal, win, and shutout in beating the Los Angeles Kings 1-0. Game 2 brought great drama, as even though Jonathan Quick played an incredible game, Vegas ultimately broke through for the 2-1 win in the waning minutes of double overtime. The Golden Knights leveraged their home-ice advantage during those first two games, but it turns out that a change of venue couldn’t stop them.

This time around, Marc-Andre Fleury was the goalie who was stealing the show, stopping 37 out of 39 shots on goal as the Golden Knights pushed the Kings to the brink of elimination with a 3-2 in.

Yes, that’s right, the VGK are now up 3-0 in this series. In their first crack at a playoff series, they’re already getting their first opportunity to complete a sweep in the postseason.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

At this point, it’s insufficient to call the Golden Knights “quick learners.” Instead, their prodigies on the Mozartian scale; maybe their mascot should be Doogie Howser?

Speaking of quick, that’s how this game turned, echoing the Penguins running away with their contest and the Wild doing the same today.

The Kings carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, but Cody Eakin buried a great David Perron pass to complete a busy sequence, tying things up 6:10 in. The dizzying turn of events happened later, as James Neal followed up his wonderful assist on the overtime game-winner in Game 2 to a sneaky goal to put Vegas up 2-1 with 5:37 left in the third:

Neal’s goal is the rare one Quick would want back, although maybe that’s only relative to this series, as it was a pretty nifty move and release. Just 21 seconds later, the Golden Knights stunned the Kings as Reilly Smith made an outstanding play to set up William Karlsson for what would end up being the game-winner.

Anze Kopitar gave the Kings a chance with a wonderful showing of hand-eye coordination for his first goal of the series with a little more than two minutes remaining in regulation, yet it wasn’t enough to nullify that two-goal burst.

***

The Kings enjoyed a far better showing in Game 3 than in Game 2, demonstrating the difference that Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin can make in a variety of situations. Of course, the Golden Knights’ big addition mattered as well, as Perron generated that sweet assist on the 1-1 Eakin goal.

Vegas isn’t just sticking with the Kings from a finesse standpoint, either. This has been a physical, sometimes grinding series, and the Golden Knights continue to match L.A. halfway. Between the heated exchanges and the controversial suspension, it’s clear that they’ve had Doughty’s attention the entire way.

Now, the next and biggest challenge so far: eliminating a team on the brink of their season ending.

So far, the Golden Knights have been exemplary in passing these tests, although the Kings have provide very little breathing room on the scoreboard. Vegas would be foolish to rest on its laurels, either, as they merely need to ask the San Jose Sharks how dangerous this Kings animal can get when it’s backed into a corner.

Game 4 airs on NBCSN on Tuesday, with puck drop slated for 10:30 p.m. ET.

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, 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.

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.

NBC Sports to air special on Golden Knights’ incredible inaugural season

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The Vegas Golden Knights have been the biggest surprise the NHL has seen in quite some time. Many people still don’t understand how a team that was put together just a few months ago turned into one of the top squads in the league right away.

A lot of credit should go to general manager George McPhee and his staff for the work they did. Sure, the expansion rules were more favorable in 2017 than they had been in previous years, but they still had to make a team with what should have been the eighth best player on every roster.

William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula and others have all exceeded expectations during their first year in Vegas.

On top of all the challenges normal expansion teams face, the Golden Knights and the Vegas community also had to deal with a major tragedy very early on, when a gunman fired shots into a large crowd on the Las Vegas strip. That tragic event brought the team and the community closer together.

NBC Sports will take a deeper look at the journey the Golden Knights have been on all season with a television special called “Knight Fever”. This special will premiere on April 3 following the game between the Bruins and Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET.

“This is an inspirational story of a franchise that continues to defy the longest of odds, whose unimaginable success helped lift a grieving community in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy,” said Mark Levy, Senior Vice President, Original Productions and Creative, NBC Sports Group. “Now on the cusp of history, the Golden Knights have undoubtedly become one of the greatest sports stories in recent memory, and this special captures their remarkable journey.”

You can check out the preview by clicking the video at the top of the page.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.