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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.

Ken Hitchcock retires from coaching; who will Dallas Stars hire next?

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Ken Hitchcock announced his retirement from coaching on Friday after 22 NHL seasons and will now take on a role as a consultant with the Dallas Stars.

Hitchcock, who led the Stars to the 1999 Stanley Cup and retires with the third-most wins all-time among NHL head coaches (823), had an original plan of hanging them up following the 2016-17 season with the St. Louis Blues. That didn’t happen as he was fired 50 games into the year, and while assisting other coaches around the league with X’s and O’s talks during his time away, a spark was reignited.

“They thought I was helping them but they were helping me,” Hitchcock said a year ago today during his introductory news conference when he returned to coach the Stars.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A multi-year deal was signed and Hitchcock’s plan suddenly shifted, but the move to an advisor/consultant role whenever he was done coaching was always in the cards. The Stars ended up missing the playoffs for the second straight season, a sign that a new direction was needed.

In a letter published on Friday, Hitchcock said his goodbyes, thanking the organizations he worked for and the people he worked with before acknowledging hockey fans.

“This great game does not happen without you. Every city I coached in, I was lucky to be surrounded by dedicated, knowledgeable, passionate hockey fans,” he wrote. “I enjoyed being behind the bench but I will miss walking the streets and seeing the fans the most.”

Aside from the wins and the Cup ring, Hitchcock, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, also won a Jack Adams Award and led teams to two Presidents’ Trophies. Internationally, he coached Canada to a silver medal at the 2008 IIHF World Championships and was an associate coach for the Canadian Olympic team five times, helping them to win three gold medals (2002, 2010, 2014). He also earned gold as an assistant for Canada’s teams at the 2002 Worlds and 1982 World Junior Championship.

Now that there’s an opening, which way will general manager Jim Nill go for a new head coach?

Alain Vigneault is a free man and was in consideration for the Stars job in 2013 before taking himself out of consideration to take the New York Rangers’ offer. Dallas would go with Lindy Ruff.

• Denver University head coach Jim Montgomery came close to landing the Florida Panthers job a year ago. “I’d never say never,” he recently told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. “But it would have to be a perfect opportunity for me and my family…. Denver is a great place to live, and I work for great people.”

Dallas Eakins, Todd Nelson and Sheldon Keefe have all had varying degrees of success while coaching in the American Hockey League. Eakins and Nelson had brief NHL experiences as head coaches.

• Then you’ll have some usual names in the rumor mill when a job opens up like Dan Bylsma, Dave Tippett and Washington Capitals assistant Todd Reirden, along with any potential future firings that could happen around the NHL in the coming weeks (Bill Peters?).

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Final Hart pushes, glory in garbage time

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Six of eight playoff matchups resolved, all 16 teams determined

During the afternoon, the Flyers finalized the East’s eight by beating the Rangers, pulling the plug on Florida’s surge. Late on Saturday, the Avalanche swiped the final West spot by beating the Blues. Get the lowdown on the matchups that have been determined here and learn how Panthers – Bruins will impact the rest of the East situation in this post.

#FiredAV

Not long after the Rangers’ regular season ended, they announced that Alain Vigneault has been fired.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Final Hart pushes

  • Heading into the 2018-19 season, Claude Giroux crossed the 90-point mark once (93 in 2011-12) and never reached 30 goals in a campaign. Giroux collected his first career hat trick in clinching a playoff spot for the Flyers on Saturday, pushing him to career-highs in goals (34), assists (68), points (102), and even plus/minus (+28). Giroux finished the regular season with a 10-game point streak, generating a ridiculous eight goals (all in the last five contests) and 11 assists for 19 points.

Giroux already courted some Hart buzz, but with this finish, he might just check all the boxes as far as being vital to his team’s success, getting the big numbers as one of the season’s 100-point scorers, and also coming up huge in key situations.

  • With two assists in Edmonton’s shootout victory, Connor McDavid finishes the season with 108 points. In this era, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see a player generate consecutive Art Ross victories and consecutive 100-point seasons. He won the Art Ross by a healthy margin, but the Oilers’ incompetence could very well cost him another Hart Trophy. That shouldn’t diminish another great season for number 97, even though he’s sure to be unhappy with the team results.

  • Nathan MacKinnon slowed down the stretch, so he probably won’t beat out a fierce group of Hart bidders. Still, he’s at least orbiting the discussion, and came through with a strong performance. MacKinnon collected the game-winning goal and an assist, finishing this season with 97 points. Remarkable stuff, especially since injuries limited him to 74 games played.
  • Alex Ovechkin fell just short of 50 goals in 2018-19, collecting two goals in Washington’s win to finish with 49. He’ll settle for yet another Maurice Richard Trophy, and a decent argument to be a Hart Trophy finalist.

Garbage time glory

(Yes, McDavid could fit in this category, too.)

  • With teams either punting on the season or, in many cases, resting players for the postseason, there were some weird results. The Flames bombarded the Golden Knights 7-1, and Mark Jankowski probably made someone big money in DFS, generating a random four-goal game. Wow.

  • Jamie Benn hasn’t had the greatest season, yet he finished it in a way that inspires hope for 2018-19. His natural hat trick helped the Stars spoil the Kings’ bid at improved seeding, and it’s the second hat trick in Benn’s past three games. Benn generated eight goals and two assists for 10 points in his last five games.
  • The Predators already locked up the Presidents’ Trophy, so they didn’t really need Filip Forsberg to generate a hat trick. Still, with nine points in his last five games, maybe he’ll come into the postseason on a high note after a solid but somewhat streaky season?

Highlights

If this is John Tavares‘ last goal and game with the Islanders, at least he’d be going out with style:

Too bad the Panthers didn’t roll with Nick Bjugstad alongside Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov a little sooner:

More factoids

Connor Hellebuyck‘s mark slips under the radar a bit, but might come in handy at the negotiating table (he’s a pending RFA):

Should they re-name it the Ovi Trophy?

Squandering Mathew Barzal‘s sensational rookie season has to sting.

Scores

Flyers 5, Rangers 0
Jets 4, Blackhawks 1
Bruins 5, Senators 2
Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 2
Islanders 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)
Panthers 4, Sabres 3
Capitals 5, Devils 3
Hurricanes 3, Lightning 2 (OT)
Predators 4, Blue Jackets 2
Ducks 3, Coyotes 0
Avalanche 5, Blues 2
Flames 7, Golden Knights 1
Oilers 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
Stars 4, Kings 2
Wild 6, Sharks 3

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.

Ducks keep rolling, inch closer to home ice in first round

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The Anaheim Ducks are starting to get on a roll at just the right time of year.

Thanks to their 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars on Friday night, the Ducks continued their recent run of great play and moved into the third playoff spot in the Pacific Division, jumping ahead of the Los Angeles Kings.

The Ducks are now 9-1-1 in their past 11 games and find themselves just one point back of the San Jose Sharks for the second spot in the division.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

If they can overtake the Sharks on Saturday (the Ducks play Arizona; the Sharks play Minnesota) that would give them home-ice advantage in the first-round of the Western Conference playoffs. Given how great Anaheim has been at home this season, where they are now 26-10-5 on the season, that would be a huge deal.

Even though the Ducks are dealing with a couple of pretty significant injuries right now with John Gibson and Cam Fowler currently sidelined they are starting to look like one of those teams that nobody really wants to play in the playoffs.

Ryan Miller started in Gibson’s absence on Friday and stopped 23 of the 26 shots he faced. He has been excellent in his role as the Ducks’ backup goalie this year and gives them an extremely solid option if Gibson misses an extended period of time.

Along with Miller’s strong play on Friday the Ducks also received goals from five different players, including Rickard Rakell who scored his team-leading 33rd goal of the season.

The Ducks have been hammered by injuries at different times this season but have still managed to clinch a playoff spot and could top the 100-point mark for the fifth year in a row with a point on Saturday. They may not be the favorites in the Western Conference going into the playoffs, but with the way they are playing right now they are not going to be an easy team to beat.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Dallas Stars at Anaheim Ducks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Friday, as the Anaheim Ducks host the Dallas Stars at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

PROJECTED LINEUPS

STARS
Jamie BennTyler SeguinBrett Ritchie
Remi ElieRadek FaksaAlexander Radulov
Antoine RousselJason SpezzaMattias Janmark
Gemel SmithDevin ShoreTyler Pitlick

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Marc MethotGreg Pateryn
Dan HamhuisJulius Honka

Starting goalie: Mike McKenna

[‘Resilient’ Ducks look to extend win streak vs. Stars]

WATCH LIVE – 10 P.M. ET

DUCKS
Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry
Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg
Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase
Jason ChimeraDerek GrantJ.T. Brown

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson
Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour
Marcus PetterssonAndy Welinski

Starting goalie: Ryan Miller

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.