Getty Images

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

20 Comments

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.

————

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.

The Buzzer: Streaks end for Capitals and Hurricanes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1. Joel Edmundson, Carolina Hurricanes

Let’s be honest, Edmundson’s start in Carolina has been forgettable at best. He hasn’t been all that effective by any measure, having a negative impact on defense, and failing to score a single point through his first 17 games with the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes have a big edge against the Senators on paper, and that translated to the on-ice product on Monday, and Edmundson took advantage. He scored a goal and two assists for three points, had a +3 rating, fired three shots on goal, and blocked a shot.

As you’d expect Edmundson’s three-point night wasn’t the only strong part of Carolina’s 8-2 win …

2. Sebastian Aho, also Hurricanes

Aho arguably played a bigger role in Carolina ending its four-game losing streak than Edmundson did.

The still-a-bit-underrated star scored the game-winning goal shorthanded (and unassisted), finishing Monday with two goals overall. Aho generated a +4 rating and went 9-6 on faceoffs.

Aho now has eight goals and 13 points in 18 games in 2019-20. This has been a slightly slow start for Aho so far, judging by a low on-ice save percentage (81.9 at even strength versus career average of 90.2 before Monday’s game) and so-so offensive numbers by his high standards. Maybe a hot game will get the ball/puck rolling in the right direction?

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

While the Hurricanes’ losing streak ended, the Capitals’ winning streak closed off at six on Monday.

Kuznetsov is the main reason Washington was able to continue Arizona’s run of blown leads, even though the Coyotes eventually won in a shootout. He showed plenty of speed and skill, collecting two goals and coming one attentive T.J. Oshie swipe from having three.

That two-goal output extended Kuznetsov’s point streak to four games, giving him three goals and six assists for nine points during that span, and 18 points in 16 games overall. Kuznetsov also logged 23:28 TOI. While that total was inflated by the two teams getting through a full overtime period, that’s still quite a strong night of work — but not good enough for another Capitals win.

Highlights from both games

With there only being two games, why not enjoy the best of both?

First, the Coyotes beat the Capitals in a shootout:

Meanwhile, there weren’t many twists and turns to the Hurricanes blowing out the Senators:

Brawlin’ Bobby

Bobby Ryan delivered a big hit, and then seemed to win his fight with Brock McGinn. Maybe not the greatest idea for a player who’s been doomed by hand injuries, but then again, Ryan didn’t have much of a choice:

Factoids

  • Rod Brind’Amour has had quite the start to his coaching career. NHL PR notes that his 56 wins is the most for any coach through their first 100 games. If “Rod the Bod” is as good as “Rod the Coach” as he was at winning faceoffs, then watch out.
  • John Carlson generated an assist, so his 29 points ties Brad Marchand for fourth in league scoring. The Caps are 10-0-2 in their last 12 games.
  • Dougie Hamilton has 26 goals through his first 100 games with the Hurricanes. That’s the second-best start for a defenseman in franchise history, according to NHL PR.

Scores

ARI 4 – WSH 3 (SO)
CAR 8 – OTT 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Coyotes cough up 3-0 lead, but end Capitals’ winning streak

Leave a comment

The Arizona Coyotes can’t feel happy about giving up yet another lead (this time a 3-0 advantage), but they were able to salvage a 4-3 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Monday — albeit barely.

Upon further review

When the Capitals made it 3-3, it was awkwardly funny, as Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared a breath away from scoring a hat trick goal to tie things up. Instead, T.J. Oshie got to the puck first. Would it have been the same difference if Kuznetsov was shooting rather than Oshie? Probably, yet when a standings point (or two) end up on the line, it’s better not to leave anything to doubt. All the laughing on the bench underscored the mixed feelings, and served up a reminder of the “passing to a teammate so they can score the empty-netter” culture of the sport.

It looked like Oshie would then match Kuznetsov with two goals on the night when Oshie scored in overtime — only he didn’t.

The NHL’s review determined that the play was offside, as wires got crossed between Oshie and Lars Eller when Eller lost his footing close to the Coyotes’ blueline. This was the second review that didn’t go Washington’s way on Monday, as an Ilya Samsonov save instead turned out to be a Christian Fischer goal.

That’s how close it really was for Washington. They almost extended their winning streak to seven games, even though the Coyotes generated that 3-0 lead.

On the bright side, there were moments where the bounces did go the Capitals’ way. When the Coyotes were really pouring things on, they fired another breakout pass behind Washington’s defense to Clayton Keller, a soon-to-be $7.15 million player who already scored the game’s first goal. Keller might be “elite in every sense of the word,” but Samsonov showed the agility and patience to wait Keller out, and Keller didn’t even end up with a shot attempt on that breakaway opportunity.

So, it stings for the Capitals to lose in such an anticlimactic fashion, but the “what if?” game could go both ways. Finishing the night at 13-2-4 isn’t really so bad for this quietly dominant team.

Playing with fire when you play with leads

There’s an almost inevitable question when a team squanders a lead, or even comes close to squandering a lead: was this about the Capitals turning it up a notch, or are the Coyotes guilty of sitting on a lead?

It’s a point that’s relevant to the Coyotes, in particular. For one thing, they sometimes lean heavily on goalies, especially when it’s red-hot Darcy Kuemper. (In Monday’s case, Antti Raanta was mostly sharp even as he seems to settle into a backup role.)

The question is also especially pertinent right now, as the Coyotes have given up leads in five consecutive games. Winning the shootout bailed Arizona out on Monday, but they might not always be so lucky, especially when the leads are slimmer than three goals. Perhaps they need to do some soul searching about finding a better balance between avoiding back-breaking mistakes and getting to passive in “turtle mode.”

To be fair, the Capitals have been a tough team to keep down. They’re now 4-1-2 in games where they’ve trailed after the first period.

Kuznetsov on fire

Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get that hat trick, despite hats mucking up the ice in DC. He’s still on quite the roll lately. With two goals on Monday, Kuznetsov has a four-game multipoint streak going (three goals, six assists for nine points). That also gives him 18 points in 16 games so far in 2019-20, as he’s clearly shaken off that suspension.

***

The Capitals became the first team in the NHL to hit 30 points this season, sliding to 13-2-4. The Coyotes ended a three-game losing streak and are now 10-6-2. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance while also waving a few red flags of warning about blemishes they need to clean up.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Seguin, Benn facing more internal criticism

Getty
2 Comments

Last year it was the team CEO. This year it is the head coach.

For the second year in a row the Dallas Stars top forward duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is facing some criticism from within its own building for a lack of early season production. While neither player was specifically mentioned by name, it was pretty clear who coach Jim Montgomery was talking about in the wake of their 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

The duo — which accounts for more than $19 million of salary cap space — has combined for only four goals on the season and was held off the scoresheet on Sunday. Montgomery said he was “very disappointed” in the production of his team’s top players, and when asked if he is seeing any signs of progress as a follow up he said, “No, are you?”

When asked how to fix it, he talked about reducing ice-time and one-on-one video sessions, while also adding, via The Dallas Morning News, “They got to decide that they want to be a difference maker. I mean, look who scored for the Jets. We got really good big goals by Janmark and Faksa and that’s our third and fourth line.”

It’s not quite as harsh as when CEO Jim Lites went nuclear on the duo 11 months ago, but it is still a pretty direct message to the team’s two best players — score more goals.

What stands out this time around is that the criticism is probably at least a little more justified. When Lites called out the duo last year it came at a time when the Stars were in a playoff position thanks almost entirely to the play of Seguin and Benn. Their line had been carrying the team and providing the most significant chunk of the team’s offense even if their own individual numbers had declined. Had it not been for them the Stars probably would have been well out of playoff contention given how little forward depth the team had around them.

It’s a little different this year. The recent turnaround that has seen the Stars win seven of their past nine games (collecting 15 out of a possible 18 points) has mostly been carried by the goaltending of Ben Bishop and Anton Khubodin, as well as some secondary forwards.

Seguin does have seven points during the nine games (tied for the team lead during that stretch) but has scored just a single goal. Benn has only three assists during the stretch, only six points for the season, and has not scored a goal in 13 games, one of the worst droughts of his career.

There are a few interesting layers to this.

First, you can not ignore the fact that just like last year when they were the focal point of criticism, Seguin and Benn are being crushed by abnormally low shooting percentages scoring on just four of their 93 shots this season (4.3 percent). You can talk about not bearing down, or not getting to the right areas, or not getting enough quality chances all you want, but there is a pretty big element of bad luck for any two players to only score on 4 percent of their shots. As I’ve pointed out several times (including last year when we were talking about Seguin and Benn) nobody scores goals consistently. Even the top goal-scorers go through phases where they score goals in bunches, and then follow it up with lengthy dry spells. We tend to overrate what they are doing during the hot streaks, and overreact to what they are not doing during the cold streaks. In the end it will all balance out.

The concern isn’t the number of shots they aren’t scoring on, but rather the number of shots they aren’t getting. As of Monday Seguin is averaging 3.01 shots per game, more than a full shot less per game compared to a year ago, and his lowest total since he was a first-and-second year player in Boston. Benn is averaging just 2.11 shots per game, the lowest mark of his career. That is where the concern should be. At some point the shooting luck is going to change and more pucks will start going in for them, but if they’re not generating as many shots they still may not score as much as they normally do.

The last point here is the Stars became way too defensive and conservative in the first part of the season (something that Montgomery recently admitted to) and that has to have limited the play of their top players at least a little bit. For the longest time this team wasn’t playing to its strengths.

I like to bet on talent, and it’s more likely than not that Seguin and Benn are going to start scoring more goals sometime soon, not because they are responding well to criticism, but because that is how hockey works (talent eventually wins). When it happens it could make the Stars an interesting team to watch. They have the goaltending, they have two great top-pairing defenders when healthy, and they improved their depth. They just need their top players to get going, something that hasn’t typically been an issue for them during their time in Dallas.

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: Coyotes visit Capitals on NBCSN

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals have gotten off to a blazing start to the season, taking points in 16 of their first 18 games and currently sitting with the best record in the NHL. They have earned points in 11 straight games (10-0-1) and enter Monday’s game riding a six-game win streak.

John Carlson is the Capitals’ leading scorer this season and is top-five in the league with 28 points in 18 games (8G-20A). Carlson, who was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for October, has 10 more points than any other defenseman and already has 10 multi-point games on the year. The 29-year-old is in his 11th season with the Capitals and was named an alternate captain this season following Brooks Orpik’s retirement. Carlson signed an eight-year, $64 million contract prior to the start of last season (under contract through 2026).

The Coyotes have been inconsistent this season and enter Monday on a three-game losing streak. Arizona has been in close games all season, with six of their eight losses coming by one goal.

Phil Kessel was traded to the Coyotes from Pittsburgh this summer in a deal that saw Alex Galchenyuk go the other way. Kessel has had a slow start to his time in Arizona, having scored in just two of his first 17 games (three goals total). Despite Kessel having some early-season struggles, he has been extremely consistent throughout his career. The 32-year-old has scored 20+ goals in 11 straight seasons, while the Coyotes were the only team in the NHL without a 20-goal scorer last year.

[COVERAGE OF COYOTES-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Arizona Coyotes at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 11, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Coyotes-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

COYOTES
Christian DvorakNick Schmaltz – Phil Kessel
Clayton KellerDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Lawson CrouseCarl SoderbergConor Garland
Michael GrabnerBrad RichardsonChristian Fischer

Oliver Ekman-LarssonJason Demers
Jakob ChychrunAlex Goligoski
Aaron Ness – Jordan Oesterle

Starting goalie: Antti Raanta

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Chandler StephensonLars EllerRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Ilya Samsonov

John Walton and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Ahmed Fareed will host coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Anson Carter.