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Vegas’ wild playoff run built from expansion draft bonanza

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After Bill Foley agreed to pay a whopping $500 million for the right to put a hockey team in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the NHL decided his Vegas Golden Knights deserved a chance for a swift return on that investment.

If the other NHL owners had known just how huge Foley’s reward would be – and how incredibly quickly he would get it – they probably wouldn’t have been quite so nice to the new guy.

It’s too late now, though. After reaping a bonanza from one of the most generous expansion drafts in sports history, the Golden Knights are two victories away from an unbelievable Stanley Cup Final berth.

A brand-new team in a league that has been around for 101 years already has a Pacific Division title, two playoff series victories and a 2-1 lead on the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference finals.

“I don’t think anybody saw us here,” Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It’s been a lot of fun to be part of it. Really proud of this team and the way these guys have been working. We deserve to be here.”

Fleury and the other players accomplishing this feat refer to themselves as the Golden Misfits, yet few of Vegas’ expansion draft selections were truly undesired by the clubs that lost them 11 months ago.

Instead, general manager George McPhee took full advantage of his opportunities to compile an uncommonly talented roster, and coach Gerard Gallant turned that roster into a brilliant team in shockingly swift fashion. But it all started with the draft that allowed McPhee to build this monster in less than a year.

“It had a big impact,” McPhee acknowledged. “The (expansion draft) rules were favorable. Gave us something to work with, and gave this team an opportunity to be a good team.”

The NHL allowed its teams to protect only seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. By way of comparison, when the NHL last expanded in 2000, teams were allowed to protect a whopping nine forwards, five defensemen and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.

The league also required teams to expose players with significant NHL experience who were under contract through next season, closing loopholes and helping Vegas even more. Third-line forwards and top-four defensemen were available from almost every team.

The easiest acquisition was Fleury, of course. The Knights got a three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie with 375 career victories for nothing, and he has largely stayed healthy while playing at a formidable level.

The Knights also landed the likes of James Neal, a proven veteran talent with nine consecutive 20-goal seasons. He scored 25 goals while providing steady veteran leadership.

They plucked William Karlsson, a clearly gifted forward who had yet to reach his full potential with two NHL teams. The Swede swiftly became one of the NHL’s best players, racking up 43 goals – an NHL record for an expansion team’s first season – and 35 assists along with a plus-49 rating.

And the expansion draft terms allowed McPhee to get creative in trades with teams hoping to keep players who couldn’t fit under the protection umbrella. For instance, the Knights ended up with Reilly Smith in a trade because Florida wanted them to draft Jonathan Marchessault – and the two ex-Panthers became two of the Knights’ top four scorers.

The draft bounty isn’t the only reason these upstart Knights have immediately entered their Golden years.

All of this talent wouldn’t have won so many games without Gallant. He built a balanced, disciplined team that has rolled four lines and played relentless two-way hockey while mining untapped talents such as Karlsson and Eric Haula, who scored 29 goals after never managing more than 15 in Minnesota.

“Gerard has done a terrific job of making this a team,” McPhee said. “He has really brought a lot of players along, and they’ve played better than they’ve played anywhere else.”

Foley bought this opportunity with his $500 million expansion fee, yet nobody in the sports world expected the Golden Knights to put it all together so swiftly. That includes the 73-year-old Foley, who raised eyebrows around the league when he set a public goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Las Vegas within six years – a goal he later revised to maybe eight years.

Instead, there’s an increasingly strong chance the Golden Knights will parade the Stanley Cup down the Strip one month from now. There are 12 other NHL teams that have never won a championship, along with seven franchises that haven’t raised the Cup in at least 23 years.

Potential NHL expansion owners in Seattle and Houston are probably thinking $500 million was a bargain, since the expansion fee is likely to go up when the league eventually awards its 32nd franchise. It also seems improbable that the NHL would ever make it this easy to build a team again.

But nothing will erase the Golden Knights’ remarkable embrace of this unusual moment in hockey history.

“It was important to the league and to Las Vegas and to Bill Foley that this franchise had a chance to work,” McPhee said. “That people that were coming to the games could enjoy the product and become real fans, and we could grow some deep roots in this marketplace. So I didn’t mind the rules.”

AP freelance writer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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Bruins sign Zdeno Chara to one-year extension

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Zdeno Chara will be back for a 22nd season in the NHL in 2019-20.

The Boston Bruins announced on Saturday morning that they have signed the 42-year-old defender to a one-year contract extension that will pay him $2 million in base salary, and another $1.75 million in performance-based bonuses.

Chara has appeared in 55 games this season, recording four goals and seven assists for a Bruins team that has been one of the NHL’s best.

When he returns next season he is going to join a small list of defenders to skate in the NHL beyond their age 42 season. It is a list that includes only Chris Chelios (who played until he was 48), Doug Harvey, Tim Horton, Lester Patrick, and Allan Stanley.

He has spent the past 13 seasons of his career with the Bruins where he has been a consistent rock on their blue line. Obviously at this point in his career he is not the same dominant player that he once was, but he has still been a solid performer that has played more than 20 minutes per night on the team’s top-pairing next to Charlie McAvoy. When that duo has been together this season the Bruins have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, via Natural Stat Trick. They have been together for most of the past two seasons when both are healthy and have been an outstanding pairing for the Bruins.

Chara won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender during the 2008-09 season with the Bruins and has been a finalist five other times, including during the Bruins’ Stanley Cup winning season in 2010-11. He finished fifth in 2012-13 when the Bruins returned to the Stanley Cup Final.

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: Silfverberg plays OT hero; Donato helps Wild

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Three Stars

1. Jakob Silfverberg, Anaheim Ducks

Silfverberg was involved in three of Anaheim’s four goals during their 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks. After helping set up the Ducks’ first two goals, Silfverberg put the game to bed 38 seconds into overtime to clinch the victory for Anaheim.

2. Ryan Donato, Minnesota Wild

One-third of Minnesota’s “Kid Line” set up both Wild goals during a 2-1 win over the Washington Capitals. The two points earned helped move Minnesota back into Western Conference wild card spot with seven games to go. Donato now has 13 points in 14 games since being dealt to the Wild.

3. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks

Rakell tallied twice and assisted on the OT winner, helping the Ducks to go two-for-three on the power play. The goals were Rakell’s first in seven games. He now has 13 on the season.

Highlights of the Night

• Silfverberg has five multi-point games this season and four in his last 18 games:

Jordan Greenway powered his way to the net for his 12th of the season and finished off with some nice stick handling:

Factoids of the Night

• Donato’s assist on Greenway’s goal was the 10,000th point in Wild franchise history.

Scores
Wild 2, Capitals 1
Ducks 4, Sharks 3 (OT)

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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.

Lightning’s Gourde suspended two games for illegal check to the head

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Yanni Gourde has been suspended two games by the NHL Department of Player Safety for his hit to the head of Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning forward went to lay a hit on Staal and ended up getting his head, leading to a match penalty and an ejection. Staal, who missed 32 games this season while dealing with a concussion, left the game before returning and scoring Carolina’s second goal in a 6-3 loss.

“I haven’t really watched or seen it but, you know, it’s a fast game, things happen,” Staal said afterward. “Obviously, you never want to see those hits. I was fortunate enough to come out of it feeling all right.”

DoPS head George Parros said the head check was avoidable in the department’s suspension video.

“While we acknowledge Gourde’s argument that Staal is bent low and stumbling as he plays the puck, this hit does not meet any of the criteria for unavoidable head contact,” Parros said.

Gourde, who has no history with the DoPS in his 179-game career, will miss the Lightning’s games against St. Louis on Saturday and Boston on Monday. He is eligible to return next Saturday vs. Washington.

Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Gourde forfeits $10,752.68 — money that goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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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.

Ducks give discouraging update on Eaves, Kesler

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Back in 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler was wrapping up the first year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension and still looking like one of the league’s best shutdown centers.

He finished with 22 goals and 58 points for a Ducks team that reached the Western Conference Final, and was also the runner-up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

The two years that have followed, including the 2018-19 season, have not been kind to him.

After appearing in only 44 games a season ago due to injury, the 34-year-old Kesler has been limited to just 60 games this season and has missed each of the past seven due to a hip injury. In the two years he has combined for just 13 goals and 22 points, and it sounds like the Ducks do not expect to see him on the ice again this season, while there should be some serious doubt as to what his future might hold.

“We’re going to meet with the doctors tonight, [Kesler] and I,” general manager and interim head coach Bob Murray said on Friday, via the Ducks’ website. “[Kesler] has to get everything in his life in order as to what he has to do in order to play. It’s not exactly good for his body, the things he puts himself through. We need to take full inventory of where he is in his life and go forward from there. The agent and I have talked a bunch.”

Kesler still has three years remaining on his contract after this one at a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season. Between him, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry the Ducks have more than $23 million per season tied up in three players all age 33 or older over the next two full seasons (plus a third season for Kesler).

With the Ducks badly struggling on the ice this season with one of the league’s worst records it does not leave them in an ideal situation. 

Kesler’s status is not the only troubling one that Murray addressed on Friday.

He also mentioned that forward Patrick Eaves is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he dealt with a year ago when a post-viral syndrome limited him to just two games.

He has only appeared in seven NHL games this season.

“He’s had a setback,” said Murray. “Texted with him yesterday. There is no new diagnosis or anything. This is a very troubling situation, and everybody is doing the best they can with it. There is no diagnosis, and he’s just struggling again with everything. Like [Kesler], we hope he gets better so he can have a normal life. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s just struggling. It’s more like what he had last year. He’s experiencing some of the same issues as last year. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Eaves joined the Ducks in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and has scored 132 goals in 633 career games with the Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators.

Related: After year away, Eaves had a blast in return to NHL

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.