House Money: How Golden Knights were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.

Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.

[How the Capitals were built]

It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.

Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.

The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now

Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.

Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.

Anyway, stockpiling defensemen and futures was a huge part of the gameplan. At the time, it seemed like any bit of first-season success would be the gravy. Instead, a nice first entry draft (despite bad draft lottery luck) and a bucket of picks ended up being the cherry on top of this beyond-Cinderella run.

Fleury and other established players

Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.

But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.

Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.

James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …

Karlsson is to Forsberg …

In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.

When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.

While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.

Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.

[What Vegas success says about NHL]

Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.

Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …

via Getty

Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans

An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).

To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)

You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.

Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.

/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.

Speaking of former Panthers

Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.

Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.

It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.

Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.

Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.

A fairly clean slate

You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.

Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.

Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.

That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.

As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?

Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.

***

No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.

Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.

You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• How Washington was built

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final 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.

Ilya Sorokin submits save of the year candidate at Channel One Cup

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With a little more than two weeks left in 2018, goaltender Ilya Sorokin wanted to make sure he got his name on the list of potential saves of the year during Saturday’s Channel One Cup game against the Czech Republic.

During a 7-2 victory, the Russian netminder, a third-round pick by the New York Islanders in 2014, made an incredible stick save to keep the Czechs at bay. One that you will really appreciate once you see it through the various camera angles.

There’s a chance we see Sorokin later this season in the NHL. As Arthur Staple of The Athletic reported earlier this month, the 23-year-old Sorokin could join the Islanders once his season with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow ends. Through 24 games he’s posted a 1.18 goals against average and a .943 save percentage, continuing a trend of strong numbers since the 2015-16 season.

As the Islanders figure out if their answer in goal for the future is Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss, or maybe even Sergei Bobrovsky, Sorokin’s presence gives them a possible in-house option to ponder.

Stick-tap Jeff Veillette

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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: Barkov gets first-career hat trick; MacKinnon and Co. dominate

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Three stars

1. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

It takes something special these days to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs. They simply can score at will when they want to.

Barkov’s hat trick, then, was that special moment. He helped the Panthers get out to a 1-0 lead, put them ahead 3-2 in the third and then when Toronto forced overtime, it was Barkov once again to save the day, scoring on an incredible backhand deke for the win.

Not bad for a first-career hatty.

2. Daniel Sprong, Anaheim Ducks

Sprong scored to tie the game 1-1 in the first and then scored 1:19 into overtime to help the Ducks down the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1.

Sprong now has three goals in five games with the Ducks since joining Anaheim in a trade from the Penguins earlier this month. The Ducks have won three straight.

3. Nathan MacKinnon (and Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog), Colorado Avalanche

MacKinnon had a four-point night (one goal, three assists). Rantanen had two goals and a helper and Landeskog had two tallies of his own. That’s nine points for that line.

MacKinnon and Rantanen now have 50-plus points apiece and they led the Avs to a 6-4 win against the stubborn Dallas Stars.

The best line in hockey does it again.

Other notable performances: 

  • Alex Ovechkin scored again (and notched the shootout winner). He’s now got a 14-game point streak (extending a career high) and a six-game goal-scoring streak (one shy of a career high set in 2005-06). He’s got 29 goals in 32 games.
  • Claude Julien earned his 600th career win as a bench boss in the NHL as the Canadiens won 5-2 against the Ottawa Senators.
  • Tyler Seguin did his best to try and help the Stars, scoring twice an adding an assist against the Avs.
  • John Gibson kept his Vezina-caliber season going with 36 saves for the Ducks. He’s won three straight and has a .927 save percentage this season.
  • Keith Kinkaid (27 saves) and Juuse Saros (33 saves) had a nice little goaltending duel going. Saros ended up winning in the sixth round of the shootout.
  • 13 Vancouver Canucks had a point in their romp of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Highlights of the night

Barkov’s OT winner and hat-trick goal:

Obliteration:

Barzal breaking ankles:

Nice release:

Factoids

Scores

Flames 2, Wild 1

Canadiens 5, Senators 2

Panthers 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)

Islanders 4, Red Wings 3 (SO)

Penguins 4, Kings 3 (OT)

Capitals 4, Sabres 3 (SO)

Ducks 2, Blue Jackets (OT)

Predators 2, Devils 1 (SO)

Avalanche 6, Stars 4

Canucks 5, Flyers 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Panthers’ Weegar gets misconduct penalty after abuse of officials

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Here’s in a lesson in not swinging your stick around when there’s a linesman escorting you to the penalty box.

Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar was on the receiving end of a 10-minute misconduct for abuse of an official after his frustrations boiled over against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Weegar was incensed that a penalty wasn’t called after he was boarded by Maple Leafs forward Tyler Ennis. Weegar was slow to get up and when he did, he began spamming cross-checks to anyone within striking distance, including several to Ennis, one of which appeared to catch Ennis in the neck.

As he was getting taken to the box on a four-minute double minor for the cross-checking, Weegar slammed his stick against the glass near the penalty box. The stick appeared to catch the linesman Jonny Murray in the helmet.

The whole ordeal can be seen here:

Weegar got a stern talking to by referee Chris Rooney before he was sent to the locker room to serve out his misconduct.

Toronto, who were down 2-0 at that point, was unable to score on the extended power play.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk involved in fan altercation

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It appears as if one Chicago Blackhawks fan took a double loss on Friday night.

A video that has popped up on social media shows Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk taking down a fan at United Center.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago police said the man in the video allegedly punched and put the mascot in a headlock. What happens in the video, then, appears to be the aftermath of that.

In the 24-second video, Tommy Hawk pulls off the body-to-body suplex to get his alleged attacker to the ground before landing some ground-and-pound. He’s then able to get some sort of body lock on him and push him away.

Here’s the video:

Tommy Hawk certainly held his own here.

The Blackhawks lost 4-3 in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets. According to the Sun-Times story, police were notified about the disturbance around 11:15 p.m. The game, which started at 7:30 was over at that point.

The Sun-Times reported that no one was in custody as of Saturday evening. The Blackhawks said they were looking into the incident.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck