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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.

Maple Leafs drop fourth in a row with loss to Sabres

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It was pretty obvious as early as November that Buffalo Sabres probably weren’t going to end their playoff drought this season and that it was going to be another lost year in their ongoing rebuild.

It’s been tough. At times ugly.

The exception to that has come over the past week or two as they have put together a pretty solid stretch of games that continued on Monday night with a pretty solid 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Buffalo has now won four of its past six games with three of those wins coming against three of the top teams in the NHL — the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, and on Monday, the Maple Leafs.

Five different Sabres scored goals in the win, while Jason Pominville, Sam Reinhart, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Ryan O'Reilly all had two points in the win.

For Toronto the loss wraps up what turned out to be a pretty ugly road trip that saw them lose all four games. After earning at least a point by losing in overtime to Tampa Bay and Florida to begin the trip, the Maple Leafs were blown out in the Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy against the Washington Capitals then ended the trip with Monday’s clunker.

Frederik Andersen, who has been a workhorse for the Maple Leafs in net this season (maybe a little too much), struggled on Monday by giving up five goals on the 24 shots he faced.

At the other end of the ice Chad Johnson stopped 37 of the 40 shots he faced for the Sabres in the win.

The loss does not really hurt the Maple Leafs all that much because they are pretty firmly positioned in that third spot in the Atlantic Division. They are only three points back of the Boston Bruins for second place, but have played six more games than the Bruins. They remain 15 points ahead of the fourth-place Florida Panthers.

Related: Ryan O’Reilly gets an accidental assist from the referee (Video)

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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: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Toronto Maple Leafs

Zach HymanWilliam NylanderConnor Brown

Patrick MarleauNazem KadriMitch Marner

James van RiemsdykTyler BozakLeo Komarov

Matt MartinTomas PlekanecKasperi Kapanen

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey

Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev

Travis DermottConnor Carrick

Starting Goalie: Frederik Andersen

[Maple Leafs – Sabres preview.]

Buffalo Sabres

Zemgus GirgensonsRyan O'ReillySam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJason Pominville

Jordan NolanJacob JosefsonKyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot — Kyle Criscuolo — Nicholas Baptiste

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Brendan Guhle — Casey Nelson

Nathan BeaulieuVictor Antipin

Starting Goalie: Chad Johnson

Fantasy impact of 2018 NHL Trade Deadline: East

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The 2018 NHL trade deadline provided some serious fireworks, even though Erik Karlsson and Max Pacioretty didn’t move.

Over the next two days, PHT will assess the deadline from a fantasy standpoint. Today, we begin with the East. Look out for the West edition on Friday.

***

Boston Bruins: Rick Nash is looking good so far, continuing to fire a high volume of shots (10 SOG in his first two Bruins games, one resulting in a sweet goal). At the moment, he’s skating with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, not too extreme a drop-off from Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello in New York.

Buffalo Sabres: Sheesh, with Evander Kane traded and Jack Eichel injured, who’s going to score for Buffalo? Ryan O'Reilly and Jason Pominville?

At least the Sabres have no choice but to turtle ahead of two pending free agent goalies in Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson. I wouldn’t expect many W’s, but maybe they’ll have high-save nights for those spot starting goalies? (Yes, I agree with your “Meh.”)

Carolina Hurricanes: *cricket chirps*

Columbus Blue Jackets: Thomas Vanek gets a golden opportunity to prove he’s still worth something, or at least able to cosplay as 2016-17 Sam Gagner, what with his spot on the Blue Jackets’ top power-play unit.

Detroit Red Wings: Seems like Tyler Bertuzzi will be the biggest winner of the Tomas Tatar trade, as Tatar’s most common linemates were Dylan Larkin (by a large margin) and Andreas Athanasiou.

While his injury might make the point moot, Mike Green staying with the Red Wings might not be such a bad thing for his fantasy value. On a contender, Green would probably see fewer minutes, and be more of a specialist. In Detroit, he seems more likely to get those specialist PP minutes while also receiving something closer to a featured role overall.

Florida Panthers: Frank Vatrano could be interesting in an elevated role, once healthy … but not exactly a busy trade deadline for the Cats. Then again, with all the turbulence lately, it’s almost certainly wisest to aim for some stability.

Although Max Pacioretty would have been a lot of fun, if that ever was going to happen without Vincent Trocheck going the other way …

Montreal Canadiens: Patches might have benefited from a breath of fresh air. Even so, Habs fans get to let out a sigh of relief that Marc Bergevin didn’t bungle another trade.

New Jersey Devils: Via Left Wing Lock, Patrick Maroon might begin on the Devils’ fourth line with Brian Boyle and Blake Coleman. I’d imagine that’s to allow Maroon to get accustomed to a new team?

Michael Grabner‘s currently on a third line with Travis Zajac and Stefan Noesen. There’s no doubt that Ray Shero’s latest slew of trades were made to improve depth, but I’d imagine the Devils would probably like to see those two forwards eventually solidify the top nine, with one of them ideally on the first or second line.

Maroon owners might already be nostalgic for the Connor McDavid days.

New York Islanders: *Cricket takes out a billboard that says “chirp”*

New York Rangers: Ryan Spooner hearts NY. So far in two games, the underrated former-Bruin has five assists, including three from last night. Vladislav Namestnikov looked great in his Rangers debut, too, scoring a goal and an assist.

Both forwards are in contract years and should get nice opportunities on a team in transition, so they are both nice deeper league options.

Ottawa Senators: Life might be weird for Erik Karlsson after not getting moved, but he’ll probably pile up points just the same. Exhibit A:

Sure, there were scenarios in which Karlsson would generate better numbers on a contender. He’d be less likely to deal with teammates going through the motions and might simply have better players to set up.

Still, there’s always an adjustment in going to a new team, especially for a star. So it’s not all great or all bad for Karlsson owners.

Philadelphia Flyers: Tough to gripe too much with staying the course when this team is positioned so strongly, even after ignoring calls for change after a 10-game losing streak. News flash: Ron Hextall is pretty good at this GM’ing thing.

Pittsburgh Penguins: It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Penguins experiment with different alignments regarding Derick Brassard, especially when you consider how comfortable they are moving wingers around Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

You wonder if Mike Sullivan might also experiment with Brassard on one of the top two lines, even if it’s just to take a look. That would be the ideal scenario for fantasy, as playing on the third line could be a slight issue for Brassard, although those worries are mitigated by Phil Kessel currently joining him (and, hey, Conor Sheary isn’t chopped liver either).

Tampa Bay Lightning: We may need to wait a bit for returns on the big trade. Both Ryan McDonagh and Nikita Kucherov are injured. The Bolts lost to the lowly Sabres last night, and maybe worse, they were noticeably out-shot.

The dream scenario for J.T. Miller owners is that he’d eventually just slide into Namestnikov’s usual role as “Good Player Who Looks Great next to Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.” Right now it’s just sort of a mess, although Tyler Johnson isn’t the worst consolation prize.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Much like the Bolts with Kucherov, things are a little funky in Toronto with Auston Matthews out.

Tomas Plekanec‘s a decent pick up, yet he’s not really expected to light scoreboards on fire. That said, depending upon linemates, he could get a boost. We’ll see, but I wouldn’t scramble to add him in typical leagues, either.

I mean, unless you need to win the coveted turtlenecks category.

Washington Capitals: Rumors have it that the Capitals at least dipped their toes in the water re: Erik Karlsson and Ryan McDonagh. Instead, they’re not making a splash after doing so during many recent deadlines.

That’s probably most heartening to John Carlson, who won’t even need to fend off an aging Mike Green as he continues to pile up numbers in a contract year. He already has 50 points this season.

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.

The Buzzer: MacKinnon’s Hart push, Lundqvist stops 50

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Players of the Night

Those are nice choices, but Wednesday provided the latest convenient reminder that Nathan MacKinnon shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle, even after missing a handful of games with injury issues.

The speedy Colorado Avalanche star helped his team win a key game in regulation against the Calgary Flames tonight. In doing so, MacKinnon scored one goal and one assist, pushing his already-career-high season points total to 71. He’s nearing his first 30-goal campaign, as this makes for his 29th. N0t bad for a forward whose shooting skill was genuinely – and honestly, fairly – questioned, eh?

MacKinnon’s 71 points come in 55 games, which translates to 1.29 points-per-game. During an 82-game season, that would translate to about 106 points. The one convenient thing about his injury is that it showed that how the Avs would operate without him (spoiler: not nearly as well).

He’s really been asserting his will lately, too. During his previous two-goal, one assist performance, he fired nine shots on goal. Tonight he generated eight. In scoring five goals and five assists for 10 points in his last five games, he’s fired 31 SOG. Dominant stuff.

  • One long-standing Ranger and one newcomer deserve consideration.

The holdover is Henrik Lundqvist, who exhaustingly made 50 saves – most in regulation – to help the Rangers with in overtime. He couldn’t hold off Brock Boeser (two goals), Bo Horvat (one goal, two assists), and the Canucks in every instance, but he was the reason why they won.

That said, Ryan Spooner is off to a tremendous start with the Rangers. After generating two assists in his debut with the Rangers, he generated three helpers on Wednesday, including an assist on the OT-clincher.

  • Solid nights in victory for Jason Pominville and Jonathan Drouin, who both notched a goal and an assist. Pominville’s goal secured an overtime upset for Buffalo over Tampa Bay.

Highlights and lowlights

Speaking of Spooner, here’s that OT-winner he set up for John Gilmour:

Jaden Schwartz to Alex Pietrangelo on what went from an insurance goal to a decisive one for the Blues:

Part of what makes the Islanders so frustrating is that they find ways to lose, even as Mathew Barzal and John Tavares do amazing things:

Johnny Gaudreau probably deserves to get more mentions in MVP talk, as well, but not for nights like Wednesday. On the bright side, he piled up PIM and provided this GIF-friendly reaction.

Then again, it’s a stealth highlight considering the fact that he’d avoided a serious injury from Sam Bennett‘s misplaced skate blade:

Factoids

Perhaps we should call them the Buffalo Spoilers?

If you have issues with Lundqvist allowing five goals but getting recognition, maybe this will help soothe such concerns:

If not, well …

Scores

Canadiens 3, Islanders 1
Sabres 2, Lightning 1 (OT)
Blues 2, Red Wings 1
Avalanche 5, Flames 2
Rangers 6, Canucks 5 (OT)

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.