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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.

Where do Anaheim Ducks go from here?

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Most hockey fans expected the first-round series between the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks to be tight. Through three games, that hasn’t necessarily been the case.

Sure, Game 2 was decided by one goal and Game 1 wasn’t a blow out, but the Sharks still found themselves up 2-0 heading into last night’s clash. Unfortunately, Anaheim saved their worst performance for Game 3, as they were annihilated 8-1 on the road. They’re now officially in must-win mode. One more loss and they’re going to be packing their bags for the summer.

So where do they go from here?

Overcoming a 3-0 deficit is daunting, especially when you’re playing a team that’s performing as well as San Jose has lately.

“We know what happened,” Anaheim defenseman Josh Manson said, per NHL.com. “It’s embarrassing. It’s not good enough. Now it’s do or die, so if you dwell on a game like this, it gets you nowhere.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Penalties were a huge issue for the Ducks in Game 3, as they gave San Jose eight power play opportunities. The Sharks managed to convert on four of them. Also, the fact that they’ve only found the back of the net three times in three games in less than ideal. That’s not exactly a recipe for success.

Captain Ryan Getzlaf has two assists in three games, Rickard Rakell, who led the team in scoring during the regular season, has one goal in three games, Corey Perry has a minus-3 rating, eight penalty minutes and seven shots on goal and Ryan Kesler has one helper and four shots. It’s not good enough from top to bottom with this team right now.

The embarrassment of losing a game of that magnitude by seven goals can affect the team in one of two ways. Either they fold the tent and move on to next season, or they roll up their sleeves and use this brutal loss as motivation to climb back into the series.

Does this series end in four games? Who knows. But it would be surprising to see the Ducks pack it in during Game 4. One victory is just a small start, but it would allow them to head back home, where they were 26-10-5 during the season.

It’s not over, but things have to change in a hurry.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Ducks vs. Sharks: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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This all-California battle seems to be flying under the radar, but this one should be a physical, back-and-forth series between two good teams.

After dropping three games in a row to Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis in early March, the Ducks managed to turn their game and their season around. That loss to the Blues came on Mar. 12, but they responded by winning five of their next six contests (5-0-1). The Ducks had a let-down game against a horrible Vancouver team on Mar. 27, but again, they were able to rattle off five wins in a row to close out the year.

Anaheim ended up finishing the season with fewer wins than San Jose, but their 44-25-13 record (101 points) was good enough to put them in second place in the Pacific Division, which means they’ll have home-ice advantage in the series. That’s good news for the Ducks, as they had a solid 26-10-5 record at the Honda Center.

Even though the Ducks finished with one more point than the Sharks, who had a 45-27-10 record (100 points), Anaheim came away with just one win during the four games between these two teams in 2017-18. San Jose may have won three of the four clashes, but most of these games were extremely close. Three of those four games were decided in a shootout. Only once did a team get blown out, and that was Anaheim when they fell 6-2 at home on Jan. 21.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A few of San Jose’s top players got off to really rocky starts this season. Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Martin Jones struggled early on. Pavelski had just four goals and eight points in his first 19 games, but the 33-year-old still managed to finish with 22 goals and 66 points. Burns failed to score in his first 20 games and he racked up only seven points in his first 19 outings. Like Pavelski, Burns finished strong, as he had 67 points when it was all said and done. As for Jones, he lost his starting gig to Aaron Dell for a while, but he managed to get his game back together.

SCHEDULE:

FORWARDS: 

Anaheim: Rickard Rakell led the Ducks in scoring this season, as he had 34 goals and 69 points in 77 games. He had a great year, but the biggest reason why he led the team in the points department is because Ryan Getzlaf missed time due to injury. The Ducks captain had 61 points in just 56 contests. It was another disappointing season for Corey Perry, who failed to hit the 20-goal mark for the second year in a row (17 goals, 49 points in 71 games). Outside of Rakell, the other two Ducks that hit the 20-goal mark were Ondrej Kase and Adam Henrique. You all know about Ryan Kesler and how he’s capable of getting under the opposition’s skin. He has to stay healthy.

San Jose: Pavelski and Logan Couture (34 goals and 61 points) were the Sharks forwards that finished with the highest amount of points in 2017-18. San Jose also got valuable contributions from Tomas Hertl (22 goals and 46 points), Timo Meier (21 goals and 36 points) and Joonas Donskoi (32 points in 66 games). But the deadline acquisition of Evander Kane changed the game for them. Kane had nine goals and 14 points in 17 games after being traded from Buffalo on Feb. 26.

Advantage: A slight edge to the Sharks. The forward depth these two teams possess is fairly close. Getzlaf is probably the best forward on either side, but the Sharks have slightly more high-end options in Pavelski, Couture and Kane.

DEFENSE:

Anaheim: The Ducks have one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL, but they’re currently dealing with a significant injury. Cam Fowler suffered a shoulder injury earlier this moth. He’s expected to miss anywhere between two-to-six weeks, so it’s entirely possible that he misses the entire first round. Even without Fowler, Anaheim still has Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. Veteran Kevin Bieksa, who isn’t as effective as he once was, is considered questionable with a hand injury.

San Jose: Burns is obviously the key piece of the blue line for the Sharks. He led the team in points and he averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game during the regular season. Justin Braun (33 points) and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (32 points) are the other important defensemen on the team. San Jose’s group of blue liners have the ability to move the puck as efficiently as any other team in the league.

Advantage: Sharks. If Fowler was healthy, this wouldn’t even be a discussion, but with him sidelined the gap has been closed. Burns, Vlasic and Braun have an edge over Linholm, Manson and Montour, but it isn’t as far as some may think. Again, things change on the blue line because of the Fowler injury.

GOALTENDING: 

Anaheim: John Gibson missed the final three games of the regular season because of an upper-body injury. Veteran backup Ryan Miller stepped in and did a solid job, but there’s no denying that Gibson is the best option for Anaheim. The 24-year-old was really good for the Ducks this season. He didn’t grab as many headlines as some of the other star goalies in the East, but there’s a legitimate argument to be made that he was Anaheim’s MVP in 2017-18 (he had a 31-18-7 record with a 2.43 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage). It sounds like he could be ready for Game 1.

San Jose: As we mentioned earlier in this story, Jones had a tough start to the year but he bounced back down the stretch. The 28-year-old finished the season with a 30-22-6 record with a 2.55 goals-against-average and a .915 save percentage. He’s capable of playing solid games in the postseason (he had a 1.75 GAA and a .935 save percentage during last year’s playoffs), but that still wasn’t enough to get them out of the first round.

Advantage: Anaheim. Gibson has the ability to be the difference maker in this series. If he stays healthy and he continues to play like he did at times this season, he can propel the Ducks to the second round.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Anaheim: The Ducks weren’t so hot on the man-advantage this season, as they ranked 23rd in the league in that category. Of all the teams in the playoffs, only the Blue Jackets converted on the man-advantage less often than the Ducks. On the PK, things were a lot better for them. Anaheim had the fifth-best penalty-kill at 83.2 percent. Only Los Angeles, San Jose, Boston and Colorado were better in that category.

San Jose: As we just mentioned, the Sharks had the second-best PK unit in the entire NHL at 84.8 percent (they were just 0.2 percent away from matching the Kings). The Sharks were slightly better than the Ducks on the power play, but they still finished with the 16th ranked unit on the man-advantage (20.6 percent). Burns is the straw that stirs the drink on the power play.

Advantage: Sharks. They have a better penalty kill and power play. That’s significant, but there isn’t a huge gap between these two teams when it comes to special teams.

X-FACTOR:

Anaheim: Corey Perry can be a game-changer for the Ducks, but they need him to score more goals than he did during the regular season. If he regains that scoring touch, he could change things for the better. Perry had four goals and 11 points in 17 games during Anaheim’s run to the Western Conference Final last season.

San Jose: As we saw after the trade deadline, Kane made a huge difference for the Sharks. He was engaged, productive and he was one of their better players. He hasn’t played any playoff hockey in the NHL, so it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts to the postseason. The pending unrestricted free agent should be motivated to keep the ball rolling this spring.

PREDICTION:

Ducks in six games. These two teams are as evenly matched as any of the opponents going head-to-head in the first round. San Jose may have a slight edge up front, on defense (with now Fowler) and on special teams, but the Ducks have similar quality. They aren’t too far behind the Sharks in those categories. Anaheim has a net advantage between the pipes and they also have experience on their side. They managed to get to the Western Conference Final last season, and they have the ability to do that again this year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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.

Gibson gives Capitals nothing in Ducks win

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“If it weren’t for injuries,” is a phrase that has to be on the minds of many Anaheim Ducks fans, but it may apply to goalie John Gibson in particular.

The 24-year-old continues to be a steadying presence for Anaheim, but he’s unlikely to get many mentions among the cream of the Vezina Trophy crop because he’s been limited to 49 games played. It’s likely not lost on the Ducks that he’s been so fantastic, and the Washington Capitals became painfully aware of that notion on Tuesday.

Despite a heavy 36-18 shots on goal advantage, Washington fell 4-0 to Anaheim. With that, Gibson pushed his personal winning streak to six games, managing his second shutout (maybe another reason his work doesn’t get many mentions?) of 2017-18. The Ducks have won seven of their last nine games overall.

Ultimately, this served as another tough night for frequent Vezina candidate Braden Holtby, who came into Tuesday with a troubling 3.00 GAA.

Holtby allowed three goals in two periods before Barry Trotz gave him the hook. Anaheim didn’t get a bunch of shots, yet the Ducks exploited the occasional Washington breakdown/bit of bad luck:

Gibson was the star of the show, yet other Ducks played a role in the victory. Both Rickard Rakell and Adam Henrique enjoyed one-goal, one-assist performances. Ryan Getzlaf generated two assists, as did Josh Manson.

With this win, the Ducks move – at least briefly – into second place in the Pacific. The Capitals are still in the Metro’s top spot, but this loss narrows the margin of error ahead of the Penguins and hard-charging Flyers.

Both the Ducks and Capitals approach the postseason a rung or two lower on the ladder than they’ve been used to lately, but it seems like Anaheim’s climbing and Washington’s grip is faltering a bit. Then again, maybe it’s all about Gibson just shutting the door.

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.