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.

Futures of Thornton, Kane among key questions for Sharks

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With long-term commitments to Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Martin Jones (not to mention some mid-term deals for less prominent pieces), the San Jose Sharks are largely “set” on defense and in net. They even have backup goalie Aaron Dell locked up through 2019-20.

Things get almost as fuzzy as Joe Thornton‘s beard when it comes to the futures of their forwards, though.

Plenty of questions lingered as members of the Sharks addressed the media on Tuesday.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For one thing, it’s more than reasonable to wonder about how viable Thornton can be. This isn’t as much about his age alone (38, turning 39 in July), but how much can be expected of “Jumbo Joe” after tearing up each of his knees.

In 2016-17, Thornton dealt with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. It turns out that his 2017-18 season was derailed by a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, as he told reporters including the Athletic’s Kevin Kurz. Yikes.

On the bright side, it sounds like Thornton is willing to be flexible when it comes to making things work with San Jose. The Mercury News’ Paul Gackle is among those who report that Thornton said he’d be willing to a) take a one-year deal and b) accept a cut from the $8 million he received last season.

And that’s where things get fun, at least if you’re a nerd for armchair GM/”franchise mode” discussions. Via Cap Friendly, the Sharks have about $60.49 million committed to their 2018-19 cap as of this moment. With next year’s ceiling expected to be somewhere between $78-82M, that’s ample room for the Sharks to make some interesting moves.

Joe and Evander

On one hand, that could open the door for the Sharks to bring both Thornton and Evander Kane back while also making some other, smaller moves.

There’s a scenario where that could really work for the Sharks. Considering the chemistry Kane developed with Joe Pavelski, the Sharks could have Thornton carry a line, roll with Kane – Pavelski, and then ask Logan Couture to exploit some matchup issues. They could also load up in different ways, maybe putting Pavelski and Kane with Thornton.

The most tantalizing thing for San Jose is that there’s another scenario that could work out even better, at least on paper.

The inevitable Tavares talk

Now, just about any NHL team with a shot at John Tavares should pursue him. It’s a stance that we might as well copy-and-paste at this point. Still, the Sharks hold some key advantages over other pursuers, and they’ve earned specific mentions as an interested party.

Heck, the connection’s been made for more than a year.

They have ample cap space not only to sign Tavares, but also to make some other moves to supplement their group. If Tavares leaves the New York Islanders – a big if, by the way – he’d likely justify such a decision by trying to give himself the best opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. The Sharks stand among the better “win now” teams who also have space to add Tavares. They don’t need to make trades to clear up space for him, either. That’s rare.

It’s to the point that, to some Islanders fans, it might become an irritating meme.

If the Sharks believe they have a real chance at Tavares, they might find themselves delaying other decisions. That’s what happens when you can add the sort of player who not only has a chance to change your fortunes, but perhaps one who could take up close to 20 percent of your cap space.

There’s some precedent to bigger name free agents taking at least a few days to make their big choices. Brad Richards did it, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter added some suspense, and there were even times when things dragged out months when contract details needed to be ironed out, such as when the Devils loophole’d their way to Ilya Kovalchuk. Tavares might want a few nights to sleep on a decision.

Along with that, the Sharks will probably want to really get an idea of how much Thornton has left in the tank. If Evander Kane believes he can get a great deal on the open market, that might mean that his days with San Jose are numbered, even though there were signs that there was a good fit (especially for Kane).

The ripple effects could go beyond 2018-19, too.

Extensions possible

The Sharks also get their first chances to make extension decisions/offers regarding Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. The two forwards will see their matching $6M cap hits expire after next season, so if San Jose wants to lock them up long-term, they can do so as early as July.

The relief is that Thornton’s willing to go one year, so those decisions would not need to clash.

A possible Tavares addition makes that more complicated, though such an addition may also help the Sharks to convince one or more parties to take a little less money. Maybe.

(We’ve seen Connor McDavid take less than the max, so hockey players make that call at times, whether they actually should or not.)

San Jose does have to mull over the risk/reward regarding a roster that could get old fast, however. Couture turned 29 in March, so he’d be 30 before an extension would kick in. Pavelski is already 33 and will turn 34 in July. Burns is 33 and Vlasic is 31. Kane is relatively young compared to that group at 26, but sometimes snipers age that much more dramatically.

***

These are all situations for GM Doug Wilson to mull over, although the Tavares situation would be a rubber stamp for any executive even halfway worthy of having the gig.

If Tavares is an unrealistic dream – and, again, it’s very dangerous to assume that he won’t stick with the Isles – then the good news is that the Sharks still have space to bring back some key players, maybe dabble in free agency, and maybe even try to make a splashy trade or two.

Falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round might be the sort of thing that gets the Sharks in a Twitter squabble with the Kings, but there could be some really interesting possibilities in this franchise’s future. Wilson just needs to make the right moves … and maybe enjoy some good luck.

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.

Marcus Sorensen continues to surprise in playoffs

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The San Jose Sharks are two wins away from making it back to the Western Conference Final. They’re in this position because they’ve received contributions from their go-to players like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Martin Jones. One the players that’s exceeded expectations is Marcus Sorensen.

After scoring five goals and two assists in 32 games during the regular season, the 26-year-old has already racked up four goals and one assist in eight games this postseason. He didn’t even make the team out of training camp, as he started the year with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. Sorensen posted 18 points in 23 games in the minors, which led to him being recalled in early December. Once he arrived in the NHL, he was made a healthy scratch 15 times between Dec. 2 and Mar. 27. He suited up for the final five games of the regular season and he hasn’t been out of lineup since.

Despite his increased production in the postseason, Sorensen hasn’t been receiving more ice time from head coach Peter DeBoer (he averaged 10:08 in the regular season and 10:16 in the playoffs). Still, he’s managed to remain productive.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

During Wednesday’s Game 4 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, Sorensen opened the scoring with this terrific individual effort:

Outside of simply producing offensively, he’s also managed to use his speed to his advantage by creating scoring opportunities for his team.

Even though he’s never really been productive at the NHL level, Sorensen has put up numbers in the past. He accumulated 32 points in 50 games with Sweden’s Djugardens in 2014-15 and 15 goals and 34 points in 47 games with them the following season. So there’s a bit of an offensive pedigree there.

Sorensen won’t be able to sustain his shooting percentage of 50 percent, but his advanced stats have improved from the season to the playoffs. His CF% has gone from 48.71 percent to 53.33 percent and his FF% has climbed from 48.61 percent to 56.52 percent. His PDO of 1.135 would indicate that his offensive totals aren’t sustainable. Even if he doesn’t continue scoring, it looks like he’s earned himself a spot in the lineup.

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.

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing the best hockey of his life

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After their overtime win in San Jose on Monday night, the Vegas Golden Knights are just two wins away from reaching the Western Conference Final. The win was aided, in large part, by another spectacular performance from starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury as he held off an early Sharks onslaught, stopped 39 out of 42 shots on the night, and made one of the best saves of the playoffs when he absolutely robbed Logan Couture with this stunning glove save in overtime.

It was only a few minutes later that William Karlsson wired a rocket of a shot off the rush just under the crossbar, beating Martin Jones to give Vegas the 4-3 win.

For Fleury, it was his latest great performance in a playoff run that has the makings of being one of the best of his career. He already has three shutouts in seven games, has allowed only 10 goals, and has already stopped at least 35 shots in a game three different times.

When Vegas went into the expansion draft process and began building its roster from scratch it was pretty obvious that it was going to end up getting a legitimate No. 1 goalie with its selection from Pittsburgh. It was also pretty obvious that given the ages, contract situations, and long-term outlook for both players that the Penguins were going to try and direct Fleury Vegas’ way, preferring to keep the younger, cheaper and back-to-back Stanley Cup winning Matt Murray. Almost immediately Fleury became the face of the NHL’s newest team and was expected to, at the very least, give it a chance to compete on most nights. But along with everything else unfolding with the Golden Knights this season there probably wasn’t anybody that expected him to be this good.

Quite simply, Fleury is playing the absolute best hockey of his career right now.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Fleury’s career arc is a strange one to look back on because it’s had a little bit of everything over the past 15 years. Potential. Hope. Success. Devastating lows. Redemption. And then a new beginning where hope and potential were again focal point.

When it all began, he was an 18-year-old rookie — the rare goalie to go No. 1 overall in the draft — that was supposed to be a foundational piece for what was a bad, rebuilding team. Early in his career he delivered on that potential by helping to backstop the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter.

After that, however, things kind of fell apart for him in a series of playoff meltdowns between 2010 and 2014 that helped torpedo some potential lengthy playoff runs in Pittsburgh and make him more of a league-wide joke than anything else. It wasn’t all because of his play, but his play was a big a part of it. Between 2010 and 2015, his .895 postseason save percentage was 20th out of 22 goalies that appeared in at least 20 games, finishing ahead of only Ilya Bryzgalov and Evgeni Nabokov. At one point he lost his starting job in the playoffs to Tomas Vokoun. But after a change in goalie coaches and work with a sports psychologist, his playoff performances — as well as his regular season performances — in recent years started to improve. Even then things had a way of working against him.

An injury at the end of the 2015-16 season cost him his starting job as Murray stepped in and played brilliantly on his way to a Stanley Cup. In 2016-17, he had a chance for redemption when the situation was reversed and an injury to Murray — who had taken over as the team’s starter — allowed Fleury to regain his starting job through the first two rounds where he was probably the biggest reason the Penguins were able to continue advancing. It was pretty much the exact opposite of the previous five playoff runs in Pittsburgh where the goaltending was sinking what was often times an otherwise good team.

Murray eventually returned, regained his starting spot, and closed out the final two rounds on the way to another Stanley Cup. His career in Pittsburgh ended with him handing the Stanley Cup to the guy that replaced him.

And with that, a new beginning in Vegas waiting for him where he would again be a foundational cornerstone for what was supposed to be, for now, a bad, building team. In this case, he was quite literally, one of the first pieces of the team. At first, the success or failure of Vegas in the first few years of its existence always seemed like it was going to hinge on Fleury’s ability to carry an expansion team that would be short on talent. That is, of course, until we realized just how badly many of the NHL’s other general managers were going to screw up the expansion draft process and help build an immediate powerhouse. But even with Vegas having far more firepower offensively — and a shockingly better blue line — than anybody could have reasonable expected Fleury has still be a significant part of the success.

Even though he has been a part of three Stanley Cup winning teams, I’ve always argued that the best hockey of his career before this season came during the 2007-08 season, the year the Penguins actually lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Detroit. Without him, that team probably wouldn’t have sniffed the Final that season and given the way that series was played on the ice it was something of a small miracle that they actually won two games in the series (they were outshot 222-142 and the only game they topped 25 shots on goal was a triple overtime game … where they were outshot 58-34. It was a one-sided series).

That was always the best hockey he ever played.

Until this season.

[Related: Conn Smythe Power Rankings]

First, the numbers are not only among the best in the league, they are also the best of his career. During the regular season he finished with a .927 save percentage that was fourth among all NHL goalies that appeared in at least 30 games. His even-strength percentage of .931 was sixth in the league. He has never finished higher in either category in any previous season.

He has continued that play into the playoffs.

When you combine his regular season and playoff numbers — as of Tuesday — he is currently sporting a .932 save percentage in his first 51 games this season. That includes seven shutouts.

Just looking back at his career he has never had a season where his total numbers (regular season and playoffs) were this good. The only year that comes close was the aforementioned 2007-08 season.

Here are his five best.

Again, outside of that 2007-08 performance there really isn’t another one on his resume that compares to this one.

On one hand you could point to this season, and especially that .960 postseason save percentage, and accurately point out that it is an unsustainable level of production. An incredible hot streak that will at some point end with an ugly regression to the mean. You would not be wrong to argue that. It will happen eventually. But even if he regresses a bit you can not take away the fact that he has re-written his postseason story in recent years. Since he was benched for Vokoun in the first-round of the 2013 playoffs, his postseason save percentage has been the third-best in the NHL over that stretch. This is not just a one-year thing for him.

You also can not take away what has already happened. He still had to stop those pucks this year and this postseason. He has stopped them better than just about any goalie in the league this season and better than he ever has in his career.

The fact it is happening this season, on this team, in this situation, only adds to it. If he backstops an expansion team anywhere near the Stanley Cup Final — and they absolutely could get there, and they absolutely could win it — there will not be anything in his career that matches it.

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

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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.

William Karlsson scores overtime winner to give Golden Knights 2-1 series lead

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In a wild overtime period that was sans defense and where both teams seem to feed off each other’s chances, it was only fitting that the man affectionately known as Wild Bill would put the finishing touch on it.

Yes, William Karlsson ended the game on the filthiest of filthy shots at 8:17 of the extra frame to give the Vegas Golden Knights a 2-1 series lead on the San Jose Sharks in a 4-3 overtime win.

The shot had to be perfect, and it was, beating Sharks goalie Martin Jones on his far side as it nestled nicely into the top corner before hitting the ice behind the goal line.

The game wouldn’t have made it this far if Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t produce a vintage performance in the crease.

Fluery, who was shelled with 47 shots in a 4-3 double-overtime loss on Saturday, was pelted yet again on Monday night. Fluery faced 16 shots in each of the first and second periods and finished the game with 39 saves.

MAF has yet to see fewer than 30 shots in a game in these playoffs, yet he owns a .960 save percentage and three shutouts in seven starts.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

And he’s not just making routine saves.

The save he made in overtime off the stick of Logan Couture was unadulterated robbery. Fleury, unfazed by what he had just done, was seen smiling behind his mask.

Nerves: Fleury doesn’t appear to have them.

This series has been a joy to watch (outside of Game 1, of course) and it continues with Game 4, which is slated for a 10 p.m. ET start time on Wednesday.


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