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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.

WATCH LIVE: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres

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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

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

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PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a double header on Thursday night. In the early game, the New York Rangers host the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

These two teams will be going head-to-head for the first time since they met in the 2018 Winter Classic which the Rangers won 3-2 in overtime.

The Sabres are back in action after a six-day break. They went into their bye week with a 3-1 win over Columbus, but they had dropped their previous five games.

The first half of the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Buffalo. Only the Arizona Coyotes have accumulated fewer points (28) than the Sabres’ 31.

Even though their playoff dreams are all but crushed, they’ll still have to find motivation to play out the rest of the season. The wins and losses might not matter at this point, but showing professional pride always does.

“I don’t think you ever lose your motivation,” defenseman Marco Scandella said, per The Buffalo News. “I do what I love. I can’t speak for everyone in this room, but I definitely know that for myself it’s always exciting to play hockey. I’m always motivated. I think what getting a break does for you just gives you time to heal. You get to get away from it for a bit so when you come back you’re just that much more hungry and excited about it.”

As for the Rangers, they were able to put their three-game losing streak to bed with a big 5-1 win over the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night. New York gave up the first goal in that game, but they managed to score five unanswered goals. Forward Rick Nash busted out of his 12-game goalless slump with a two-goal performance.

“It was obviously a huge difference to play in goal,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist told The New York Post after the win. “It’s funny how it works. We play our best defensive game in a very long time and we score five goals. I don’t remember the last time we scored five goals.”

As strange as this season has been for the Rangers, they still find themselves in the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. There’s still a lot of games that need to be played, but they’re right in the thick of things in the East.

You’d have to think that a win over Buffalo is a must for a team currently in New York’s position.

In the late game, the Pittsburgh Penguins travel to Los Angeles to take on the Kings at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The Pens saw their four-game winning streak come to an end in last night’s game against the Anaheim Ducks. Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring in the first period, but Pittsburgh watched as Anaheim scored four consecutive goals in the middle frame.

“We did some good things, we just made some big mistakes in the second period,” Sidney Crosby said, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Give up that many goals and that many breakaways in a short period of time, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Even though the Penguins have four wins in their last five games, they can’t afford to get complacent. They only have a one point lead on the New York Islanders (the Isles have a game in hand) for the last Wild Card spot.

Things won’t get any easier for them, as the team announced that they’ll be without Matt Murray for an indefinite period of time after the passing of his father. They’ll be relying on Tristan Jarry until Murray is able to return.

For the Kings, getting out of their recent funk is a priority. They dropped the two games prior to their bye week and they’ve lost two more decisions since coming back. To make matters worse, three of those four losses have come against Pacific Division rivals (Flames, Ducks, Sharks).

They’re still sitting a playoff spot, but it’s probably not the one they want to be in. The Kings are in the final Wild Card spot in the West. They have the same number of points as Minnesota (53) who is behind them, but Los Angeles has two games in hand. On a positive note, they’re only one point behind the Sharks and Flames for second and third in the division.

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: 2018 Winter Classic – Rangers vs. Sabres

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Rangers

Rick Nash/Mika Zibanejad/Mats Zuccarello

Michael Grabner/Kevin Hayes/J.T. Miller

Pavel Buchnevich/David Desharnais/Jimmy Vesey

Paul Carey/Boo Nieves/Vinni Lettieri

Ryan McDonagh/Nick Holden

Brendan Smith/Kevin Shattenkirk

Marc Staal/Brady Skjei

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

Sabres:

Zemgus Girgensons/Jack Eichel/Sam Reinhart

Evander Kane/Ryan O'Reilly/Kyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot/Evan Rodrigues/Jason Pominville

Johan Larsson/Jacob Josefson/Jordan Nolan

Marco Scandella/Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe/Zach Bogosian

Josh Gorges/Nathan Beaulieu

Startling goalie: Robin Lehner

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.