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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.

Stars season all but over after loss to Canucks

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A season that was once filled with optimism looks like it’s heading toward complete and utter disappointment for the Dallas Stars.

The Stars, who entered the day five points out of a playoff spot, didn’t do themselves any favors, as they dropped a 4-1 decision to the lowly Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.

For those of you scoring at home, they’ve now lost games to non-playoff teams like Ottawa (twice), Montreal and Vancouver in March. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Dallas has won just two of 13 games this month (they’re 0-6-2 in their last eight).

Things aren’t going to get any easier for them over the final two weeks of the season. They’ll host Philadelphia on Tuesday before playing a home-and-home series with Minnesota on Thursday and Saturday. Next week, they’ll finish the season with three game road trip through California. Good luck with that, Stars.

It’s incredible to think that a team with firepower like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and John Klingberg can’t make a trip to the postseason. But this team is clearly flawed. The good news, is that they have a solid core group of players in place. The bad news, is that the supporting cast needs a lot of work.

The Ben Bishop experiment failed in year one. The veteran simply couldn’t stay healthy and when he was between the pipes, he didn’t do a good enough job. He’ll have to be a lot better next season, or the Stars may find themselves in the same situation next year. The 31-year-old has five years left on his contract.

Martin Hanzal ended up being another free-agent flop in 2017-18. He has another three years remaining on his current deal and he’s probably not going anywhere this offseason, either.

Jason Spezza, who is the second highest-paid player on the team doesn’t have much left in the tank. He has another year remaining on his contract, so it looks like he’ll be back next season.

Whether it’s Jim Nill or somebody else, the Stars will need an infusion of talent this summer if they hope to get back to playing meaningful games in the spring. But for now, they’re done like dinner.

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.

Injuries, sadly, are story of Martin Hanzal’s career

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Earlier today, PHT’s Adam Gretz pondered the disconnect between the Dallas Stars’ solid-but-unspectacular on-ice results and their often-splashy work during off-seasons.

Sadly, there’s one thing that only the most optimistic Stars executive wouldn’t have seen coming: Martin Hanzal dealing with injuries. In this latest, sad case, Hanzal’s season is over and he’s expected to need six-to-seven months to recover from eventual back surgery.

In a perfect world where injuries are turned off like a video game, Hanzal is exactly the type of situational player that a team would want in the frequently rugged Western Conference.

He’s an enormous human at 6-foot-6, is good-to-great in faceoff circle, can chip in some offense, and aside from this season, Hanzal’s generally been a strong possession player. Getting 82 games of that player would justify a $4.75 million cap hit for the 31-year-old, even with it lasting through 2019-20.

The thing about enormous players is that such a big body can be as menacing to the player as it is to opponents. Whether it be a stylistic drawback or bad luck, simply put, you’re not getting 82 games of Martin Hanzal.

Hanzal hit the 81-game mark during one season in his NHL career: when he was 22 during the 2009-10 season with the then-Phoenix Coyotes. Last season was honestly a minor miracle for Hanzal, as he managed to play in 71 regular-season contests between his time with the Coyotes and Minnesota Wild.

Generally speaking, Hanzal’s fallen in the 60-65 games range, as he tends to suffer from maladies of various extremes.

It’s unfortunate, really, because hockey people aren’t outrageous in seeing Hanzal on a healthy night and picturing Stanley Cups. Sadly, it sure seems like Hanzal is falling into an unfortunate category of injury-plagued players, from Ales Hemsky to Marian Gaborik and probably some guys many of us outright forget about because of an even more extreme poor luck in the trainer’s room.

Is it possible that Martin Hanzal will be able to meaningfully contribute to the Stars’ cause next season, or failing that, before his current deal expires? Sure, although it would also follow the script if Hanzal sees his ups and downs.

Ultimately, it’s tough to shake the impression that Hanzal may one day retire with a lot of “What if?” questions.

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.

What’s holding back the Dallas Stars?

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Since taking over the Dallas Stars’ front office in the spring of 2013, Jim Nill has been one of the most aggressive general managers in the NHL when it comes to swinging for the fences in trades and roster movement.

Big trades. Big free agent signings. They have become the champions of the off-season almost every summer, thanks to the additions of Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Patrick Sharp among many others. They not only seem to get the big names, they always seem to win the trades themselves. The Seguin trade with Boston has turned out to be grand larceny. Nobody given in the Spezza trade ever really amounted to anything in the NHL with Ottawa. Chicago turned its return for Sharp into nothing more than Rob Scuderi’s bad contract in just a few short months after refusing to play Trevor Daley.

They were at it again this past summer when they went big-game hunting and landed starting goalie Ben Bishop, free agent winger Alexander Radulov, center Martin Hanzal, and defenseman Marc Methot.

Those were pretty much some of the top names available on the free agent market, with Bishop acquired in a trade and signed in May. When added to a core that was already built around star players Seguin, Jamie Benn, and John Klingberg there was plenty of reason for excitement and optimism that this could be a big year for the Stars. Just like there is every year when they make a big splash in free agency.

The results still have not been what you might expect given all of that.

[Related: The Stars are winning another offseason, will the results follow?]

The Stars have made the playoffs in just two of Nill’s four full seasons as GM and they’ve won just a single playoff round. This season, even though they have already exceeded their point total from 2016-17, they are a fringe playoff team, holding on to the first wild card spot as of Friday with a two-point cushion over the first non-playoff team, the Colorado Avalanche.

Given their financial investment and the talent they have, is this good enough?

More importantly, what is holding them back from being a more prominent team? It is really confounding to figure out.

They are a cap team. They have a superstar duo of forwards in Seguin and Benn and a Norris Trophy contender in Klingberg on the blue line. When it comes to the latest round of additions, Radulov has proven to be worth every penny that the Stars have paid him so far, while Bishop has helped to solidify a goaltending position that had been a complete disaster in recent years.

Hanzal’s signing has not worked out as his season has been derailed by injuries, and it officially came to an end on Friday due to back surgery that will sideline him for the next six months (at least). Not exactly a great sign for the future.

In terms of their style of play they have done a complete 180 from where they were a couple of years ago, going from a run-and-gun, all-offense, no-defense team to one that is now a middle of the pack offensive team and a top-tier defensive team. As of Friday they are fourth in the NHL in goals against, are allowing the fourth fewest total shot attempts per game, are sixth on the penalty kill, and a top-10 team in terms of 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage.

Given that they went with a Ken Hitchcock reunion behind the bench, that change in style is not all that surprising.

Just about the only two things they don’t do well on paper are a power play that probably isn’t as good as it should be given the talent that exists on the roster, and the fact they have only been a .500 team on the road.

Overall there is a lot of good here, and the team itself this season is pretty decent.

But is pretty decent good enough? In terms of actual results they are still only a slightly above average team compared to the rest of the league, are not even a guarantee to make the playoffs at this point (though the odds seem to be in their favor), and they haven’t had any postseason success to speak of in a decade.

At some point you have to wonder if Nill’s seat might start to get a little hot if more success doesn’t soon start to come, especially after a quiet trade deadline where the team did nothing to improve its roster while pretty much every team around them (at least as far as the Central Division is concerned) loaded up.

It’s not that Nill has done a bad job. Again, if you look at all of the roster moves on an individual basis many of them are clear wins. But the results still aren’t coming on the ice and eventually someone pays the price for that. Over the past five years the players have changed, the coach has changed, and the style of play has changed, but how long will an owner be content to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap for a team that is 11th or 12th place in the league and doesn’t do anything in the playoffs?

It is a question that is probably worth asking.

At some point winning the offseason won’t be enough anymore.

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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.

Fantasy impact of 2018 NHL Trade Deadline: West

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PHT’s James O’Brien wrote the first part of this two-part fantasy series, yesterday. He broke down how the trade deadline affected teams in the Eastern Conference. You can read that story by clicking here.

Today, we’ll take a look at how the moves the Western Conference teams made will affect the fantasy world.

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks made a minor move as they shipped Chris Wagner to the Islanders for Jason Chimera, who won’t be lighting the fantasy world on fire anytime soon. Anaheim will have to continue leaning on guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell and company to lead the charge offensively if they’re going to make the playoffs.

Arizona Coyotes: The ‘Yotes made a minor-league move, but nothing that will have any affect in fantasy leagues. Arizona will continue to be a graveyard for fantasy production between now and the end of the season.

Calgary Flames: Nick Shore was on the move for the second time in the month of February. The 25-year-old is a great depth piece, but don’t expect to contribute much offensively. He’s another player that won’t alter the fantasy landscape. Like Anaheim, if the Flames make it to the postseason, it’ll be because their top guns take them there (that means you Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan).

Chicago Blackhawks: Shipping Ryan Hartman to Nashville has opened up a spot on the wing. It looks like Tomas Jurco is going to get an opportunity to skate on the ‘Hawks second-ish line with Artem Anisimov and Anthony Duclair.

Trading Michal Kempny away to Washington on Feb. 19 seems to have opened up a roster spot for Carl Dahlstrom. The 22-year-old has three assists in eight games, but he’s still a little raw.

Colorado Avalanche: Outside of acquiring Ryan Graves from the Rangers, the Avs didn’t do much on deadline day. That means that Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen will continue to be the difference makers on a much-improved Avs team.

There were rumblings about Tyson Barrie potentially being on the move, but GM Joe Sakic decided to hold on to his offensive blue liner.

Dallas Stars: Jim Nill surprisingly didn’t make a move to help his team make a push for a playoff spot.

Edmonton Oilers: With Patrick Maroon now out of the picture in Edmonton, the Oilers are forcing Connor McDavid to carry Anton Slepyshev and Milan Lucic. All kidding aside, Slepyshev is a big body with some skill, but he hasn’t been able to put it all together at the NHL level yet. Assuming he continues playing with McDavid, he should get a nice little fantasy boost down the stretch. As for Lucic, not even McDavid can resurrect his fantasy stock. Sorry Connor, you’re on your own.

The Oilers were also able to land Pontus Aberg in the days leading up to the deadline. The former Predator has been skating on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Michael Cammalleri, so they’ve put him in an interesting position offensively, too.

Los Angeles Kings: GM Rob Blake made a couple of decent-sized moves earlier in February, but he didn’t do anything on deadline day. Obviously, Dion Phaneuf has fit in quite nicely since joining the group, as he’s picked up three goals and three assists in nine games with his new team.

Tobias Rieder, who was acquired in a trade with Arizona for goalie Darcy Kuemper, has had a tougher time adjusting to the Kings. He has just one goal in five games, but he’s been playing on a line with Adrian Kempe which is interesting.

Minnesota Wild: Chuck Fletcher seemed to learn from last year’s mistakes, when he made a splash for rental forward Martin Hanzal. That didn’t work out, so all the Wild did on deadline day was ship Mike Reilly to Montreal for a pick in 2019.

Nashville Predators: We talked about Hartman before, but he should get a significant fantasy boost now that he’s on the Predators. He’s been skating on a line with Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg, so he should be in a much better situation to produce. He racked up the game-winning goal in Tuesday’s win over the Jets and he also registered an assist against Edmonton on Thursday.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks arguably got the best bang for their buck when they landed Evander Kane. If they don’t sign Kane to an extension, they lose a second-round pick. If they do bring him back, it’ll cost them a first-rounder in 2019. The former Sabre has been skating with Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi. It doesn’t sound like the Sharks will bring him back, but maybe he’ll change their mind. Kane has picked up three assists in his first two games with his new team. Maybe he’ll put some life into Pavelski, too.

St. Louis Blues: Well, the Blues shocked the hockey world and some of their players when they sent Paul Stastny to Winnipeg. Losing Stastny will hurt the Blues playoff chances and it’ll hurt them offensively too because they’ve lost a playmaking center.

Vancouver Canucks: Jim Benning was able to find a taker for Thomas Vanek, but they failed to get a draft pick for him. Tyler Motte is the youngster they got in the deal (they landed Jussi Jokinen too, but yeah). The 22-year-old will get every opportunity to become a regular with Vancouver, but he doesn’t augment their offense in any way.

They also sent Philip Holm to Vegas for Brendan Leipsic.

Vegas Golden Knights: The NHL’s newest team surprised some people when they traded three draft picks to land Tomas Tatar from Detroit. Tatar spent most of his first game with Cody Eakin and Tomas Hyka, but don’t be surprised if he’s thrown into more of an offensive role as the games go by.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets augmented their depth at center by adding Stastny from a division rival. On top of going to a contender, Stastny also has been slotted on a line with wingers Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. That should help him produce a little more regularly even if he’s on Winnipeg’s third line. He had a goal and an assist in Tuesday’s loss to Nashville. Having a playmaker like Stastny should also help both youngsters he’s playing with.

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.