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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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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. 

At the start of the season, no one in their right mind would have put the Caps’ forward depth and Golden Knights’ forward depth in the same galaxy, but nine months later, here we are.

So, which of these two teams has the better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

Washington is loaded with so much depth down the middle, it’s scary. Assuming Nicklas Backstrom is healthy, that would give them a dynamic one-two punch of Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is currently riding a 10-game point streak. Both players would clearly be number one centers on most of other teams in the NHL. They both have dynamic offensive ability and they have the ability to make their linemates better.

On the third line, the Caps have the luxury of having a complete player like Lars Eller at their disposal. The 29-year-old scored 18 times during the regular season and he’s amassed five goals and 13 points in 19 postseason games this year. For a third-line player, his touch in the offensive zone is pretty good and he’s fully capable of killing penalties, too.

Jay Beagle continues to serve as the Caps’ fourth line center. He’s not the flashiest player on the roster, but he’s a smart veteran that is capable of playing a sound defensive game. He can also chip in offensively every so often, but that’s not his speciality.

By comparison, the Golden Knights have used a couple of centers that were flying under the radar coming into the season. Not only have William Karlsson and Erik Haula been two of the biggest surprises on the team, they’ve arguably been the biggest surprises in the entire league.

Karlsson has been centering Vegas’ top line with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. That trio has established themselves as one of the best lines in hockey. The chemistry that they formed has been incredible. They were so good that Karlsson ended up scoring 43 goals and 78 points in 2017-18. He’s added six goals and 13 points in 15 playoff games.

As for Haula, he managed to put up 29 goals and 55 points during the regular season. No one saw that coming when he left Minnesota (it probably cost GM Chuck Fletcher his job). Things have been a little more quiet for him in the playoffs, as he’s racked up seven points in 15 games. For the Golden Knights to go all the way, they’ll need him and some of the other secondary scorers to step up.

Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare round out the centers on Vegas’ roster. Both players bring a physical element to the game and they’re both sound when it comes to the defensive side of the puck.

Advantage: Caps. As good as the Golden Knights have been, it seems pretty clear that Washington has the superior centers heading into the Stanley Cup Final. What does that mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. After all, the Winnipeg Jets probably had a better group of centers and they still couldn’t take down Vegas.

WINGERS

Comparing the wingers on these two teams is pretty interesting.

Most people would agree that Alex Ovechkin is the best forward on either side (stop being friends with whoever disagrees). The 32-year-old is second on the team in points (22) behind Kuznetsov and he racked up 49 goals during the regular season. The Golden Knights don’t have anyone that can compare. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t win the series, it just means that they’ll likely have to do it by committee.

As you’d imagine, there’s a significant drop off on Washington’s depth chart after Ovechkin. They have everyone’s favorite player, Tom Wilson, and they have skilled wingers like T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Game 7 hero Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly. That’s far from a terrible group of forwards, but there’s an argument to be made that after Ovechkin, the Golden Knights have more quality wingers than the Caps.

Marchessault might just be the second best winger in the series after Ovechkin. After a disappointing performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the 27-year-old stepped up and led his team to a berth in the final. Through 15 playoff games, he’s racked up an impressive 18 points.

Smith has just two goals this postseason, but he’s been the set up guy for his team. The 27-year-old has piled up 14 helpers this postseason and he does a lot of the heavy-lifting defensively for his line.

David Perron has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries, so that could be one of the reasons why he has no goals this postseason. Maybe the extra time off before the start of the final will help him recover from whatever’s bothering him.

James Neal is another forward capable of putting up offensive numbers for Vegas. The pending unrestricted free agent nine points in 15 games while playing on his team’s second line.

Vegas also has Tomas Tatar, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Alex Tuch and Ryan Carpenter that can also contribute to varying degrees.

On the wing, it’s advantage: Golden Knights.

OVERALL

When you look at both groups of forwards as a whole, there isn’t a huge gap between the two sides. But the fact that Washington arguably has the three best forwards in Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin has to separate them from Vegas.

That’s not meant to disrespect the Golden Knights in any way, but giving them an advantage in this department just isn’t possible. Not only are the Capitals better down the middle, which is crucial, they also have the best winger in the series.

Advantage: Capitals. 

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

George McPhee’s strategic moves help Vegas reach Cup Final

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — George McPhee’s endgame has always been about making the Golden Knights contenders.

Strategic moves to keep winning.

The veteran general manager has ridden his savvy all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, a stirring run by the first-year franchise and the first major sports team in Las Vegas. While the expansion draft gets most of the attention in attempts to explain the unusual success, the moves made by McPhee in late February, when the trade deadline came along, have proven just as important.

”I wanted to wait as long as we could to determine what we had as a team,” McPhee recalled. ”At the trade deadline we felt it was a very good team. But it was getting thin, we were getting banged up, guys out of the lineup, we had other guys playing hurt. We wanted to do the very best we could for this team that was playing its guts out, to help it.”

He began moving pawns across the NHL chessboard, starting with the acquisition of forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for three draft picks: a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2021. Tatar brought with him a contract worth $15.9 million through the 2020-21 season.

While the Golden Knights did send Brendan Leipsic to Vancouver for Philip Holm, perhaps the biggest trade was the one for bruising forward Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh, a move that included the Golden Knights acquiring 40 percent of Derick Brassard‘s contract. Brassard going to Pittsburgh from Ottawa meant the talented center would not be going to Winnipeg – the team Vegas just beat in a rugged Western Conference final.

Many wondered whether the trade would be worth it given Reaves’ notoriety for physical play. But Reaves brought some brawn to the Golden Knights and scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 at Winnipeg.

”We just thought when we get into the games down the stretch and we’re in the playoffs, we can have a guy that can play the game right,” McPhee said. ”Ryan did a good job of providing the line and getting us good, hard, safe minutes on some nights. Even though they’re not scoring like some of the other lines, they’re one of our better lines because they’re playing the game right. The other team isn’t getting chances, we’re keeping it deep on them and playing physical on them.”

McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant also wanted to make sure the chemistry built over the first five months of the inaugural season wasn’t disrupted. And that meant keeping most of the lineup intact.

That included unrestricted free agents David Perron and James Neal, both of whose names swirled in trade rumors, and at the beginning of the season were perceived as rentals until the deadline. Nobody saw the Golden Knights doing as well they did, so it was conceivable guys like Perron and Neal could’ve been sent to playoff contenders for future draft picks or younger, up-and-coming players by the deadline.

As it turned out, Perron and Neal were already on a playoff contender and on their way to stellar seasons. Perron registered a career-high 66 points in the regular season, while Neal piled up 25 goals, scoring at least 20 in each of his first 10 NHL seasons. The only other current players to do the same: Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Thomas Vanek.

”We knew that we weren’t moving anybody out,” Gallant said. ”We were happy with our lineup, we were happy with the group of players we got. We talked about adding players to our team, to make our team better and we definitely did that. But there was no thought about moving any of players out at that time. We had a great season, everything was going good and we wanted to make sure we had enough security for a playoff run and that’s what they did.”

The Golden Knights await the winner of the East final between Tampa Bay and Washington, with Game 7 set for Wednesday night. The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday.

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Golden Knights replace Tatar with Perron; Ehlers back for Jets

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Both the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets are getting some significant names back into their lineups for Game 4 of the 2018 Western Conference Final.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE; Game 4 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET]

The most significant addition is Nikolaj Ehlers, as expected. Interestingly, Jets head coach Paul Maurice decided to scratch Joel Armia instead of Jack Roslovic to make room for Ehlers. The Jets’ second line should be that much deadlier with Ehlers back alongside Paul Stastny and Patrik Laine; maybe this will help to solve some of their supporting cast riddles?

It’s also interesting – yet the Jets hope irrelevant – that Michael Hutchinson is dressing as Connor Hellebuyck‘s backup instead of Steve Mason.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights get one of their leading regular-season scorers back in David Perron. While Ehlers seemingly missed Game 3 with an illness, Perron was sidelined for Games 2 and 3.

Gerard Gallant must really like what he’s seeing from his team’s pluggers, because the return of Perron apparently means that Tomas Tatar loses this game of musical chairs. Tatar scored a big goal in Game 2, yet he only logged a little more than 10 minutes in these past two contests, so he may still reside in Gallant’s doghouse.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.