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.

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

Kane leads U.S. into semis, Canada knocks out Russia

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals to lift the United States to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the ice hockey world championship on Thursday while Canada beat Russia 5-4 in overtime.

Switzerland pulled off a surprise by eliminating Finland 3-2 and defending champion Sweden edged out Latvia 3-2.

Kane claimed the third-period winner to take the outright lead in the scoring table on 19 points, a U.S. record, with eight goals and 11 assists and set up a semifinal against Sweden on Saturday.

”It’s my job to produce,” Kane said. ”It’s always nice to contribute offensively.”

The U.S. is looking for its first medal since picking up bronze in 2015.

”We came here to put ourselves in a position to try to win the gold,” Kane said. “We’re on the right path.”

The U.S. took control with a couple of goals in the span of 1:43 midway through the first period in Herning.

Kane beat goaltender Pavel Francouz from the right circle before Nick Bonino fed Cam Atkinson in front of the net to stretch the lead with a backhand shot.

The Czechs hit back in the second period. Michal Repik reduced the advantage on a slap shot and Martin Necas netted the tying goal on a power play.

”It’s a pity,” Czech forward Tomas Plekanec said. ”We created enough chances to win.”

In Copenhagen, Ryan O'Reilly scored 4:57 into overtime to knock out Russia while captain Connor McDavid had three assists, including on the winning goal.

Hunting its third title in four years, Canada will face Switzerland in the semis.

”Canada are a great team, they always are,” defenseman Roman Josi said after his Switzerland team beat Finland for the first time since 1972.

Defenseman Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past goaltender Igor Shestyorkin on a power play to give Canada a 1-0 lead in the first period before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doubled the advantage on another power play.

But Alexander Barabanov and Ilya Mikheyev scored in the second period to tie the game.

Kyle Turris made it 3-2 to Canada in the third before Sergei Andronov leveled. Pierre-Luc Dubois put Canada ahead again but Russia answered with a goal from Artyom Anisimov.

Finland looked to be heading for victory after Markus Nutivaara‘s first-period goal, but Switzerland rallied with goals from Enzo Corvi, Joel Vermin and Gregory Hofmann in less than four minutes midway through the second.

”We didn’t start the way we wanted but we reacted in the second period and played very well from then on,” Josi said.

Mikko Rantanen cut the deficit to one goal in the third period.

”This wasn’t what we were looking for,” Finland captain Mikael Granlund said. ”They had the momentum in the second period and we were not able to turn it around.”

Sweden, which won all seven of its preliminary round games, beat Latvia thanks to goals from Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Teodors Blugers and Rudolfs Balcers replied.

Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights

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When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.

Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.

But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.

[Related: Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights]

Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.

It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.

He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.

When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.

While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.

The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.

It’s not like they protected Orpik or Taylor Chorney over Schmidt, or traded Andre Burakovsky and a first-round pick to keep Vegas from taking him.

They didn’t do anything stupid. They just accepted one player was leaving and let him go.

That player turned out to be Schmidt.

Joining a Vegas team that was starting from scratch the 26-year-old finally had a chance to do something he never could in Washington — get a real, honest look as a top-pairing defender.

He has excelled in that role.

[Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case]

During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.

In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.

He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.

He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.

Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.

Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.

None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.

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

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.

US routs Norway 9-3 at hockey worlds, Czechs blank France

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals for the second straight game and added an assist to lead the United States to a 9-3 victory over Norway for its sixth straight win at the ice hockey world championship on Sunday.

The Czech Republic beat France 6-0 for its second consecutive shutout.

Kane scored with a slap shot from the right circle on a power play to open the scoring and added another power play goal almost from the same spot for a 2-0 lead.

The forward leads the tournament with 15 points for five goals and 10 assists.

“A good performance by the team tonight,” Kane said. “We had a lot of different guys to contribute and chip in, which is good to see, and give us a lot of confidence going into the next game against Finland.”

Dylan Larkin and Cam Atkinson had a goal and a couple assists, Charlie McAvoy got a goal and an assist in another high-scoring victory for the U.S.

“Our goal is to keep winning, to keep getting better,” Atkinson said.

Alec Martinez, Anders Lee, Colin White and Neal Pionk had a goal apiece.

Norway got its goals from Kristian Forsberg, Ken Andre Olimb and Mathis Olimb.

David Pastrnak and Roman Horak had two goals each and Dmitrij Jaskin and Martin Necas contributed one each for the Czechs.

Goaltender David Rittich stopped 10 shots for the shutout.

The United States tops Group B in Herning with 16 points, four more than Finland that plays Germany later Sunday.

Denmark has 11 points in third followed by Canada on 10, which has played one game less. Norway remains on three points.

The Czechs are third in Group A in Copenhagen with 12 points. Sweden leads with 14 points, a point ahead of Russia in second. Switzerland is fourth with nine and plays Sweden later.